Playwright Dave Osmundsen

A few years ago when a play of mine was being produced by Florida Studio Theatre, a twentysomething intern named Dave Osmundsen picked me up at the airport and we got to chatting about plays, regional theater and his duties at FST, where he worked in the literary department. Since then, we’ve kept in touch through social media. Fast-forward to spring 2021, and I just read his fabulous, funny, heartfelt comedy-drama Light Switch, a semi-autobiographical play about a queer autistic man navigating his past and present. Young Henry’s life includes a collection of would-be friends and lovers, a deep bond with his mother and a passion for English literature.

I wasn’t aware until recently that Osmundsen was neurodivergent, and I was eager to read Light Switch because it explores territory (indeed breaks ground) we don’t see much in film, theater and TV — and it’s written by someone with the lived experience of his characters. Plays about autistic people have historically been written by neurotypical people. Look at the regionally popular Dancing Lessons by Mark St. Germain or The Boys Next Door by Tom Griffin, whose authors, to my knowledge, are not neurodivergent.

Payson Johnson as Henry in Arizona State University’s 2021 production of “Light Switch.”

“I wanted to write a play centering a queer, autistic experience, since I had never seen that done in media before,” Osmundsen told me. “As I was building the character of Henry, I feel like a part of me was in conversation with other portrayals of autistic people in the media — what tropes were people familiar with, and how could I add my own lived experiences to that, and in the process possibly subvert them?”

Osmundsen said, “Here’s the elevator pitch: Spanning twenty years, Light Switch follows the story of Henry, an autistic gay man with a passion for 19th century British literature, and his quest for love and acceptance.”

The seven-character play already has a history — and a future.

He wrote the first draft of Light Switch in his Dramatic Writers workshop at Arizona State University, where he’ll earn an MFA in dramatic writing this spring. After some revisions, the play was given an ASU TheatreLAB workshop in November 2019, directed by Kristina Friedgen. That year, it was a semi-finalist at the O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwrights Conference. The script was supposed to have a reading with the Los Angeles Queer New Works Festival in May 2020, but the pandemic got in the way.

Daniel Perkins as Henry in the 2020 Spectrum Theatre Ensemble Zoom presentation of “Light Switch.”

In 2020, Light Switch enjoyed a Zoom reading with Spectrum Theatre Ensemble, a self-defined “company of neurodiverse theatre artists” located in Providence, RI. Osmundsen is a resident playwright there. A further revision of the play (with a new ending) was virtually produced as a part of ASU’s New Works Festival  in February 2021. Kristina Friedgen again directed. There are plans for further workshops and productions of the play in the next year, Osmundsen said. It’s also under a publication contract.

For now, you can learn more about Dave Osmundsen’s work (and download scripts) at New Play Exchange, the valuable online resource for new plays.

In the meantime, check out our chat below.

Share a little bit about where you grew up. What was your exposure to theater?

Dave Osmundsen: So I grew up in Pompton Plains, NJ, about 45 minutes outside of New York. Theatre was (and still is) more of a casual thing for my family, but for me, it became a hyper-fixation as soon as I saw The Phantom of the Opera for the first time at age nine. I grew up performing in school and community shows, and thought I wanted to be an actor and novelist, since I also read a lot growing up. But when I got to undergrad, I realized that, as much as I loved performing, I didn’t have the drive needed to make a living from it. I knew I wanted to do theatre, but I didn’t know what field. Around this time, I discovered dramaturgy and literary management, and figured that would be a good path for me. I wasn’t really thinking about writing plays until my sophomore year.

When did you first think, “Oh, I wanna write plays…”?

Dave Osmundsen: I had seen a lot of student-written work, most of which was, frankly, bad. I thought, “I could write a better play than this!” So I wrote a play about teen prostitution, put it on at Montclair [State University], and it was…a disaster. Flop sweat is real, let me tell you! I didn’t know how to really write a play in terms of structure or theatricality — I was still thinking I might write novels. But I wanted to give it another try, so I kept writing plays, and years later, I’m about to get my MFA in dramatic writing!

