Sonya Kelly – Interview

Sonya Kelly is an Irish actress and comedienne who’s worked in theatres in Ireland, the UK, the US and beyond. She is midway through promoting her latest show ‘How To Keep an Alien’, an autobiographical story of how she tries to get a Visa for her partner Kate. She has also appeared on television in ‘The Savage Eye’ .


So I’ll talk to you about How to keep an alien, you’ve done previous plays, so what did those plays give you for this; what did they contribute when making this play?

I suppose it’s in a similar vein, How To Keep An Alien to wheelchair on my face, it’s an autobiographical narrative. A dramatised version of real events that happened in my life. Highly influenced by radio documentary, story telling, story tellers,The Moth, Spalding Gray, Tig Notaro, All those kind of people who fuse live performance, theatre narrative and stand up.

Wheelchair on my face was much more of a low-fi version. It was a story aboutgetting my first pair of glasses, there was only about 7 sound cues in it. It was just me and some pop-up eye charts on stage, talking on my own about what it was like growing up in the ’80s needing glasses and not having them.

This one, how to keep an alien is produced by rough magic theatre company . It’s got a proper set, it’s got lighting design, I think it’s got about seventy sound cues, so it’s just a more zhushed up version.Except this story is about trying to get an Irish visa for my Australian partner Kate, to live in the country.

It involves having the stage manager, who would normally be backstage, he is on-stage. He’s operating the show and playing certain roles and playing all the sound cues and sort of ‘unpacking’ what somebody backstage would normally do. Backstage, but in front of the audience. Kind of like a de-constructed sandwich I guess.

Did you find it easier to get people on board after your success the last time?

I think so, I think the planets aligned. I got a little bit of money from the Arts Council to develop it on my own, and I did a draft. I didn’t have a producer but I was contacted by Colin Murphy, the Journalist and Playwright who wrote The Guarantee. He asked me to perform new material at his arts base The Joinery.I had written How To Keep an Alien as a 1 person show and I performed about a half an hours worth of text there but I asked Justin, the stage director there, to read in all the stage directions and that’s how he ended up being incorporated into the show.

Promo photo from ‘The Wheelchair on my Face’

But in the audience that night was Rough Magic Theatre Company, The Dublin Fringe, and that’s how the whole thing got started. Rough Magic offered to produce it based on what they heard, and the fringe wanted also to produce it and put it into project and take it to the Brisbane festival. It was one of those things where preparation meets opportunity I guess.

Normally when you’re performing a one person play, that’s gotta be intimidating on the first couple of nights, and you don’t know if the material’s just there, you’re road testing it – But you’ve been on the comedy circuit for a while – did that stand to you?

I had been, and they say the difference between theatre and comedy is theatre is nerves, and comedy is fear. There’s so many variables in stand-up where you’re doing a gig, and the person on before you, the person who’s headlining that they’re all waiting for, they don’t want to see you, they want to see them. Who’s in the audience, how drunk they are, there’s so many things.

So after two to three years of doing that circuit, and going back to theatre audiences who are so much more polite and compliant (and sober) I was able to take what I’d learned from one world and take it into another I guess. It’s funny, I’m not really on the comedy circuit any more, largely because I like to be in bed by 10 o’clock, and It’s just a lonelier world, you get on a train, you fly to Liverpool, you sit in an Ibis, you go to a club, you do 15 minutes of material, and then you go home again.

Theatre has a, with How to keep an Alien, there’s a lighting team, a production manager, there’s Justin who’s on stage with me, there’s just a greater sense of family I guess, which I kind of prefer. I definitely don’t think I would’ve been able to do this style of performance to theatre audiences without my experience in the stand up circuit.CGgnUOuUcAAZVy8

Again, the play that you’re promoting now is Autobiographical – did you find that hard at first to put on paper?

Yeah, you have parameters, you know? You’re talking about real people and real things that happen to real people and you have a responsibility to convey that with respect. There are certain people who don’t want to be involved in your life story that you have to weave a way around. Not including them but still making sense of the story.

But I think that having parameters is a great way to align you idea. Very often as well, because this is purely autobiographical, telling your own story is a way of reminding people of their own. And if it’s broad strokes, if it’s about love, or something like that, it resonates with people. Your story becomes their story too because they’ve felt those feelings and done those things. That’s one of the draws of the show, it has a sense of empathy.

