What I (Don’t) Know About Autism: Eleanor Walsh Interview

What I (Don’t) Know About Autism, a play written by Jody O’Neill, will soon hit the stage. The play, directed by Dónal Gallagher, will contain a cast of autistic and neurotypical actors. Using a host of characters and storylines, the play aims to celebrate autistic identity and educate neurotypical audiences. In the lead up to the play’s release, we’ll be releasing interviews with the cast and crew. First up is former AsIAm staff member and storytelling aficionado Eleanor Walsh! 

 

What role do you play in What I (Don’t) Know About Autism?
Like my cast mates, I play multiple characters, both autistic and neurotypical,
inside and outside the autism community – and then we also play versions of
ourselves at certain points and address the audience directly. One of my re-
occuring characters is Sandra – a young autistic woman trying to find love, afraid
that her diagnosis and differences will scare off the object of her affections.
Sandra grapples with questions and anxieties around masking, disclosure, and
becoming more independent as a young disabled adult, and I think many in the
audience will relate. Most people should be able to relate to Sandra's awkward
first date in the play too!

Is the character like you or different? How so?
Sandra reminds me strongly of my younger self, when I made huge efforts to
mask my autism in daily life for fear of discrimination. Acceptance of one’s autism
and the battle against internalised ableism is very much a non-linear journey, that
takes time, effort, and kindness. I definitely don’t nail it every day, but looking
back, I realise that I definitely don’t think about the worries I had as much as I
used to.

These days I don’t go around telling everyone I’m autistic or anything, but
from working for AsIAm, and being involved in this production, I no longer have to
a lot of the time! I understand how lucky I am to feel safer in others knowing of
my autism than I did just a few short years ago.

What’s the biggest challenge about taking on this role?
Taking on so many different roles in the show is definitely a challenge, but we get
to tell so many different stories from diverse perspectives!
What made you go into theatre? When did you first perform?
I’ve always wanted to work in theatre or perform, and I’e been really lucky that
my family has supported me all the way. After being a member of Kilkenny Youth
Theatre as a teenager, I studied Drama (Performance) in (then) DIT Conservatory
of Music and Drama. Getting to talk and think about theatre and acting every day
was a hugely formative experience, and I’ve had some really cool opportunities
since, especially (and unexpectedly) around autism. Live theatre and storytelling
is simply magic and I love it!

What’s your favourite play?
My favourite play that I’ve read but never seen is Trammel by Michael Lesslie. In a
prestigious British public school, local scholarship kid Aron learns harsh lessons
about the traditional, iron-clad structures that keep the rich and titled in power.
It’s a tense and chilling play, written for a cast of teenage boys.

Otherwise a small selection of my favourite plays include Castle Rock by Massive
Owl, Dublin By Lamplight by Michael West, Bears in Space by Eoghan Quinn, Star
of the Sea adapted from Joseph O’Connor’s novel by Moonfish Theatre, and
Proserpine and the Six Seeds by Alice Bellamy and Sinéad Ní Fhionnagáin. On
autism and disability, Normal by Caitríona Daly and peeling by Kaite O’Reilly are
standouts.

The cast of What I (Don't) Know About Autism
Full line up of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism cast. (image: Emily Quinn)

 

What is your experience with autism?
All-encompassing, and lifelong.

Anthony Hopkins once said regarding his Asperger’s
diagnosis “I definitely look at people differently. I like to deconstruct, to pull a
character apart, to work out what makes them tick and my view will not be the
same as everyone else.” How do you feel being neurodivergent affects the acting process?

Being neurodivergent definitely affects the acting and creative process. As an
autistic person, the way I process communication, social situations, and emotions
means that I analyse and perceive people differently, and I definitely relate to Sir
Anthony’s comments. I love how much my perception of the world around me
influences my creative process, and I look forward to working with more
neurodivergent creatives! However, being autistic can mean that other parts of
being an actor are a lot more difficult, like networking, the audition process, and
even the expectation that actors are loud and bubbly and extroverted.

Have you taken part in many relaxed performances? How do you feel they differ
from standard theatre?
I’ve performed in just one relaxed performance before, for DIT/TUD Drama’s 2017
graduate production of The Rover by Aphra Behn. Relaxed performance is a type
of assisted performance for theatre where the usual conventions of theatre-going
are literally relaxed! Broadly, that means that audience members can leave the
theatre and come back in whenever they need to, they can stim and make noise
and react to what’s happening on stage how they need, and technical effects like
lighting and sound might be altered to make the show more accessible. The fact
that WI(D)KAA is a relaxed production is so exciting, and I’m eager to be a part of
the future of relaxed performances and productions in Ireland.

Do you have a favourite moment in the play? (without spoiling too much!)
The bit where we do know something about autism.

What I (Don’t) Know About Autism will play from 1st to 8th February in Peacock stage in the Abbey. 

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