That first play, I think, really taught me how to fail. Which is important as a theatre artist, and as a person. I think you know what you want to do with your life if you really fail at something, and instead of giving up, you can’t help but give it another try, applying what you learned from the previous experience to improve upon the next go-round. As much as I view that experience as an artistic failure, it was an unqualified success in my growth as an artist.

Liam Boyd as Joseph and Payson Johnson as Henry in Arizona State University’s 2021 staging of “Light Switch.”

I’m always curious about the starting point of an idea for a play. What inspired Light Switch, or what did you “see” first? Did you know from the start you’d be creating a character study that went back in time in your main character’s life?

Dave Osmundsen: The first image of the play I had in mind was the library scene. Initially, I thought that Henry might meet an older gay man named Joseph who was quite a hunk in his day. But then I became curious about how Henry would interact with people his age. So I made Joseph roughly the same age as Henry, and that always stuck.

As I was writing the play, I wanted to explore different moments in Henry’s life. The opening playground scene was the first of these, and I somehow knew it would always be the first scene of the play. I then wondered, “What was Henry like as a teenager? In college?” And I wrote a bunch of scenes exploring Henry at these ages, and most of them went into the play. Two deleted scenes involved Henry at age 10 acting out at a social skills group. This was initially the opening scene of Act Two, but it didn’t add anything character or plot-wise. I also had a scene where Henry, in high school, tried to talk to his teacher about the possibility of a Miss Bates from Jane Austen’s “Emma” being autistic, only to be shut down. Again, while I liked this scene, it didn’t add anything to the story that we didn’t already know. But the non-linear structure of the play stuck.

The play addresses the intersection of being gay and autistic. You identify as both. I hate this question, but I often get it about the work I write: How much of “you” is in the play, whether incidents or emotions, characters?

Dave Osmundsen: I call the play semi-autobiographical. While much of it is drawn from experiences in my life — particularly the flashback scenes, which reflect my want for undergrad to be like a Jane Austen novel — I almost see it as a “What-if-I-sustained-the-hyper-fixation-of-19th-century-British-literature?” kind of story. So both the me who lived my life, and an alternative version of my present self, are in this play.

There’s a beautiful mother-son relationship here. I got a lump in my throat watching them unpack who they are to each other, and the care and candor with which she talks about him not heeding social cues. She’s also the only woman in the play. What was the challenge of writing that relationship?

Dave Osmundsen: It honestly wasn’t challenging at all. I feel like my mom and I have had multiple variations of these conversations, so I was really drawing from them — sorry, mom!

Nick Devor as Roggie and Payson Johnson as Henry in ASU’s 2021 production of “Light Switch.”

The play is also a love letter to long-term friendship and accepting the shortcomings of your friends — and forgiving. Henry’s friend Roggie is revealed as more complex and mature at the end of the play than when we see him earlier. Do you seem them as the primary relationship in Light Switch?

Dave Osmundsen: I didn’t initially — I saw it solely as Henry’s journey, with Roggie serving as a kind of foil to Henry. But the deeper I got into rehearsal for my school’s production of this play, Henry and Roggie’s friendship emerged as the heart of the play — both are queer men who express their queerness in different ways. Roggie is more of the stereotypical gay, and Henry is much more reserved in expressing his queerness. And yet they are able to form this bond that comes from years of building trust in and relying on one another. They are both part of marginalized groups, which I think brings them together. How they operate in those marginalized groups is where their differences lay.

It’s funny, as I was writing this play, people loved Henry, but Roggie was the one they always wanted to know more about. As I was developing the play, my colleagues said that as Roggie gained more depth, Henry gained more depth, too. So there was always that symbiotic relationship between them, even in the writing of this play.

Henry is passionate about 19th century English literature. What inspired Henry’s love for Jane Austen, the Brontes, “The Woman in White,” Thomas Hardy and more? The play made me want to read “Wuthering Heights” again!

Dave Osmundsen: I’m glad you want to read Wuthering Heights again! I kind of want to read that book again too…

So those novels were actually a hyper-fixation of mine when I was in middle school/early high school. I was really drawn to the dark, Gothic, macabre nature of most of them, and the heightened romanticism of them. Since the prose of these books is noticeably more dense than other books written today, a part of me also felt myself superior to my peers for liking these books over other books (as you can imagine, I had a lot of friends). I drew a lot of this when I was building Henry’s character, too. I actually didn’t get into Jane Austen until late high school/early college, and her books got me through that rough patch in my life.