Do you find this as a sort of therapy for you?

We spent a long time assembling. We spent two years assembling documentary evidence in paper and handing it into the department of immigration. I think the experience taught me a lot about Ireland and who’s trying to get in and why.

Sitting in the GNIB offices in Burgh quay and seeing all these people who are desperately trying to get into the country and it being politicised by my own immediate needs and learning about direct provision and lots of things I really didn’t know about Irish immigration policy before, kind of going through this process, and just how funny life is.

You meet someone, they’re on the other side of the world, and in order for that love to have any sense of real chance it has to go through a bureaucratised process. It’s just strange and ironic.

Strange how the red tape kind of trumps…people!

Yeah you’re right the red tape does trump people and you’d e surprised at the amount of people that come up to me after the show saying “I met someone a few years ago, we didn’t know each other well enough and then the visa ran out,” or they just didn’t get to the other side of it and there is a sense of instrumentability about it.

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Georges Street Mural

I suppose it is designed to really test whether people really want to go through with it or not. They don’t hand them out very easily and I think you need to be a dotter of i’s and crosser of t’s – which I’m not, but I learned to be in order to get the visa for Kate.

And you struck the Iron while it was hot here with the referendum, but was that on purpose or was that just coincidence?

No, that’s just time marching on. That’s just people getting with the program. And it’s funny, the story is about Kate, but strangely, I don’t even use the word ‘Gay’ in the play, It’s just about her, and us getting a visa for her.

And the referendum, it’s funny, because it’s actually an entire different issue, the right for gay people to actually marry. And it’s funny the amount of people saying, “oh, and the referendum was on,” and you say to them, “well it’s kind of actually a completely separate issue,” and they say “oh yeah! oh yeah, so it is yeah!”

Yeah, but when you’re touring around the country, you’ve toured every small town,

Well wheelchair on my face did, we went to 50 venues, on this show I think we’re only going to 30.

It’s still quite a lot though,

Its between now and December, and then we finish in December, in the Soho theatre in London for the whole month of December.

But what I was going to ask earlier, that when you’re going to all these peripheral areas like Letterkenny and places like that – do you think a play like this plays more on their minds when a play like this is on?

Yes, I think so, and we did Donegal there a few weeks ago and Donegal is a very special place now, in people’s hearts, because they opened up the ten boxes in the morning and they realised it was going to go through, and I think that’s quite an iconic position to hold, so when we took the show there…We did two venues, Dunfannaghy and Letterkenny.

In Letterkenny on the opening of the show you can really feel people looking at each other to check to see if it’s alright because people are almost afraid to have a laugh at anything to do with gay, or anything like that because in recent news theres such huge amounts of sensitivity, people go, “oh shit, we cant laugh at this, we’ll get in trouble”. Then after a while they start to unwind, you see people laughing, we had a gorgeous show in Donegal.

And then Dunfannaghy as well, somebody came up to me, somebody on the door and said, “oh you’ll have a great time here, they’re all protestants, they’re all very loose.”

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Sonya Kelly

And I was just like “good lord,” I didn’t realise there was a difference in how one town would receive it to another but there you go!

I think Ireland is ruled by perception that way..do you think if you had tried to do this play ten years ago would you have gotten as good a reaction?

I don’t think we’d be doing the play ten years ago because I think ten years ago the department of immigration didn’t acknowledge de facto relationships as gay relationships, it wouldn’t have happened at all, probably.

I think the more you advance, the faster you accelerate and Irish society has changed at a pace of, particularly this last four years, that it seems to be tumbling like a house of cards almost. I think it has a lot to do with everything else.

I remember I was at the Savita Hallapanavar march; it felt like it was about her, but it was about everything. It was about kicking against theocracy. Kicking against a perception of Ireland that people don’t want to be associated with any more, and i think equal rights, gay rights, immigrant rights are all part of that perception.
I think ten years ago Ireland was so different.

We are now a secular nation. There are certain powers that don’t have the right to govern your sexual identity, or sexual autonomy any more the way they used to. That’s happening so very fast.

And you’re playing Paris – are you looking forward to it?

