By Alaina Lavoie
Today we’re pleased to welcome Mickey Rowe to the blog to discuss Fearlessly Different, out today!
My name is Mickey Rowe. I am an actor, a theatre director, a father, and a husband. I am also a man with autism. You think those things don’t go together? Let me show you that they do.
Growing up, Mickey Rowe was told that he couldn’t enter the mainstream world. He was iced out by classmates and colleagues, infantilized by well-meaning theatre directors, barred from even earning a minimum wage. Why? Because he is autistic.
Fearlessly Different: An Autistic Actor’s Journey to Broadway’s Biggest Stage is Mickey Rowe’s story of growing up autistic and pushing beyond the restrictions of a special education classroom to shine on the stage. As an autistic and legally blind person, living in a society designed by and for non-disabled people, it was always made clear to Mickey the many things he was apparently incapable of doing. But Mickey did them all anyway—and he succeeded because of, not in spite of, his autism.
I really enjoyed reading this book as an autistic reader because I appreciated the care you took to help an average non-autistic (allistic) reader empathize with and understand what it’s like to have autism. Why did you choose to frame the book this way from the start of the book?
I think it is just a fact that the majority of the people that read this book will not have the lived experience of being autistic themselves. And that’s okay! That’s wonderful! It’s my job as a writer to take them on the journey.
You did an excellent job engaging the senses throughout the book to bring to life the way being autistic impacts your sensory experience, even if it does differ from one autistic person to the next (something many people who aren’t autistic don’t get). How did you approach writing these scenes? How did you know when to include details on the way autism affects your senses and when to keep it to more basic, surface-level information?
Being autistic makes me hyper-aware of many sensory experiences. I am always seeking out proprioceptive input and these feelings, of swinging, jumping, spinning, or flying feel so incredible to me. They really make me feel alive. I thought it was only fair to try to give my readers that gift as well! At the same time, being autistic, my sensory experiences can also be incredibly overwhelming. I tried to also give the readers a taste of that experience as well. That said, what is most important in this book is the story, the ideas, and the ways in which I could make my readers feel seen and understood. While I may always be hyper-aware of my sensory experiences, I didn’t want to overwhelm my readers so much that these experiences distracted them from the story and the connection. So I tried to include these sensorily awake experiences in places where they added to the journey and the adventure, and go easy on the audience and leave some of them out in places where they might distract from or bunny trail away from the story. I wanted us to always stay focused and engaged with the forward motion as much as possible.
What was one of your favorite scenes to write in this book? And what about one scene that didn’t make the final cut during revisions that you wish could have made it into the final book?
My favorite scene to write was the scene about street performing in college. I have such visceral memories of street performing, stilt walking on the cobblestone roads of the farmers’ markets around Seattle. Even though the need to street perform was coming out of desperate and frustrating situations, while I was street performing I always felt so happy. Don’t get me wrong, It was incredibly difficult and sometimes painful and tiring. I still have a scar on my leg from where the strap of the stilt was continually wearing into my leg. But I always felt like I was just making everyone happy. And people were always so joyfully surprised when they would see me or get a balloon from me. In fact, while writing the book I found a Youtube video and a newspaper article about me street performing that I had completely forgotten about! And the video was filmed by my geema, Chickie, who plays a large part in the book.
I also really loved writing about my Grandma, the pirate ship, and the water.
The hardest scenes to write about were definitely the scenes about my children’s mother. It is incredibly difficult to think about and try to process what she did to them and why. So in the end I just allowed that challenge to come to light and show itself in the formatting and style of the writing. I hope it was respectful and effective.
What have you learned as an actor/performer that informed your writing process? In other words, what did acting teach you about writing and storytelling?
I think that acting taught me that the most important part of storytelling is helping your audience to feel seen and understood. I think that is the single most important part. Even if you or your character completely disagree with your audience’s perspectives or point of view it is so important to make sure that your audience still feels completely seen and understood. Otherwise, why would they invest in understanding you? I think I also learned that it’s okay to make the audience do some work for the story. It’s okay to make them put some of the pieces together themselves. If I give my audience the number four, that is sort of boring, and it is also me assuming that my audience is not as smart as me. I think it is so important to remember that your readers or your audience are just as smart as you are, and treat them as if they are just as smart as you are, so rather than giving the audience the answer (four) you can give the audience pieces to put together on their own (two and two), and that makes for a much more interesting, engaging, and enjoyable story, I think.
This is an obvious one, but why do you think autistic representation is so important in acting and why do we need more autistic actors to play roles?
