Playwright Sonya Kelly: “Despair is your friend. If you’re not worried, how do you know what you’re aiming for?
“It’s not my first premiere,” playwright Sonya Kelly jokes about her comedy The Last Return. “It’s my second.” She has just returned from Edinburgh, where her play, directed by Druid, won a Fringe First Award. As did a previous piece, The Wheelchair on My Face, in 2012.
Does that mean she fell for Edinburgh? “You could spend your life trying to figure out how Edinburgh works. This is The hunger Games for the arts. When it’s not going well, it’s not going well on a huge platform…”
And when things are going well, it’s also a huge platform.
“I couldn’t believe them when they rang to say you won,” she said. “They came to see the show the first week, then our lead actress had Covid, and we had to cancel four shows. I assumed we were completely out of the race.
“The show touched people. It’s all about queuing and I think that has a particularly triggering effect on Brits. Everyone starts with a mask [psychological, not PPE] and slowly, as they become more stressed, the mask begins to fall. Usually in a good drama, who you see at the beginning is not who he is at the end.
Speaking of the “end”, one of the things that fascinates me about theater is that it is so rarely “the end”, for the writer anyway, since the rewriting continues until the first night.
“Audience experience is an important part of the show’s development,” Kelly says. “I’ll do about 15 drafts of a piece before it goes to rehearsal – then more revisions. When the show is previewed, you still have to be very careful and listen to an audience. You can feel it when it’s gone.
“You have to be humble. You have to put your pride in your pocket. It is, she adds, “A sprint at the end of a marathon.
“I think that’s why acting is a calling – you’d be mad to really want to put yourself through it. Granted, my journey as an artist is about accepting flaws, and that perfectionism isn’t necessarily your friend. You have to get through the mess.
“Despair is your friend. If you’re not worried, how do you know what you’re aiming for? For me, it has always been about recognizing the mountain. I never considered myself a particularly intelligent person or an academic person. For me it’s about seeing the mountain and saying ‘go ahead, get up there, you can do it’.
Didn’t she really consider herself intelligent? “No. And I think I fell into this trap of ‘only really smart people are writers’. For me, it started with acting. I studied acting at Trinity and became actor.
“I said I wanted to be an actor, and they were like ‘oh, it’s a very risky career’. I think when I came to Trinity it gave him a kind of bargaining chip. As for my family who were worried about my future, they could at least say, ‘she walked into Trinity’.
After graduating, Kelly wrote to the Gate Theater “because I heard they were doing general auditions. They started giving me work and my very first professional job was to play a maid, in a play called The heiress. Then I played another maid, then another maid. Then I realized that if I didn’t stretch in another way, the next 20 years were going to be ‘tea, ma’am?’ she said with a smile.
She had, she said, “always doodled things – poetry, comedy. So I started doing stand-up, internationally [the International Bar’s comedy club on Dublin’s Wicklow Street] and places like that.
Was it scary? “Terrifying. Drama is nerves, comedy is fear. I didn’t tell anyone for a year. I just used to sneak in and do it, thinking that if I was going to experience social death, I wanted to do it alone.
Gradually, she developed into “a medium that was somewhere between theater and comedy. I started doing self-acting autobiographical dramas about things that had happened to me.
The first of them, The wheelchair on my face, was “all about those giant glasses I had as a kid. They were an inch and a half thick. It was the course where I wore these glasses when I was seven years old, and the way I intercepted them on my first communion – the day when little girls are supposed to look a certain way.
Did that seem revealing to you? “Extremely. But writing changes you, because you realize you can’t hide. You have to say it, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Putting yourself through this process helps you make sense of it. I truly believe that writing has helped me make sense of the world and myself, and helped me feel more comfortable in it.
“I struggled to write this play because I wanted to talk about Ireland. The play is about getting out of a theocratic vice, almost a kind of sharia. I did this all the way on this trip as a kid, but it was about Ireland in the 1980s and the control the state had over parents and parents had over children.
This first play, in addition to winning a Fringe First, was widely performed, touring to over 50 theaters. His second, How to keep an alienwas also autobiographical.
“It’s about getting an Irish visa for my current wife, she’s Australian. About building a file on us – receipts, photographs, different haircuts, the day’s newspaper, asking friends to write testimonial letters. It’s about showing that it’s a relationship that exists, that has a history. It is also a comment on immigration.
Then, “the whole thing about Waking the Feminists happened. In 2016 there was a big crisis in Irish theater about gender balance and balance in general, and I thought, ‘I can either add my voice to the complaint or try to add my voice to the solution”. I need to stop writing these plays that I’m in, and I need to write dramas with actors and characters, and tell stories that are different from the type of stories that are traditionally told. So I started looking into dramatic, dialogue-driven stories.
She wrote Furniture – “three different situations, about how tables and chairs affect relationships – what they do!” — and submitted it as part of the Druid Theater’s open call for entries.
“They picked him out of a bucket. It was huge for me. It changed the game. Until then, I had played in everything, and I was not in it. Seeing other people take a line and send it the way it was meant to be. I said to myself: ‘OK, this is what I want to do’. So I continued with Druid for my last three productions. The last return is my third in five years.
Furniture also led her to work in television. “My agent sent this to a TV production company and Simon Blackwell [writer and producer best known for The Thick of It and Veep] read it and it put me on season four of Breeders [Sky parenting comedy with Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard] which is amazing. It was fantastic. It is in the writing phase at the moment. So I went back and forth to London, sitting in the writers room.
How did this more collaborative process go? “It’s different. You serve their vision, helping them get their ball over the line. It took me about two days sitting in the room terrified and thinking, ‘I’m here with Simon Blackwell and Chris Addison; whatever comes out must be Veep-esque…’ But it was wonderful. They are the cutest people.
Did she experience that feeling of impostor syndrome that can plague us all? “Yes and no. Ireland is so small – you ask two questions and you’re cousins - this is the first time I haven’t walked into a room and found ‘I know your cousin’. only thing that brought me to this room was the script [of Furniture]. There was no connective tissue. And that made me say, ‘OK, you’re not overwhelmed. You are here because of something you wrote that is what they need.
We tried for a baby for a long time. So I keep looking at her, saying, there you are!
And then, just over a year ago, in mid-Covid, Sonya and his wife Kate Ferris, who also works in theatre, albeit on the executive side, had their first child, daughter Juno. How was parenting in a pandemic?
“We lived in a little cottage when she was born, so it was intense. But you know that first month or two when you’re just trying to figure out how to do it? In a way, it was good that we weren’t doing it. not a million cups of tea a day for people.
“Kate and I had been trying for a baby for a very long time: five years of IVF. So I keep looking at her and say, ‘You’re there! You’re not supposed to be here, and you are! With IVF, often the more determined you are, the more money you spend on it, the less chance you have.
“And then they show up, and you think, ‘You were always meant to be that baby. I wouldn’t take a minute out of those five years for you to be any other baby, born four years ago. It was always you.'”
It is, she says, “fantastic, intense and wonderful”. And, of course, demanding. “Since she was born, I haven’t started a new play. I worked in television, and I think that’s a really good place to be for a while. For now, I just lean into her joy and scrape the baby food off my top…”
“I think writing with the experience of being a parent is going to be a lot more… I’m really excited to see what comes out of me next. Everything will be different. »
And then she adds, almost amazed: “It’s only about me. Thank you Christ. It’s amazing to have someone come and smash your things and you realize I never needed them anyway!
‘The Last Return’, by Sonya Kelly, will be at the Gate Theater as part of the Dublin Theater Festival, from October 13 to November 5