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The Power of Authenticity

Disability On Stage and Off in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

In the fall of 2017, Indiana Repertory Theatre (IRT) co-produced The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The production featured Mickey Rowe as Christopher, the first American actor with autism to play the role. The production plays at Syracuse Stage through 12 November 2017. In October, as part of my role as an access consultant for IRT, I witnessed IRT’s sensory friendly student matinee and the talkback that followed, in which cast members Mickey Rowe and Landon G. Woodson answered questions from audience members. Their insights were exciting; the energy in the room was electric. I wanted continue that conversation and share Mickey’s and Landon’s experience of doing the show with the HowlRound community.

Talleri A. McRae: Mickey, I wanted to start by talking about the student matinee that I saw at IRT a few weeks ago. There were about a hundred students in the audience and many of them were on the spectrum. What was it like for you to play Christopher on that day and to connect with students from the autism community?

Mickey Rowe: It’s so interesting getting to be the first actor on the spectrum to play Christopher, and so powerful to do that at that at the Sensory Friendly performances. For the other shows, the goal is to teach the audience that you can hire people on the spectrum—we can do work at the highest level, we can get the job done, and you have no reason to discriminate against people with developmental disabilities. When you’re doing the show for people who are on the spectrum, it seems like it means so much to them that IRT and Syracuse Stage have made the decision to include them. I can't even start to tell you how many messages I’ve been getting from people on the spectrum saying how much it means to them that the show is happening. And most of them don’t even live in the cities where the show is performed. They’ve just heard about this and it means so much to know that there’s the slightest change in the air, and that IRT and Syracuse Stage decided to be inclusive, because it just never happens. It is just huge for the autism community.

Young actors and artists with disabilities just need to see positive role models who will tell them that if you are different, and if you access the world differently, theatre needs you, and the world needs you.

Talleri: I can feel that change in the air, too. What do you think it means for students in the audience to see you?

Mickey: When you and I and Landon were growing up, we didn’t see these role models. We didn’t see people on the spectrum being successful…with the one exception being maybe Temple Grandin, right? But I think now, more and more, there are so many examples of people having agency of their own lives and taking agency of the world around them and being allowed to be a part of conversations having to do with autism, which didn’t happen before.

Young actors and artists with disabilities just need to see positive role models who will tell them that if you are different, and if you access the world differently, that theatre needs you, and the world needs you. Hopefully some of the people who are coming to our show are going to feel that and know that that’s true.

Talleri: I love the idea that theatre needs you and the world needs you. Landon, my next question is for you. I’m curious to know more about your relationship with the autism community.

Landon G. Woodson: My relationship is familial. My sister is about four years younger than me. At a certain point my parents put her in a different school, a Montessori school where she could have more control over the things that she was interested in, and she ended up coming back to the public school system in high school and had a paraprofessional with her throughout the day. So I saw some of the challenges my sister had coming up, but I didn’t think about it too much because it was just my sister. You know, we all grow differently; we all have different personality quirks. Especially when we were younger, she was basically a walking Disney historian. She could tell you the years of the film, the animators, and the casts for all of the films. Now she’s actually studying sign language and she wants to be an interpreter.

And I didn’t really have any extended time with anyone else on the spectrum until I got a chance to do this show with Mickey. Obviously the show itself made me a little more in tune with what the spectrum is. My sister has a diagnosis of Asperger’s and Mickey was telling me they recently included that in the autistic spectrum. I didn’t know that until I started working with Mickey.

Talleri: Since you started the show, has your relationship with your sister changed at all?

Landon: It’s not changed, per say, but I have learned a lot. Mickey was telling me recently that he doesn’t drive, and there was this whole thing in my family about whether or not my sister was going to drive. It took her years to pass the first written part, and they were trying to get in the car with her and teach her and it just didn’t work out.

So I remember telling my father, “Dad, listen, I just met this young many in my show, he’s an outstanding actor, he’s a father, he’s a husband, he seems to have a very active and fulfilled life and he doesn’t drive and so maybe we just need to take the pressure off of her a little bit and just not worry about driving.” And that was just over the phone.

For me it’s just understanding that everyone has their path, everyone has their journey, not everyone has to be the same and go about life in the same way. People have different milestones in life at different times. Some people might take a little bit longer, some people might get there a little bit quicker. I feel like as a brother, I’ll be a little more compassionate and just a little bit more patient, I think, in the way that I deal with my sister.

We always wanted to not treat her any different than anybody else. But she is different from everybody else. And I’m different from everybody. And everybody’s different. So we all have different things in life that we have to deal with at different times.

a group of actors onstage
Mickey Rowe (center, seated), Landon G. Woodson (center, standing), and the cast of IRT's 2017 production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo by Zach Rosing.  

Talleri: I love what you’re saying about how we don’t have to be afraid of difference. Mickey, this reminds me of a related idea, about how theatres can get scared. They think, “If I don’t have the exact right actor with the exact right lived experience for this character, can I respectfully cast it?”

