Growing up, Grace Gasper sometimes felt like everybody else was playing a game for which she didn’t have the rules.
Then, one day in third grade when she was helping the school librarian reshelve books at lunch, she spied an old, pretty book on the top shelf: A Little Princess. Gasper fell in love with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 book about Sara, an exceedingly kind girl who becomes penniless when her father dies.
“I think there's something really timeless and timely about the story,” said Gasper ’23, a theology and film, television, and theatre major. “I saw a lot of myself in Sara, but I also saw what I wanted to be. There is this boundless kindness about her.”
Over the years, that novel continued to be a source of comfort and encouragement for Gasper, who re-read it again and again. And in high school, when she was diagnosed with a learning disability, she began a journey that included figuring out why it seemed she didn’t have access to the rules of the game.
“Neurodivergence means that someone else's brain functions differently than yours does, and there are a lot of ways that someone can be neurodivergent,” she said. “And the chance that you know somebody who is neurodivergent is almost 100 percent.”
At Notre Dame, when the time came to do a senior thesis project, Gasper was eager to write a stage adaptation of her favorite book that re-examined Sara through a neurodivergent lens. She drew inspiration for the play from her own childhood experiences.
“My hope in creating this piece was to show Sara’s differences not as obstacles to overcome, but as beautiful, integral parts of who she is,” she said.
“My hope in creating this piece was to show Sara’s differences not as obstacles to overcome, but as beautiful, integral parts of who she is.”
‘I found that I had a lot to say’
In A Little Princess, Sara’s difficulties with social cues allow her to ignore constructed social hierarchies that can prevent friendships from forming.
“Her neurodivergence gives her more of an ease with being kind beyond and through social boundaries to be friends with people who are of a lower social standing than her,” Gasper said. “As a role model, she doesn't seem to care about the consequences of it. This has always been something that has struck me deeply.”
For her play, Gasper also elected to change the book’s happily-ever-after ending to a more nuanced outcome that gives space for youth to experience both grief and joy.
The start of her senior project began with an assignment in a children's theatre course her sophomore year at Notre Dame: Write a scene based on any children’s literature that she liked.
She didn’t have any difficulty choosing the book — and she felt compelled to write more than one scene. When she turned that in, her professor, Carys Kresny, posited: What if you just kept writing?
So Gasper did.
“She gave me a lot of good encouragement and feedback. I found that I had a lot to say about this in a way that I wasn't expecting,” said Gasper, who in March held a staged reading of the play with members of the Not-So-Royal Shakespeare Company.
Choosing kindness and love
Gasper has been a theater kid since age 5, when her parents enrolled her in The Sound of Music at a local recreation center in her hometown of Los Angeles.
Catholicism also is a foundational piece of her identity, and her father is a Domer, so Notre Dame has been a constant presence throughout her life. During a campus visit on a football weekend her sophomore year of high school, she knew it was where she wanted to be, too.
“Every time I walk by the Dome,” she said, “I take a moment and look and go, ‘Wow, I’m here.’”
She credits her experiences as a theology major with teaching her to both speak and listen respectfully and kindly. And her experiences in FTT have demonstrated that theatre can be an inclusive place that tells interesting stories that haven't necessarily been told before.
After Commencement, Gasper will work in Chicago as a live-in assistant at L’Arche, a community in which people with intellectual disabilities and people without intellectual disabilities live together. After that, she said, a Master of Divinity or graduate degree in another field are likely possibilities.
Wherever she goes, Gasper will have the copy of A Little Princess that reassured her so many times as a child — when her elementary school library was remodeled, she got to keep the book.
She also has an important takeaway from her adapted play.
“We all have the power to disrupt the status quo in favor of kindness and love,” she said, “and every day, we can choose to do so.”
“We all have the power to disrupt the status quo in favor of kindness and love — and every day, we can choose to do so.”