How My Autism Prepared Me for the Stage


You may ask yourself, what is a man with autism doing working at language-based theatre companies? I often ask myself that question. But I believe in theatre my “weakness” is one of my strengths.

If you see me walking down the street, I most likely have headphones on. I nearly always wear a blue t-shirt, a v-neck so nothing touches my neck. And I don’t wear coats or jackets when it’s cold out, which drives my wife crazy. I was late to speak, but I invented my own incredibly detailed sign language to communicate. I had speech therapy all through elementary school and occupational therapy all through middle school.

I am also legally blind (autism is often linked with vision or hearing problems) so I can’t perform well in cold readings. If given a few days before an audition, I always memorize sides so I don’t read them off the page. I enlarge scripts so they are twice as big, just like how all of my textbooks and tests were enlarged in school. I will often secretly record the first read-through of a play on my cell phone, hidden in my pocket, so I can learn my lines and study the script by listening. My eyes give out after about fifteen minutes of looking at a page. But because I know this, I get off book damn fast. Often before the first rehearsal.

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Tony Vo and Mickey Rowe in Out of Surface at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

People with autism use scripts every day. We use scripting for daily situations we can predict the outcome of, and stick to those scripts. My job as a person with autism is to make you believe I am coming up with words on the spot, that this is spontaneous, the first time the conversation has ever happened in my life. This is also my job on stage as an actor.

For instance, at a coffee shop I might have a conversation like this:

Me: Hi, how are you doing today? (Smile.) Can I please have a small coffee? Thank you so much! (If it seems like more conversation is needed, I’ll say:) Has it been busy today?
Barista: Any barista response.
Me: Oh yeah? Is it nicer when it’s busy or when it’s slow? Have a great rest of your day!

I always stick to the script. It makes things infinitely easier.

When I’m playing Edmond in King Lear:

Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me . . .
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true . . . [?]

It’s really no different to me. They’re lines I’ve learned, that I say often, but I’m making you believe they are mine and they’re particular to this specific moment.

These all may seem like reasons why I should never be an actor. But acting is a dichotomy — a tension between what is safe and what is dangerous.

What is known and what is unknown.

What’s mundane and what’s exciting.

There is a tension between everything I am and everything conventional for an actor. This is the same tension that makes incredible theatre. No one wants to see something if it is too comfortable. Every performance should have a tension between what feels easy and what feels risky.

When a grand piano is gracefully lowered out of a window by a rope onto a truck, slowly spinning and dangling, the tension in the rope is what everyone is watching. In theatre, the performer is the rope, making the incredible look graceful and easy, making the audience complicit in every thought, every tactical switch. When the rope goes slack, the show is over.

I put my dichotomies to work for me. It’s about doing the work and being in control so the audience trusts you to lead them, and then being vulnerable and letting the audience see your soul.

The skill, study and training help create the trust. The challenges make the vulnerability. You need both of them. As a person with autism I have felt vulnerable my entire life — to be vulnerable on stage is no biggie.

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Sarah Scafidi and Mickey Rowe in Things I Never Told My Father at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

With autism comes a new way of thinking — a fresh eye and a fresh mind. Literally, a completely different wiring of the brain.

Being in front of an audience of 500 or 2,890 people is easy for me. The roles are incredibly clear, logical and laid out. I am on stage and you are sitting in the seats watching me. I am playing a character and that’s what you expect, want and are paying for. The conversations on stage are scripted and written much better than the ones in my real life.

On the street is where conversations are scary. Those roles aren’t clear.

Sure, there are lots of things working against me at any given time. For example, one in every 68 American children has autism. If all things were equally accessible, you would expect to see one person with autism in every 68 employees of any company in the US. Because small talk is so important in current interviews and auditions, this doesn’t happen. But it would happen if things were more accessible. And we can help to make it what we see in the future by acknowledging and realizing not everyone’s brain is wired the same way — by acknowledging neurodiversity exists.

A version of this post originally appeared on HowlRound

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