Something we talked about during rehearsals for my school’s production of Light Switch is how Henry, who doesn’t always know how to read social cues, is drawn to a world where social protocol is very clear, and there are very rigid rules for how one should behave. In some ways, this is definitely an idealized vision of this world (Victorians were not nearly as prim and proper as we make them out to be — there was an underground of erotic queer literature, for example), but it makes more sense to Henry than the social protocols of the gay community he’s a part of.

I think that’s why Jane Austen spoke so much to me at that time, and to young people in general — we are all trying to define our own self-worth in a world that constantly gives us mixed messages. The women of Jane Austen in particular are sharp, intelligent and passionate, but the amount of agency they have is defined by how much society gives them. Like how in the context of “Pride and Prejudice,” Lizzie and her sisters are defined by not only whether they can land a husband, but also how wealthy that husband is (note how Mr. Bingley is introduced by having “four or five thousand a year”). The social protocols are clear and defined in that world, but the question of how we define our self-worth in a society that seems confused about its values has not gone away.

It’s a bit of a spoiler, but can you share a little about the title?

Dave Osmundsen: I don’t think it’s a spoiler at all! Basically, “light switch” in the context of the play is a metaphor for that which “turns you on,” whether that be emotionally, intellectually, sexually, romantically, etc.

Nick Devor as pal and roommate Roggie in ASU’s 2021 production of “Light Switch.”

I think society is still in a learning and listening mode when it comes to addressing the experiences of the neurodivergent community. I know I am, so please forgive the ignorance that might reveal itself in my questions. When the word “autistic” is used, some people see that as meaning that the community is monolithically “low-functioning.” When writing Light Switch, are you conscious that you are shedding light on a range of autistic people — as sexual and intellectual beings, for example, as Henry is, rather than, say, simple “sensory-averse” people, which is what we’ve seen fronted in other stories?

Dave Osmundsen: In writing Light Switch, I was really focused on writing my own autistic experience, which I know is very different from others. The cliché saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” But it’s a cliché because it’s true! Whenever I start rehearsals for my plays, I always tell my cast, “We are telling one autistic experience. This is not a play meant to represent all the neurodivergent experiences in the world, but rather this one.” My aim is to help them see that autistic people are not monolithic, but rather individual.

I also want to say that I really appreciate you saying that you’re learning. Even I’m learning about the issues facing my community, and there’s a lot I still don’t know. We can learn together!

When you write plays, do you think of an ideal or target audience? Are you writing for a specific demographic? My cheat answer to the question is usually, “I’m writing for the world,” though I’m aware of different audiences being impacted differently.

Dave Osmundsen: I don’t always think about the audience the play is for. I think that comes as you develop the play, you know? The more people you put it in front of, the stronger idea you get of what kind of person this play appeals to. I think it’s important for writers to look for the universal in the specific — one of the reasons I love Michael R. Jackson’s musical A Strange Loop so much is that, while it touches on universal themes like finding yourself in vicious cycles, it can’t be about anything other than a black queer man of size. All kinds of people have identified with Henry — male, female, nonbinary, gay, bi, straight, neurodivergent, neurotypical, etc. And yet, Light Switch can’t be about anything other than a queer autistic man. That’s why I think writing from your own perspective is so important, too. If you aim for a “general” audience, you’re going to end up with a very “general” play, you know? Like, I can’t always identify with a straight white man!

When we spoke about the play earlier, you said you personally don’t love the word “spectrum” when referring to neurodivergent people. Can you share a little more about that?

Dave Osmundsen: Yes! So during graduate school, I took a course called “Issues of Representation on the Musical Stage,” and we were talking about how sexuality is considered a spectrum. Our professor told us about a conversation she had with someone who saw sexuality as a constellation. I think this definitely applies to autism — constellations have many manifestations and many stories behind them, as do neurodivergent people. To me, “Spectrum” has hierarchal implications that don’t sit right with me, allowing language such as “high-functioning” and “low-functioning.” The only reason I use those terms is because of the lack of vocabulary we have in describing autistic people. Using a term like “constellations” allow autistic and neurodivergent people more autonomy than being placed on a sliding scale does, to me at least.