Really looking forward to Paris, we took the wheelchair on my face there and had a great time. It’s going to the Irish cultural centre in Paris. It’s in the Latin quarter, its up there in one f the busman’s holidays stops on the tour. It’ll be really lovely, and i hope it’ll be well received there. It’ll be craic.

I think the last stop in Ireland is the Axis in Ballymun. We go from Paris to the Axis in Ballymun.

Jesus, from end to end!

Yeah, just in case we got any notions of ourselves, and then we go straight to the Soho theatre in London for the whole of December. It’s a funny show as well, so I think it’ll be a nice Christmas show for the Irish Diaspora.

And you’ve got quite a wide fan of areas you’re visiting – when you’re road testing, are there some places that the jokes just don’t apply?

They don’t land, like, there’s a reference to an immersion. In certain countries they don’t have them, they have them but they don’t call it those things. But it is one of those things that is just copper-fastened to the Irish psyche.

I always find that if you talk in terms of how much something costs in euro, and you’re not in the euro-zone, like we were in Edinburgh, you can see people trying to do the maths in their minds, very often I’ll just say that’s X amount of money in your language, you know? So everywhere I go you have to go through the script and say, “okay, are there any trip hazards?”

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Sonya (Second from left) in ‘the savage eye’

Sometimes it’s good to make them reach. Like when we were in america with The Wheelchair On My Face in 2013, I referenced trying to look at the stitches on my jumper and this woman came up to me after the show and said she wanted to know what happened about the suicides, and I said “what suicides” and she said “no, you were talking about a jumper?” and so you just forget that there are some words that really just don’t land.

No, they just mean totally different, err, things. I’m going to jump into something else completely here – You were on The Savage Eye – how did…

What’s he like *laughs*

What’s he like, well how were you picked up for that?

Well I was doing a gig in the international bar, up in the thing upstairs. and there’s a little set of stairs leading up to the toilet that all the comedians sit on before they go on. I was sitting there one night and I had a really lovely 10 minutes and David McSavage was on the steps when I came out and said, “fuckin’, you, gimme your number,”

So I gave him my number, and had a chat with him, then about two months later I got a call from blinder films saying “we’re doing this sketch show, would you be interested in coming in for a day, just to play a nurse?” and I just said “yeah, yeah sure.”

I went in, and Dave was there and Dave was…the interview on the late late is not an act, that is it, that is him. I grew up in a family with people like that so being around people like David is a very normal thing for me. So we got on very well, and they brought me in the next week for something else, and I just got into this loop of playing useful people in the scenes, I guess. Four years later, I think they’ve finished it up now.

It was just funny timing, I spent so long working in theatre, in Druid and the Gate and places, but the tv break came from sitting on the back stairs of the International Bar, which just goes to show a career in theatre does not lead to a television career!

But I’m very proud of my association with the savage eye. I think that he really tries to say something and speak to people through the comedy. Some of it is so funny, some of it I don’t understand! I learned a lot about working in television from it, having had no experience before. I’d never sat in front of a camera before so.

Would you like to do more television?

I think so, I think I would like to. It’s very hard, sometimes when you book a really long tour like this so you end up not being available. So one or two things would come up, do you want to do a day in a film and you’re not free because you’re in Roscommon, or whatever.

But I do a lot of pitching now for TV companies and stuff, and when I was in Edinburgh there was a couple of production companies that came up to me and talk about ideas and stuff so, certainly the creation of it is something that interests me a lot.

And It’s not as fleeting as theatre either.

No, I guess there’s an indelibility to it, but I think theatres lack of indelibility has it’s charm too. With live performance; maybe people are tired of going to see plays of people knocking on fake doors or talking on fake telephones, and wobbly walls.

But theatre still exists, and a new type of theatre is emerging in Ireland that’s less paradigm based and archetypical. There’s a desire to see live performance, and think its going to continue regardless of how digitised the world becomes.

Yeah. So you’re gonna come to Ballymun on the 27th of November?

Yep, 27th of November.

So for any DCU heads that want to go to that.

Absolutely, please do come along. Ballymun is always fun. I brought Wheelchair On My Face There and we did very well. I’m a firm believer in going to tiny venues and huge venues, we’re going to a tiny venue in Roscommon. I think it’s important to mix it up.

Very often companies won’t go somewhere because they think they won’t get the audience – I just don’t think it’s a reason not to go, I think it’s more of a reason to go.

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