According to the census, we know that 20 percent of the population is disabled. Now, think about all the roles we ever see on TV. Out of all those characters, only 2 percent of those characters have disabilities. Of that dismally small 2 percent of characters, non-disabled actors are cast to play them 95 percent of the time. I’m gonna say that again, 95 percent of those disabled characters are played by non-disabled actors. This only leaves 0.001 percent 1/100th of 1 percent of roles available for authentically cast disabled folx. 1/100th of 1 percent of roles for 20 percent of the population.
Young people with disabilities in this country need to see positive role models who will tell them that if you are different, if you access the world differently, then we need you! The world needs you! Excluding people with disabilities from stories that are entirely about disability unfortunately doesn’t help to accomplish this. The point of storytelling is to connect us with people we otherwise wouldn’t come in contact with, to bring us life experiences we don’t already have. That is why diversity in the arts matters. Inclusion in the arts matters because it leads to inclusion in life. If even stories, books, and television entirely about autism can’t include disabled people thoroughly and directly from the inside, that just means that we still have lots of amazing work still to be done.
But we also need more autistic writers, designers, and directors, and politicians, and innovators in every possible field. We need to be hiring and promoting Black, Indigenous, and trans autistic people! Our world only benefits from this.
Throughout the book, you wove your personal experience in with necessary information about autistic people, the wider disability community, ableism, systemic oppression, and other issues facing disabled and autistic people. From a writing craft perspective, how did you include those threads—such as the social model of disability or educational access—alongside your personal story?
I really took inspiration from narrative journalism. I and others with disabilities have been screaming at the top of our lungs about some of the information you referenced (ableism, systemic oppression) for years and years, and by and large we have seen no change at all. Because us simply yelling about the facts has not worked at all, I thought the best way to get people to understand the disabled experience a little bit better, and the best way to get people to care and actually be moved to change was not yell about facts more, but to hide those facts deep within the fabric of a story.People may not care about facts, but people sure care about a good story. If I could hide those necessary facts embedded in the fabric of a story, then, maybe, I could get people to care and understand. Not because of the facts alone, but because of the story.
I also think it is so important for people to see and understand that my experience of autism and disability is not the only experience of autism and disability. This book is not a textbook. It is a memoir. While this book is wholeheartedly a memoir, and a story, my story, I would be doing a disservice to the disability community if I didn’t reference the fact that there are other experiences of disability and autism besides my own.
I love that your acknowledgments section listed disability rights activists, many of whose work I really admire too. Why did you decide to name the work of these activists?
Thank you so much. None of us got where we are on our own. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk didn’t get where they did alone. For us to pretend that we are responsible for everything and not acknowledge that we are standing on the shoulders of those that came before us is just ignorant and not helpful for anyone. I also wanted people who might read the book to know of other people whose work they might also like to follow.
Do you have a favorite autistic fictional character/portrayal? (Hard question, I know, because there are so many negative and stereotypical ones. It’s okay if you use a headcanon here if you need to.)
I really love reading books or plays that aren’t about autism and imagining in my head, “How does it change my understanding of this book to imagine that this character is autistic?” I really think it often adds so much depth, complexity, and nuance to stories. This is why diversity and diverse and continuous casting is important.
Do you have any recommendations for forthcoming or published books?
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Odd Girl Out by Laura E. James
Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde
The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla
The Secret Life of A Black Aspie by Aanand Prahlad
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Are there any issues besides inclusion that are really important to you? Yes, I think we all need to make sure that our governments know that they need to prioritize taking care of our planet.
Mickey Rowe (he/him) has had a prolific and varied career as an actor, director, consultant, and public speaker; now highly sought after both nationally and internationally. He was the first autistic actor to play Christopher Boone, the lead role in the Tony Award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. He has also appeared as the title role in the Tony Award-winning play Amadeus and more. Mickey has been featured in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, PBS, Vogue, Playbill, NPR, CNN, Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, Forbes, and has keynoted at organizations including the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The Kennedy Center, Yale, Disability Rights Washington, The Gershwin Theatre on Broadway, the DAC of the South Korean government, and more. Mickey was the founding Artistic Director of National Disability Theatre, which works in partnership with Tony Award-winning companies such as La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Alaina Lavoie is a Program Manager at We Need Diverse Books and a reviewer for Booklist. She has worked with WNDB since 2015, beginning as a volunteer and joining the staff in 2019. She also teaches in the MFA, MA, and BA programs of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College. In 2017, she was awarded a Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her dedication to amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for an equitable publishing and media industry. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, The Boston Globe Magazine, Refinery29, The Oprah Magazine, Bitch, Glamour, The Chicago Tribune, and more, under the byline Alaina Leary. Alaina lives in Boston with her wife, their three literary cats, and a rainbow bookshelf. She is almost always covered in glitter.