When a playwright is identified as being part of a specific — perhaps minority — community, we might unfairly assume that all of the plays by this author address issues, people, passions of that specific community. Are there neurodivergent characters in your other plays?

Dave Osmundsen: When writing something, I always think about how neurodiversity can be incorporated into it. I also always try to think about how I can express neurodiversity in unique, theatrical ways. The Gift of BS centers a man who is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at age 46, and his relationship with a former student who is also autistic. I also have a TYA play called The Dummy Class which is about a group of special needs students who decide to show off their unique talents to their neurotypical classmates and teacher (this play was based on my elementary school experience). Finally, I have a 10-minute play called (Un)Scripted that explores the ideas of scripting (which is when autistic people generate a “script” they use to get through basic social interactions) and what happens when we can’t follow the scripts that society gives us.

Chris Robertson and Michelle Scarr in Dave Osmundsen’s “A (Safe) Distance,” now on YouTube.

For something that does not talk about neurodiversity, I have a web-miniseries on YouTube called A (Safe) Distance that talks about how twenty/thirty somethings try to sustain their relationships, livelihoods, and sanity during the first few months of the pandemic. Initially, I didn’t want to write it, because I didn’t want to write about the pandemic — I was already living it. But creating it gave me and my collaborators (shoutout to Meg, Michelle, Chris, Rob, Jason, Anjelica, Craig, Tim, Sarah, Kabir, and Kailah!) an outlet to express our feelings about the “new normal,” which was very cathartic for all of us, I think. We filmed it entirely via Zoom, which was quite a feat!

There is a lot of conversation at the moment about who gets to tell story. My evolving opinion is that with enough research and sensitivity anyone is allowed to write about any community. But sometimes people outside a community get it wrong, or play into tropes and clichés, or they’re writing situations rather than stories. What are your thoughts?

Dave Osmundsen: I definitely agree that those are potential pitfalls in telling a story about a community you are not a part of. Personally, I think you can write outside your community as long as you’re acting in good faith and in conjunction with the community you’re representing. “Nothing About Us Without Us” is a phrase the autistic community uses in response to neurotypical creators creating art about neurodivergent people, and I think that absolutely applies to art about all marginalized groups. It’s one thing to have an expert consultant, but it’s another to have a representative of that community in the room helping to make creative decisions. It’s almost its own form of dramaturgy, I think. Ensuring that the community is represented well in a piece created outside of the community.

At the same time, though, I think room needs to be made for neurodivergent people to tell their stories. For too long, our stories have been filtered through a neurotypical lens. I think it’s about damn time we got to tell our own stories, and for neurotypical creators to learn from us.

Is it your wish to have a neurodivergent actor play Henry in future productions?

Dave Osmundsen: Ideally, yes. I’m not opposed to a neurotypical actor playing the role, but since autistic actors rarely get leading roles playing autistic characters, I want anyone producing this play to take identity-conscious casting into consideration.

What’s been the most valuable part of the Arizona State University dramatic writing program so far? How did you grow in the program?

Dave Osmundsen: As a writer, what I loved about Arizona State’s program is that you weren’t expected to be any one kind of writer. If you wanted to write a TV pilot, or a one-act, or a screenplay, or a TYA play, you were able to do that, and get feedback from people who actually had experience writing those types of scripts. I definitely feel more confident in the kinds of plays I can write, and more emboldened to experiment with form and genre. I also think I found my “mission” as a playwright in the program. Before ASU, I just wrote about whatever disturbed me and hope that it disturbed others, too. Now, I am less interested in disturbing people and more interested in enlightening and entertaining them.

What else are you currently working on?

Dave Osmundsen: So currently, I’m working on a play based on the life of Michael John Carley, an autism awareness advocate who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the same time his four-year-old son was. A good chunk of the play will be based on his article “The Brat in Your Classroom,” but it will incorporate other pieces from his life, too. It’s basically going to be a memory play about fatherhood. I am working on the first draft of that as we speak!

Is there something else you’d like to share that I haven’t addressed?

Dave Osmundsen: Vaccines don’t cause autism. Get your COVID vaccine if you’re able to.