LAMDA Exams: Q&A with Jody O’Neill

06 July 2023

Jody O’Neill’s play What I (Don’t) Know About Autism premiered in February 2020 to critical acclaim, with an extract featured in our new Monologues and Duologues for Teenage Actors anthology. Read on to find out more about Jody, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism and advice for Learners approaching the character of Casper.

What was your inspiration for writing What I (Don't) Know About Autism? Can you tell us a little about the writing process?

Until my son’s diagnosis in 2016, I didn’t know much about autism apart from the stereotypes I had seen portrayed in film and on stage. I certainly had no idea I was autistic myself. What quickly struck me, as I began to learn more, was the gap between the experiences of autistic people and how autism was pathologised by the media, by general medical practice and by the education system. I began to see more and more that autism wasn’t something to be fixed, changed or cured. And that a lot of the challenges associated with autism were to do with poorly-designed environments and a lack of understanding from allistic (i.e., non-autistic) people. So, I set out to write a play that promoted autism acceptance and celebrated autistic identity. 

In terms of the writing process, I had planned an initial research period and then after that I would set about creating a fictional story with a single narrative through-line. But I became so diverted by the research that I began to write scenes in response to what I was learning. Some scenes are direct address, some follow the stories of the myriad characters in the play, and some are more informational. There are also some song and dance numbers – just for fun! I ended up with 26 scenes, exploring different aspects of the autistic landscape and experience, and worked with a brilliant dramaturg, Louise Stephens, to shape them into a coherent arc.

How would you describe the character Casper?

Two important things about Casper: One: Casper is a largely non-speaking autistic child; Two: Casper is dead.

For me, disability representation is very important, so I feel strongly that Casper should always be played by an autistic performer, but could be played by a male or female performer with some small adaptations to the text. In fact, in the production, Casper was played by all six cast members as a kind of chorus.

In terms of their character, Casper is a highly sensitive, bright, vibrant child. Casper has been completely misunderstood throughout their life; deemed to be unintelligent simply because they were unable to communicate their inner self via typical speech. It is only after death (spoiler alert: Casper was killed by their mother), that Casper has the opportunity to tell their own story.

What advice do you have for LAMDA Learners approaching the character for their Examinations?

In approaching Casper for Examinations, I would advise Learners to steer clear of trying to portray ‘autism’ or to get across that Casper is a ghost. For me, the important thing is that the performer can embody the sensory and emotional reality of this character, embodying each moment as a lived experience. Something that may help is knowing that autistic people can experience time and memory quite differently. Years on, memories can seem as vivid and full of emotion as the moment in which they occurred. I would use this as your guide. Nothing in this piece is nostalgic. Every moment of Casper’s story is ‘now’.

For learners who want to do more research into the non-speaking autistic experience, there are amazing non-speaking advocates who write about their experiences and publish extensively online. Seek these out and avoid any material where the autistic person doesn’t have full autonomy and ownership within the situation, such as where parents post exploitative videos of their non-speaking children online.

What would you like Learners to take away from this monologue and/or from the play as a whole?

Autism isn’t something to be pathologised, so don’t portray it as a tragedy or an illness. Every autistic person is different. Always presume intelligence, even if someone doesn’t communicate in a way that you fully understand.

In the play, Casper’s monologue is a response to an interview with Casper’s mother in which she portrays Casper’s life as worthless and meaningless and sets herself up as a victim in spite of the act she has committed. It’s important to take away that there are many sides to a story, so in a sense Casper is a truth-teller, a reminder to always look beyond the surface.

What advice do you have for young people interested in the world of performance?

I think the world of performance has a huge amount to offer. It’s perhaps not the easiest career path, but there is an exciting diversity of work being created at the moment, and so it is a good time to be exploring this area. I was lucky enough to be involved in a youth theatre as a young person, and that experience helped to shape me, not just as a performer, but politically, socially and in relationship to those around me.

Artistically, I would advise you to seek out material that challenges you, resonates with you and moves you, because your audience will feel that connection and respond to it. Don’t be afraid to fail (repeatedly) and try to learn from any rejections along the way. If you decide to pursue a career in performance, make sure you find things and people outside of the world of performance that make you feel happy and safe as these will be your anchors in stormy times.

Why do you think speech, drama and performance is an important part of education?

I think that through the playing of different roles we develop empathy, flexibility, responsiveness and versatility. Regardless of your career choice, these are key skills in simply being a human!

Not everyone can expertly navigate a formal school education system that is based on rote learning, writing and routine testing. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn in a way that suits their strengths. Many people I know who don’t thrive in a typical school setting find their strength in the arts. The skills you gain through the arts are ones that will serve you through your life and are just as crucial, if not more so, than those developed in traditional school subjects.

Explore the anthologies further:

Monologues and Duologues for Young Actors and Monologues and Duologues for Teenage Actors are now available to order through the LAMDA online store. The books are designed to provide options for Learners’ own-choice pieces, and to spark your curiosity beyond the LAMDA Exams set piece selections. 

Find out more & order the books