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ASU playwright uplifts neurodiverse voices

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Dave Osmundsen.

Dave Osmundsen graduates this spring with an MFA in dramatic writing, and he is already making a name for himself in the theater world. 

He is one of two recipients for Ucross and the Blank Theatre's inaugural Future of Playwriting Prize

His work has been seen and developed around the country, including at the Kennedy Center, KCACTF Region 8, B Street Theatre, the William Inge Theatre Festival, the Midwest Dramatists Conference and Phoenix Theatre Company.  

One of his latest plays, “Light Switch,” which premiered virtually at ASU, was the 2021 Distinguished Achievement recipient of the Jean Kennedy Smith Playwriting Award, a semifinalist for the 2020 National Playwrights Conference, a finalist for the Carlo Annoni Playwriting Prize and longlisted for the Theatre503 International Playwriting Award. 

Osmundsen said he hopes to use his success in theater activism and advocacy, especially for neurodiverse people like himself. 

“In addition to telling neurodivergent stories from a neurodivergent perspective, my mission as a playwright is to uplift other neurodivergent voices that may have been shut out by the mainstream narrative of how neurotypical families cope with autism," Osmundsen said.

“Light Switch” shines a light on queer and autistic represenation and features an autistic actor in the lead role. 

Last summer, Osmundsen worked with Thatz Showbiz, a Canadian theater program for disabled youth, where he mentored an autistic teenager in writing an original 15-minute musical. Currently, he is serving as the playwright coordinator for Spectrum Theatre Ensemble's Neurodivergent Play Initiative in addition to being their resident playwright. In this role, he will be working with the company to select scripts by neurodivergent playwrights for presentation in its Neurodiverse New Play Festival this summer. 

“I want to show, both through my work and from advocating for other neurodivergent playwrights, that autistic people have many stories to tell, and that they can tell these on their own,” he said. 

Osmundsen, who said he knew he wanted to study theater since he was 9 years old, was raised in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, a small suburb 45 minutes outside of New York City. He attended Pequannack Township High School and majored in theater studies while minoring in creative writing at Montclair State University. 

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Osmundsen then moved on to work toward his master’s degree at ASU.  

As a student in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, he received a number of honors, including a Special Talent Award and the Katherine K. Herberger Scholarship. He also received a University Graduate Fellowship for the 2020–2021 academic year. 

“I was never entirely sure if my work was making any kind of impact at ASU,” he said. “Receiving these scholarships not only provided much-needed financial assistance, but gave me the encouragement I needed to proceed with my graduate education.”

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: Sometimes people will read my writing and come to a plot point where they’ll say, “I didn’t buy that! That wasn’t realistic!” One professor of mine, Pam Sterling, put it beautifully: “When people don’t believe a plot point, it's often not the plot point itself – it’s what happens before and after.” Basically, did I, as the writer, do enough to set up the character/storyline for that plot point?

Also, while it’s OK to have ambiguity, there are points where the audience will need just a bit more guidance. It’s a tightrope to balance, and I’m still figuring it out.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I feel like ASU kind of chose me. I had a play workshopped at the Phoenix Theatre’s New Play Festival back in 2017, and I knew ASU had a dramatic writing program. So, I invited the head of the department, Guillermo Reyes, to attend. We met for coffee, didn’t hate each other, and he came to see the play. A few months later, he emailed me encouraging me to apply for the program, so I did and was accepted. Nothing else was really happening for me back East, so I figured, why not venture out West to get my MFA?

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Karen Jean Martinson. She taught me that dramaturgy, and theater as a whole, could be its own form of activism and advocacy.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Communication, communication, communication. If you don’t think you’ll be able to follow through on something in a timely manner, communicate with any collaborators or professors you may have as soon as possible. More often than not, they will be very understanding as long as you communicate what’s going on to them. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Before the pandemic, I didn’t have just one favorite spot on campus. The Hayden Library was a good spot for when I needed a quiet place to read or study. The Danforth Chapel was a great place for me to reflect on life and sometimes read or study. I also spent a lot of time in the graduate offices in the Lyceum Theatre, where I could get work done and catch up with my colleagues. So there really wasn’t one spot on campus I can claim as my favorite. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: In May, I plan to participate in Theater Masters Take Ten, which will culminate in my 10-minute play “(Un)Scripted”  being published by Samuel French/Concord Theatricals. This summer, I will also serve as the playwright coordinator for Spectrum Theatre Ensemble’s Neurodiverse New Play Festival. My play “Light Switch”, which received a virtual production here at ASU, will receive a staged workshop as a part of the festival with plans for a fully realized production with STE next year. I will also be putting final touches on the published edition of “Light Switch”, which will be published by Broadway Play Publishing at a date to be announced!

There’s also another development that I can’t announce. But I’m really excited about it!

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: With everything going on in the world, this seems so superficial. But I would put that money towards better arts funding. My hope is that it would solve the multiple inequities that are prevalent in the arts today, such as lack of diverse plays being produced, lack of resources for arts organizations, lack of diverse theater staff, a fading subscription model, lack of accessibility, expensive tickets. I could go on here.  

Additionally, the arts are a massive economic driving force for surrounding stores and restaurants. If the arts can get economic help, other industries, like the service industry, will likely get a boost, too. My hope is that the arts will be seen as a viable economic force in America, and that America as a whole will see artists as indispensable.

dnmunoz1@asu.edu