Jessica Cavanagh

Work in Progress: Self Injurious Behavior

In Shelby-Allison Hibbs' latest column about new work, Jessica Cavanagh discusses her play about a mother of a child on the autism spectrum, which has free readings this week.

published Thursday, September 15, 2016



DallasJessica Cavanagh is not only an acclaimed actress in Dallas, she has been quietly developing a new play inspired by her own experiences as a mother and a woman encountering the middle stages of life. This new play, Self Injurious Behavior, examines the perspective of a parent whose child is on the autism spectrum. This work of fiction has been therapeutic for Cavanagh, as she has been able to develop some perspective on her own circumstance.

Cavanagh has a teenage son with autism, who lives in a group home out of necessity. For several years, Cavanagh lived as a pseudo-single parent (as her then-husband traveled extensively for work). Her child demonstrated what Cavanagh calls the “worst of what you associate with the autism spectrum.” While his behaviors became increasingly violent as he grew out of childhood, Cavanagh found it ever more impossible to keep him safe. She says, “Like it really got to the point of if we don’t do something, he’s going to die, and it’s going to be my fault.”

Fast forward some time, and her ex moved to Louisiana with his new wife, and they took the son with them because two parents were a part of that household. Unlike Texas, where many families with children on the spectrum simply cannot afford the therapy they need (at $75 an hour, who really can?), Louisiana offers assistance through Medicaid—including a group home program with round-the-clock supervision and care. Cavanagh was hesitant about this decision at first, but she eventually realized that is was the best decision for her child.

Photo: Jeffrey Schmidt
Jessica Cavanagh

After that, Cavanagh says that she hit a major low point—as if she had failed or could not forgive herself for this decision. She started working through it simply by writing out her story, starting with the worst day should could remember. Eventually, it transformed into a complete play, with names and circumstances altered to make it a work of fiction. Cavanagh decided that the story she wanted to tell really begins at that breaking point: where she had to make a choice to change her son’s life, and her own.

Unlike other works on the subject of autism, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this play does not focus entirely on the inner turmoil of the person with autism. Instead, Cavanagh focuses on the mother of the child, as she must reconcile with her past (pregnancy, finding out the autism diagnosis, and divorce). Summer, the mother, endures a tremendous ordeal as she finds a way to move forward into unknown territory.

Most of the play happens after Summer puts her child in a group home, where she spends time with her sisters to offer a brief escape from her situation. But the past has a way of creeping up on you in unexpected ways. A song, a picture, a sound can bring the past rushing back. Cavanagh says that happens frequently through the play, as a device to examine “How did I get here?”

Cavanagh also wanted to write a play for women her age, with juicy and complex characters who are more than wives and mothers. She notes how much more interesting this time is in a woman’s life, much more so than when she was in her 20s. Cavanagh notes, “This is the real stuff, this is when you’re facing your mortality. I turned 40 and it really changed me. I thought wow, I am legit halfway through.”

She also notices the connections between her own play and Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother, in which she currently stars at Echo Theatre. Both of these plays highlight the complexities and connection between mother and child, the good and the devastating.

Self Injurious Behavior has been given private readings at Stage West and WaterTower Theatre, and will have free public readings this week at Theatre Too!, the basement space in Theatre Three. Readings are 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18 and 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19. Cavanagh plays Summer in her own work, though she is adamant that should not inhibit any criticism concerning the script. She is eager to hear responses on this play and hopes to bring it to production in 2017.

The reading is directed by Marianne Galloway, produced by Lauren Embrey and Haley Esposito, and along with Cavanagh features Danielle Pickard Cope, Ian Ferguson, Jennifer Kuenzer, Kelsey Milbourn, Mandy Rausch, Aaron Roberts, Tyler Ross, Sherry Jo Ward and Thomas Ward.


» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.

Please give us feedback and suggestions! You can contact Shelby-Allison Hibbs at or TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry at



  1. Pocket Sandwich Theatre presents Scott Eckert's Death the Musical II: Death Takes a Harmony, Aug. 26-Sept. 24 OUR LISTING



  1. Uptown Players presents the fifth Pride Performing Arts Festival, which features several new plays on LGBT themes, at various locations on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus, Sept. 16-24 OUR LISTING
  2. The Bishop Arts Theatre Center presents the third annual PlayPride LGBT Festival, with six new locally written plays on LGBT themes, Sept. 16-25 OUR LISTING
  3. The Dallas Theater Center and New York's Playwrights Horizons presents Kirsten Childs' musical Bella: An American Tall Tale at the Wyly Theatre, Dallas, Sept. 22-Oct. 22 OUR LISTING
  4. Kitchen Dog Theater presents A Stain Upon the Silence: Beckett's Bequest, featuring works by or inspired by Samuel Beckett, including the premiere of a KDT-commissioned work by Abe Koogler, Oct. 7-29 at the Trinity River Arts Center OUR LISTING
  5. PrismCo debuts its latest movement theater work, Midas, at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center, Oct. 8-23 OUR LISTING
  6. The Drama Club presents The Incident, a one-man work written and performed by Terry Vandivort, running in repertory with Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time, four new adapations of fairytales, at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus, Oct. 10-29 OUR LISTING
  7. Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth premieres Kathleen Culebro's Smart Pretty Funny, Oct. 20-Nov. 13 OUR LISTING
  8. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents Patrick Emile and Olivia de Guzman Emile's musical As We Lie Still, which had a workshop performance at the New York Musical Theatre Festival OUR LISTING
  9. The Ochre House in Dallas presents Kevin Grammer's Dreaming Electric, about Nikola Tesla, Oct. 28-Nov. 19 OUR LISTING
  10. Theatre Three presents Bruce R. Coleman's Day Light, Nov. 17-Dec. 11 OUR LISTING



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Work in Progress: Self Injurious Behavior
In Shelby-Allison Hibbs' latest column about new work, Jessica Cavanagh discusses her play about a mother of a child on the autism spectrum, which has free readings this week.
by Shelby-Allison Hibbs

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