Mickey: I actually got an email recently from another theatre in the Midwest who hasn't announced their casting just yet. They said they are doing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time soon and that they had have cast an actor who’s on the spectrum. They said if it hadn’t been for this IRT/Syracuse Stage production, they would have never had the courage to cast someone on the spectrum; they would have thought it was too big a risk. But because of this production, they felt confident enough to take that leap. So because of this show, other actors on the spectrum are now getting the opportunity to play Christopher, which is crazy to me.

That said, if you can’t find an actor on the spectrum to play Christopher, that is totally OK. Find someone with a different disability to play Christopher. Then, someone from the disability community is still showing the cultural barrier that Christopher feels. Or find someone on the spectrum to play Ed or Judy or Siobhan. Or cast Christopher as a woman or a person of color, and then you’re still doing a service to the Autism community because so many people truly believe that autistic people are only white men. Every TV show or movie—Atypical, The Good Doctor, dating back to Rain Man—autistic people are always white men. So even if you can’t find anybody with any disability to play Christopher, cast a woman or a person of color and then you are still doing a service to the autism community by showing autism doesn’t always look the same way.

Talleri: I like the notion that the play is about a cultural barrier, and that there are lots of different ways to reflect that in how you cast the characters.

Mickey: And I’m not saying every disabled role ever needs to be played by a disabled actor. What I am saying is there is power in authenticity. There’s an old joke that the surest way to win an Oscar or an Emmy or a Tony is to have an able-bodied actor play a disabled character. It’s not really a joke, because it’s true. What I think we need to see is someone who uses a wheelchair playing Hamlet, where that’s not what the production is about. We need to see someone with Down syndrome playing Puck, or someone with cerebral palsy as King Lear. Once we start seeing those things I think that people will be more open to other things—other jobs, other opportunities—as well.

Talleri: How do you feel about that, Landon? We often talk about diversity of casting in terms of race, but how do you think about mixing that all together in terms of gender, ability, race, age?

Landon: It strikes me as very interesting. The whole point is to shake things up. The whole point is to make people think and to be daring and to cover new territory. That’s what theatre is supposed to be—it’s supposed to be on the cutting edge—and so let’s switch it up. Let’s add some different looks to it, let’s give it some color, let’s give it somebody who’s is on the spectrum, let’s have somebody who’s transgender, let’s have all of that. We find out that people can do things we didn’t think they could do. That is just going to bring us together when we see more people doing different things and that bring us together which is, I think, the point of going to theatre.

When we put onstage someone who is a different color, a different race, religion or ability, or gender—that teaches us not to be afraid. It teaches us that we should seek to understand. It teaches us that we have the power to remove the boundary of our perception.

Talleri: My last question is for both of you. Knowing what you now know from being a part of this production, what’s one wish that you have for the future of theatre?

Landon: The theatre is like a church or some kind of religious place. It's a place where people can have a kind of communion, where there’s an exchange of energy. By watching a transformation, it also evokes a transformation in ourselves as the audience. And so when the theatre is fearless, it evokes that same fearlessness inside, with our watching. And it teaches. When we put onstage someone who is a different color, a different race, religion or ability, or gender—that teaches us not to be afraid. It teaches us that we should seek to understand. It teaches us that we have the power to remove the boundary of our perception. I just love it, and I think theatre should go more in that direction especially in this political climate.

Mickey: My wish for theatre in the future is just to keep going and take risks. I think that most people understand intersectionality now and most people who are creating theatre know what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s just a matter of being brave, doing it, and taking those risks.

And don’t feel like you need to know everything or understand everything to tackle it. IRT and Syracuse Stage could have easily said, “We would love to cast someone on the spectrum as Christopher. We don’t know very much about autism so we’re going to learn about autism and maybe in the future when we know more about autism we’ll be able to produce that show with someone on the spectrum.” No one has the time or resources to actually see that through to completion. So instead, they said, “You know what? I don't know everything, I know that I don’t know everything, I know that I’m going to make mistakes along the way; that’s OK. I’m going to dive in head first into the pool and cast this person, and we’ll all get to learn together as a family and work it out.” And that’s what our job is on stage with the audience, too, is to all learn together as a family.

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Sounds great. I love the courage you display in the last few sentences of the article. I often say "Go for it" and I mean it. If you're not hurting yourself of somebody else. go for it. In this case, and in casting different races, you're doing just the opposite. You're expanding he perception of an audience. I enjoyed using a Chinese person, a person from Thailand and a Mexican actor in my production. I just think of them as friends.

Oh, this is so great. Thanks, Mickey, thanks, Landon, thanks, Talleri. I saw this production at Syracuse Stage (thanks, IRT and Syracuse Stage for the co-production, and thanks, Risa Brainin, for the beautiful direction), and I can testify to the power of the work of all these artists.

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