Directing Digitally: Light Switch

by Dave Osmundsen | Directed by Kristina Friedgen | Produced by Arizona State University, February 2021

Performance Sample

An abridge cut of the first scene of Light Switch. In this scene, a 10-year-old Henry has been playing “Wuthering Heights” on the playground with his best friend, Aaron. In the game Henry as Cathy tries to kiss Aaron as Heathcliff, prompting a turning point in their friendship.

Director’s Note

For an autistic person, navigating a predominantly neurotypical world structure can be a daunting experience.  Social norms that neurotypicals take for granted often befuddle those on the autism spectrum.  In Light Switch, protagonist Henry Sullivan has adapted by pursuing his passion for 19th-Century British Literature above all else. The worlds of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Charles Dickens demonstrate a society steeped in rigid social rules.  Social protocols made it easy to read others’ intentions and subtextual meanings because of the clearly defined symbolic language to which society adhered.  Such overt symbols rarely appear in everyday communications between people today.  

In order to navigate through his world, Henry adopts a romanticized version of Regency decorum.  He sets a standard for those who develop attachments to him, refusing to associate with “imbeciles.”  While this coping mechanism accounts for Henry’s limited group of friends, it also produces true attachments, Roggie (his best friend and roommate) and Marian (his mother) being prime examples. 

Not only does Henry comport himself in the manner of a 19th century Brit, he has also defined his love map by the structure of a 19th-century heroine.  Idolizing stories like Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility shape Henry’s understanding of a healthy relationship.  While this means that love can overcome social obstacles, it also epitomizes unhealthy advances, such as “negging” and obsessive declarations of unrequited love.  As much as Henry’s passion for 19th century British literature enlivens him, it also traps him, not unlike the ways in which women during the Regency were trapped by the fact of their status and marital status.  However, unlike the heroines he admires, Henry can overcome the circumstances of his entrapment.      

Light Switch is on its surface a queer and neurodiverse story.  Through these specific lenses, however, it taps into distinctly human experiences – passion, rejection, self-preservation – that are arguably universal.  While it can be useful to build boundaries between ourselves and others, we can only find a truly deep connection with another when we open those boundaries up to a multitude of experiences.  As Henry ultimately learns, there is more than one way to love something, more than one way to experience something – a lesson that is perhaps the epitome of a queer, neurodiverse lens.

Director’s Concept

Reflection of Experience

As my first experience working with a playwright on a play in development, Light Switch enabled me to grow my practice of collaboration in a traditional theatre environment. Working closely with the playwright, Dave Osmundsen, who has Aspergers, I wanted to develop a visual language through the design and performance that contrasted Henry’s neurodiverse experience with the neurotypical characters around him. The design team and I collaborated on an aesthetic that would zoom in on specific aspects of each scene that were significant in Henry’s story. These textural moments in addition to the sound design highlighted sensations specific to Henry’s experience of autism (see images below).

While originally this production was slated for a live performance, due to COVID we quickly pivoted and adapted to a fully filmed digital production. Rehearsing initially on Zoom, the actors and I utilized Tectonic Theatre Project’s process of Moment Work to flesh out the design ideas more thoroughly. Cultivating a collaborative community of artistic input helped me to successfully navigate this particular digital performance and adapt a text originally intended for the stage into a theatricalized film. Because I’m not a queer neurodiverse person, having those identities represented in the production team enhanced our shared vision for Light Switch, and based on audience feedback during the talkbacks, the humanity of the piece came through clearly in the final performance. In fact, several talkback participants identified themselves as parents of children on the spectrum and shared how the piece spoke deeply to their experience and helped them to better understand their own children a little deeper.