Representation, Humor and the Solo Performance: Emma O’Neill-Dietel on ‘What?’

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Chichi Tsai ‘22

Assistant Features Editor

A few weeks ago, in Acting Studio 2 of the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts, a one-night performance was staged for a small but attentive audience. Emma O’Neill-Dietel ’21 describes her show “What?” as a solo, memoir-based performance about her experience growing up with hearing loss. This week, I sat down with O’Neill-Dietel to talk about representation of people with disability in film and literature, what inspired her to write “What” and the challenges and rewards of performing a one-person show.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Sophian: When did you first start writing this show?

Emma O’Neill-Dietel: I first started writing this show about two years ago as part of my senior project in high school. We got two weeks off from school to do an internship, but I chose to write and produce and perform “What?” [instead]. I was inspired to write about [my experiences with hearing loss] specifically because I was at a point in my life where I was discovering a lot of deaf culture and literature and art and theatre done by people who were deaf and hard of hearing. I was especially inspired by Deaf West’s revival of the musical “Spring Awakening.” That really gave me access to this world of deaf performers and actors, and I thought I should also put my story on stage.

TS: You’ve performed “What?” twice before, both in your senior year of high school. But you called that your “first iteration” of the show and [said] that your Smith performance is your first debut of this “second iteration.” What are some changes you have implemented since the first draft of the show? Were there any changes that you made specifically for Smith audiences?

EO: I definitely wanted to age it up. It’s been two years — I have grown. I took out a couple of scenes that were [more focused] on my younger self and put in things that were more recent. In the first draft there was never any part where I talked to the audience or broke the fourth wall; it was just very much like a straight play. But being at Smith, at this academic environment, gave me the liberty to stand in front of people and basically lecture (in an entertaining way) because I have something to say. Being in college has allowed me to take up that space and feel like I know academic things and I can say them to you and it doesn’t have to sound like a thesis paper.

TS: I remember you first telling me that you were writing something that you later told me was a solo performance. In my mind I was immediately like, “Oh God!” because for me, standing up on stage as part of even a larger cast is nerve-wracking, but to do a one-person show where you’re the only person who’s in charge of the narrative pace and all the attention is focused on you is even scarier. What made you decide on this particular format for “What?”? What are some advantages and disadvantages to being a one-person show?

EO: I didn’t originally know it was going to be a memoir piece, I just knew it was going to be about hearing or lack thereof. I [thought it would] be a narrative with multiple people [with me] at the center, but as I kept working on it, I realized that this [is] my story … to tell and [that] I’m the only person who can tell it. I wasn’t really intimidated by the one person thing. I get very intimidated in acting situations where I have to depend on someone else, and I worry about [one of us messing up and putting each other] in a bad situation. That stresses me out more than anything, so I would way rather do the whole thing myself. And [the one-person format] made it a really organic process. The words on the page aren’t always the words that come out of my mouth, and it doesn’t matter. It can be a little more improvised and relaxed because I don’t have be faithful to somebody else’s words and I also don’t have to align my performance up with someone else’s. It actually makes it easier, in my opinion.

TS: One very interesting aspect of “What?” is that you have a 30-minute talkback section after the show. What prompted you decide to make this a part of your show?

EO: I love talkbacks. It was very much part of the mission of the playwriting program I was doing at the time … [since] a talkback is a time to hear people’s reactions and understand how they’ve interpreted [your words]. Is that the same or different from how you intended it to be interpreted? So I’ve always wanted the talkback to be a part of the show. Also, because it is a very educational show, I want people to be able to unpack what they’ve just heard. Obviously I’m not going to get into deaf culture and history and the nitty-gritty of “Medically, what is my deal?” Those aren’t things I get into in the show, but this is a rare instance where I am here with all of my knowledge on these questions that people might have. Because people don’t want to talk about disability, … I want to give people that forum to ask me the questions that they maybe have always wanted to ask me but were scared to.

TS: You spoke in talkback about the importance of representation in literature and pop culture for people with hearing disabilities. What are some books or media you’d like to recommend that talk about people with hearing disabilities?

EO: There’s this graphic novel (written for children but fun for all ages) called “El Deafo” by Cece Bell. She’s hard of hearing herself and so funny. One of my favourite books ever, which is actually in the curriculum of a disability studies class here, is “Mean Little Deaf Queer: A Memoir” by Terry Galloway. I found out about this book while I was on my overnight [stay at Smith as a high school senior]. It was April, so I was in the middle of writing “What?” and looking for anything to anchor myself to. I was like, “Oh my god, nobody has done anything like this, and it’s so scary and I don’t have any role models!” I was sitting in my host’s dorm room and looking at their bookshelf because I wanted to know “What does a Smithie read?” and I saw the book “Mean Little Deaf Queer,” and I was like — did somebody write a book about me? I looked it up when I got home, and I’ve since read it many times, and I’m obsessed with it. There’s some literature that I’ve read that’s about deaf people written by hearing people, which is fine, I guess. Most of it is not directly offensive, it’s just, like, I’d rather you not. There’s a, I guess you could call it a slogan, within the disabled community: Nothing about us without us. If you don’t have deaf people involved in the writing and creation and production and acting, then get out of here! What else do I have to recommend? The fact that I don’t have many recommendations speaks to the lack of.

