At age 28, Seattle-born stage actor Mickey Rowe has already performed in more than 30 shows with both local (Seattle Children’s Theatre, Seattle Opera, ACT) and international (Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center) companies. At age 9, he was one of five children to perform in Seattle Opera’s The Barber of Seville. More recently, theatergoers may remember him as a stilt walker in the Seattle Opera’s 2007 and 2013 runs of La Bohème, or Thing 1 in Seattle Children’s Theatre’s The Cat in the Hat, which wrapped up its latest run in May. What audiences may not know is that Rowe is autistic—and he’s committed to widening the conversation about diversity in the arts.
Today, that conversation still focuses on gender and race, he says. but “Disability is often not discussed.” Like many others with autism, Rowe says, he finds social interactions difficult to interpret, making chance meetings on the street or idle chitchat stressful. Being in a theater production is different, which is why he’s comfortable performing in front of hundreds of people.
“Theater makes those roles clear,” says Rowe. “You are literally assigned a role, and everyone else in the room has a clear role, too.” Unexpected sensory input such as loud noises or textures can also be incredibly intrusive and disruptive for someone with autism. On stage, says Rowe, loud sound cues are expected, and the feel of costume materials has been experienced repeatedly. In short, theater offers fewer surprises than everyday life.
“Theater is an incredible way for me to function like my peers, because I know what to expect,” says Rowe. “Everything is rehearsed, yet at the same time, it feels new.”