Cork-raised playwright's new post is aimed at promoting true inclusion in theatre

Playwright Jody O’Neill, who grew up in Cobh, is a new Theatre Artist in Residence for Cork Opera House and UCC. JENNIFER HORGAN caught up with her
Cork-raised playwright's new post is aimed at promoting true inclusion in theatre

Playwright Jody O’Neill, who grew up in Cobh.

CORK Opera House and University College Cork Department of Theatre announced the appointment of playwright Jody O’Neill as the new Theatre Artist in Residence, following the search for a professional theatre artist who identifies as autistic.

The joint initiative, aimed at celebrating and promoting diversity in artists, provides a bursary of €20,000. The application process was open to artists working in areas including, but not confined to, creating, writing, production, and direction.

An Artist’s Journey

Jody O’Neill, who was born in Dublin, but raised in Cork, is thrilled with the announcement and explains that theatre has always been a central part of her life.

“I grew up in Cobh. My mum was a member of Haulbowline Theatre Group, so my first memories are of us going out on a a boat to Haulbowline to see a performance.

“I joined Activate Youth Theatre as a teenager and was lucky to be among brilliant people there.

“Later, I worked with Graffiti’s Professional Theatre Company before completing an acting degree in Trinity, graduating in 2003. Then I acted and worked as a waitress.”

Some years later, Jody began to write.

“One particularly bad waitressing job led me to write my first play (circa 2006), and for the first few years working as a playwright I focused on what I thought other people would consider to be good theatre. I tried to emulate what was around me.

“But then my son was diagnosed with autism in 2016, and as I researched his diagnosis, I began to reflect on my own neurodivergence.

“The research was so compelling that I processed it by writing scenes. I quickly realised two things: that I was autistic and that I had written 26 scenes, the bones of what became my play, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism.”

Playwright Jody O’Neill
Playwright Jody O’Neill

This celebrated play was first performed in the Abbey Theatre in 2019 before coming to the Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork, in February, 2020.

“I was diagnosed officially just a few days after our first development week in the Abbey,” says Jody. “The play was important because I found myself looking at my son and thinking this is a difference, not a deficit. I wanted to reach more families, to focus not on the grief of getting a diagnosis but on how to best support children so they can be successful.”

Jody viewed the Abbey as the perfect place to stage her work.

“It meant something, that it was a professional production on our national stage. I didn’t want it to be compartmentalised, as if it was something disabled people were doing over there.

“I wanted it to be inclusive and appealing to all neurotypes. We had both autistic and non-autistic actors performing roles. It was for and about everyone.”

Positive Change

This new appointment at UCC and Cork Opera House offers the talented playwright a unique opportunity to continue this work of promoting true inclusion in theatre and beyond.

Jody argues that making things inclusive for autistic people generally benefits everyone.

“In our performances, we invite people to move around. It’s about giving people more time and space.

“For actors, it’s about having shorter days, longer breaks, sending pictures of people and settings before we start.

“It’s about having a designated quiet space and a designated welfare person, so nobody is trying to manage too much. It’s about giving content warnings, signposting loud sounds or bright lights.”

I asked her if this might take from the spontaneity of the theatre experience.

“The magic is not in the what happened, it’s in the how something happened,” she explains.

“You still retain the magic, the wonder, and the surprise of theatre. As I kid I used to read the end of books first. My son does the same. It doesn’t distract from the experience of reading the middle. We have a limited number of stories in the world to reflect the human experience. We re-invent them, but they’re fundamentally the same. So, content warnings do little to diminish the theatrical experience.”

Cork Opera House CEO, Eibhlin Gleeson, playwright Jody O’Neill, University College Cork President Professor John O’Halloran, and Professor Yvon Bonenfant, Head of Department at UCC Theatre, announcing the new Theatre Artist in Residence for Cork Opera House & UCC.	Picture: Max Bell
Cork Opera House CEO, Eibhlin Gleeson, playwright Jody O’Neill, University College Cork President Professor John O’Halloran, and Professor Yvon Bonenfant, Head of Department at UCC Theatre, announcing the new Theatre Artist in Residence for Cork Opera House & UCC. Picture: Max Bell

In her new role as Artist in Residence, Jody will liaise directly with the CEO of Cork Opera House and the Professor of Creative Practice and Department of Theatre at UCC throughout her residency.

Professor Yvon Bonenfant, Head of Department, at UCC Theatre welcomed Ms O’Neill’s appointment, saying: “UCC’s Theatre Department is thrilled to welcome an artist of Jody O’Neill’s stature and import to this residency.

“O’Neill has made a critical and ground-breaking contribution to not only the development of theatre as an aesthetic and social medium, but also to our social discourse around autism and other disabilities. We are delighted to support the next stages of the development of her career.”

He was joined in welcoming Ms O’Neill by Cork Opera House CEO, Eibhlin Gleeson.

She said: “We are so delighted and proud to welcome Jody as our Theatre Artist in Residence at Cork Opera House. Jody is a ground-breaking and celebrated artist and will be a hugely important addition to the Cork Opera House family.

“We feel incredibly lucky that we will work with her to promote inclusivity, diversity, and acceptance in our industry. We look forward to all that we will achieve together.”

O’Neill is similarly enthusiastic.

“UCC is already doing a lot of work to make itself an inclusive campus. The President spent a lot of time with me, showing me the work that’s already being done.

“Similarly, Cork Opera House is interested in running relaxed performances. I certainly plan to insert myself wherever there is space to encourage more inclusivity.”

And there should be plenty of it, plenty of room for improvement; 80% of autistic people are underemployed or unemployed.

Jody points out that autistic people are perfectly capable of working but often the environment is unsupportive, simply because people don’t know how to make it so.

She recalls working in the Opera House as a teenager and never stopping for a cup of tea because nobody had shown her where to find the tea.

O’Neill also remembers not really knowing what her role was because nobody ever explicitly explained it.

“It’s about making the invisible more visible for everybody. I hope my work with both UCC, and Cork Opera House facilitates positive change.”

A Bright Future

A part of that, of course, will be through theatre. “I’m working on a few projects. The first piece is around the under-diagnosis of autism in girls and the link to eating disorders.

“Another project will be a 25-minute play that I hope to perform in offices and around the community, looking at equity and inclusion.

“I also have a commission from Graffiti. There’ll certainly be a lot of work to keep me busy.”

On O’Neill’s announcement, UCC President, Professor John O’Halloran said: “We are constantly striving to make UCC and our wider society a more inclusive place.

“We recognise that such a goal is not just achieved by having the desire to make our shared spaces more accessible and welcoming, but by also having creative voices help shape our understanding of how we can actually achieve this ambition in a meaningful way.”

Jody O’Neill’s creative voice promises to be a significant one.

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