TS: If you were to write a wishlist for what you want to see in pop culture representations of the deaf community, what would be on that list?

EO: Nothing about us without us. That’s my number one wishlist item. If you’re going to have a deaf character on a TV show, have a deaf writer on your writing staff and have an actual deaf actor play that character. Realistic stories that don’t center around the disability but also don’t ignore it — I love that. Things that aren’t realistic fiction. While there’s never enough realistic fiction written about people with disabilities, I think the two most common genres that you find stories of people who are deaf or people with disabilities are realistic fiction and memoir. Where are my space captains who wear hearing aids? Where are my historical romances with ASL? Somebody, write something more than just a straight, white, young girl in present day America! Give me more depth! I like to see people with hearing aids on book covers. When you see deaf people on TV, they’re usually ASL users — which is great, we need more of that as well — but nobody wears hearing aids on TV. A lot of old people in real life have hearing aids, but grandparents on TV shows don’t wear [them]! Come on, be a little more realistic, pals! I would love to just see more people wearing hearing aids. The one movie where a character wears a hearing aid (the actor does not but it’s fine because I love this movie) is Spy Kids 4. I saw it when I was a little kid, and I was so excited. So I hold no malice against them for not hiring a deaf actor, it’s just great to see hearing aids on screen at all. Even if it wasn’t technically correct, I don’t care —  it was just cool.

TS: At that age you were just very happy to see that and to just be like, “I could be a spy!”

EO: Exactly!

TS: You’re very funny both in the show and out of it, and after the show on Wednesday a lot of people recommended that you take up a stand-up comedy career or get a Netflix special. I was one of them. Was humor intended to be a part of this show from the very beginning?

EO: It’s so important for me that the show is funny because I tell a lot of jokes about being deaf and people [can be] weird about it. I think if there’s two sides of a coin, on one hand disability is something to be [made fun of] in a mean way, at people’s expense. But on the other hand, people are like, “Don’t talk about disability, don’t make jokes about those children.” So I think when I make jokes about it, people are a little put off, like, “How am I supposed to react to this?” I wanted people to be able to laugh with me. And humor makes acting in front of an audience so much easier, when you can immediately tell that you’re reaching them. You don’t have to wait for them to clap at the end to tell that they’ve been listening. The minute you drop the first line and they laugh, you know you’ve got ’em. So I always wanted humor to be a part of the show from the beginning.

TS: What do you think humor adds to the message of “What” that a more serious, dramatic approach might otherwise not have?

EO: One thing that really annoys me about how disability and deafness are often presented in literature and media is that it’s a sad story and it’s so serious. Like, “Oh my god, you’ve overcome so much in your young life,” and it’s all doom and gloom. But for me, my life has always been funny. I’m the biggest fan of self-deprecating humor, whether that’s my personality or my style or my hearing. I can make fun of myself over anything. And I think that’s a better way to tell a story because you can pull on people’s heartstrings all you want but that’s not interesting. It’s not fun. It feels not good to do it. My least favorite thing is when people tell me the show made them cry. And I’m aware that it does get a little emotional at the end, and obviously my family is going to cry because they know me. But the idea that I would have that intense of an impact on people makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to make people cry. I want to make people laugh, and I want to make people think. That’s more aligned with the message of my show — I don’t want people to feel bad.

TS: What is the message of your show?

EO: … One thing that’s shifted since the last iteration was this emphasis on representation. This sort of full-circle nature. It’s about coming to see myself [by] how others see me versus how I see [myself] — [seeing myself] as I grow up, recognizing that difference — and [being] able to turn that into art. I think that would be the main message.

TS: Finally, what are you hoping to do with “What?” in the future?

EO: I have never performed it for an audience of people who are deaf or hard of hearing. There was one person in my first two audiences who was twelve or thirteen [years old, and] she went to the same preschool as I did, for kids with hearing loss. She came up to me afterwards and was like, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen!” And so, I thought I need to [do] this for her, for kids who are like how I was at that age. I would love, love, love to be able to reach that audience. First of all to reach kids who are deaf or hard of hearing but also to reach adults in the broader deaf community and have difficult conversations because there’s a lot of more complicated things that people are thinking about in the deaf community that I don’t touch on at all in my show. I alluded to them in my head, but I don’t think it came across to other people, so I would really like to have those hard conversations with people in the deaf community. My show is certainly not universal. It’s universally human that in that everyone can relate to it, but it’s not a universal experience of a person who’s deaf or hard of hearing. So that’s the next place I want to take this — to my people. I don’t know when or how that’s going to happen, but I’m going to see where it gets me.