Interview with Jody O’Neill – What I (Don’t) Know About Autism
What I (Don’t) Know About Autism is a sometimes comic, sometimes heart-breaking journey into the world of autism, performed by autistic and non-autistic actors. For this production, we are delighted to be able to give you the option of watching via Live Stream, On Demand or attending In Person.
On-Demand until 20th November
This is a co-production with the Abbey Theatre. Can you tell me how the play started life?
So, we have just finished our second run at The Abbey, and were able to live stream the show and create an On-Demand version of the play, which is available until the 20th of November.
But to go back to the beginning of the journey, the idea for the play started rattling around in my brain in 2017. My son had been diagnosed as autistic and as I encountered more and more media written or created by the autistic community, and understood more about neurodiversity – the idea of difference rather than deficit – I was increasingly frustrated by the dominant idea that autism is a flaw or a disorder. I wanted to do what I could to shift perspectives about autism. I wanted schools, clinics and the wider world to understand more and therefore be motivated to do more to make the world more accommodating for autistic people. There’s often this idea that people should have to change in order to fit in. I’m interested in an inclusive society that doesn’t segregate people or categorise them according to perceived differences. Setting out to write the play was my way of starting to actively lobby for this, and along the way, I discovered my own autistic identity.
In terms of the development, I had an initial bursary from the Arts Council to research and develop work that promoted autism acceptance. Once I had a draft of the script, the Abbey offered us a week’s development, and we had a second week at Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Centre, funded by Wicklow County Council. At that point, we secured Project Funding from the Arts Council and the Abbey came on board as co-producers with additional partnerships with Mermaid and The Everyman. We were so lucky to have an initial sold-out run at all three venues in 2020, just weeks before Covid shut down theatres nationwide.
Is the aim of the play to educate people about Autism?
The play has two aims: to promote autism acceptance and to celebrate autistic identity. Part of the process of acceptance involves getting rid of both conscious and unconscious bias. Education is a key part of this. Banishing myths and misconceptions is also crucial. So, yes, the play is definitely educational, but crucially it’s an emotionally engaging, highly entertaining theatrical experience. This is because you can educate people all you like, but unless you connect emotionally with hearts and minds, you won’t evoke the empathy that is essential to drive social change.
What would you like people to think when they’re leaving the theatre?
I would like them to have had a positive experience – a good night at the theatre. I would like non-autistic audience members to feel like they understand more, and may act and think differently in the future as a result.
And this has been our experience to date – parents have told us they will treat their autistic child differently, teachers have said they will adapt their teaching methods, clinicians have told us they will practice more empathetically – all as a result of seeing this play.
For autistic audience members, I want them to feel validated, celebrated, recognised and represented. And so far, I’m really happy to be able to say that this has been the case.
A big part of all this is that four of our cast members are autistic, so as well as seeing the play and learning from it, audiences are meeting and interacting with autistic adults. In keeping with the maxim, ‘Nothing about us without us’ What I (Don’t) Know About Autism lets audiences into an autistic-led experience. This is really important.
This play is presented in ‘relaxed performances’. Can you explain what that means?
Relaxed performance can mean many things, but essentially it takes away some of the invisible and visible rules and etiquette that can be a barrier to some people in accessing a theatrical experience. For What I (Don’t) Know About Autism, this involved working with the Abbey to create a visual guide that can be downloaded in advance to let audiences know what they can expect – what the theatre, set, cast look like, what will happen when they get to the theatre, etc. Then, we kick off the show by talking to the audience. We let them know they can leave and come back in again during the show; they’re free to move around or make noise; if necessary, the use of phones/ipads is permitted; earplugs are offered; we explain that the house lights will remain on, and that loud noises and sudden lighting changes will be flagged in advance during the show. Additionally, we let the audience know how long the play will be, and that they can keep track of time via the whiteboards at either side of the stage, with the names of the 26 scenes of the play written on them. When a scene is finished, one of the actors will always cross it out and announce the next scene. Fundamentally, it’s about managing expectations and creating a safe space, where people feel included and recognised.
We also caption all of our performances and this time around, with amazing commitment and support from the Abbey, we were able to offer three ISL interpreted shows and two audio-described performances. For the On-Demand version, audiences can choose to watch with ISL, ASL, BSL, audio-description or captioning. As artists and as a society, I believe that we should be thinking and actively working towards much better levels of access across the board.
Do you think it’s something that should be considered for more theatre productions?
I definitely think relaxed performance can and should be considered for more productions. Our show was designed and written as a relaxed performance, but there are simple adaptations that can be made that make the theatre environment safer and more accommodating for everyone. Nobody ever came to us and said that the relaxed performance design detracted from the theatricality of the production. It simply ended up being more inclusive of everyone.
A lot of it is to do with how you communicate information about the production, both in advance of and during the performance. A key thing is communicating to seasoned theatre-goers that they don’t need to ‘police’ the auditorium. Once the actors confirm that they are okay with noise and movement in the auditorium, there’s a kind of a collective sigh of relief that happens, and we can all get on with enjoying our time in the theatre together.
Are you working on anything interesting at the moment?
I’m working on a bunch of projects. I have another play in development about neurodiversity and motherhood and a commission from Mermaid that explores cycles of abuse within a family. I’ve also recently completed a commission about Climate Justice for Youth Theatre Ireland.
I’m working on libretto for INO’s upcoming VR Community Opera, and then I’m also writing scripts for preschool animations for Cartoon Saloon and Little Moon.
So, it’s a fairly full slate, but underpinning it all (I think!) is a desire to make work that strives for inclusion, for mutual respect, for diversity and for equity.