Loose Canons: Sonya Kelly

Sonya Kelly is an award-winning Irish writer and actor whose acclaimed play How To Keep An Alien opens this week in Auckland Arts Festival

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Loose Canons is a series where we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.

Sonya Kelly is an award-winning Irish writer and actor whose acclaimed play How To Keep An Alien opens this week in Auckland Arts Festival. The show won Best Production at Dublin Fringe in 2014 and went on to be staged by Traverse Theatre at Edinburgh Fringe 2015. Sonya has performed with the Gate Theatre, Druid, The Corn Exchange, Pan Pan and WillFredd Theatre. She is a cast member of Irish public service broadcaster RTÉ Radio's sketch show, The Savage Eye and is also a regular contributor to the arts show Arena on RTÉ Radio. She is currently under commission with theatre company Rough Magic to write a new play, Future Simple, for a planned production in 2018.

The Muppet Show

As a child, The Muppet Show was so miraculously brilliant and vital to me. A TV show about a variety show set in a theatre populated by singing, dancing, talking animals – genius. Their world was the world I wanted to live in. There was an energy and urgency to each episode, like the whole thing existed by the skin of its teeth. It was always fifteen seconds to curtain. There was always someone locked in a dressing room, refusing to come out. As far as I was concerned, the problems Pigs In Space encountered were as real as my own. We had a black and white TV, so when I got a copy of their greatest hits on vinyl for my birthday I nearly fainted – it’s in colour! It's my earliest memory of the call to create. When I first encountered The Muppet Show, I didn't fall in love with television. I fell in love with theatre.

Spalding Grey

I discovered the legendary monologist, Spalding Grey in university. Someone mentioned him in conversation and I did that early-twenties thing of pretending I knew who he was. The following day I went down to the video store and rented Swimming To Cambodia. I don’t think they ever got it back. He was a master of performative surety; of the cool, calm, clear, beautifully crafted sentence that made the landscapes of the narrative pop in the minds of his audience. His use of tension and release and understanding of how vital that is for the audience experience is something I take with me every time I sit down to write.


I think you complete yourself as a person when you say, "This is wrong and unless I am prepared to do something, it will stay wrong forever." Putting your head over the parapet is a creatively galvanizing rite of passage. It's made me a better artist. In recent years, I took an active interest in Waking The Feminists, a grassroots campaign calling for equality for women across the Irish theatre sector. What the campaign did changed Irish theatre and my career is the better for it. I was also actively involved in the campaign that saw Ireland, the only country in the world to hold a referendum on gay marriage, to a landslide victory. May 22nd, 2015 is a day and a feeling I will never forget. A tiny island, in the northern hemisphere known principally for its powerfully theocratic history, stood up, did the right thing and showed the world. I only wish it for my partner Kate's homeland – Australia.


If you could purchase silence on the internet for $200 a bottle, I would bulk buy two dozen cases. I am terribly noise sensitive. More than three noises at the same time makes me want to hide in a toilet. A lot of this is to do with the fact that I spend eight hours a day speaking to no one, so when I emerge from my cocoon, it’s like the world is a giant megaphone made out of loudspeakers. When I write, I use swimmers earplugs and all ticking clocks are banished under pillows. I did an attachment at the National Theatre Studio in London recently. My room was over a studio where they were developing a new musical. I was halfway down the stairs, on my way to tell them to keep it down I stopped and asked myself, "Do you really want the tell possibly next War Horse to put a sock in it?" My partner is not a noisy person. She doesn’t have a loud voice but she came from a big Queensland family and doesn’t mind noise. She will happily chat away to you with one hand on the blender switch, the other vacuum cleaner in the other and the radio blasting in the background. I know I will spend the rest of my life searching for the perfect quiet room to work in and deep down I know it doesn’t exist, but I will never stop searching. After all, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.


One thing I have learned about writing is that not all of it happens sitting at a computer. It took me a long time and a lot of disastrous manuscripts  to realise putting one foot in front of the other is just as valuable as putting one word in front of the other. Fashioning pretty sentences is one thing but it's not everything. The skeleton, the structure of a story is formed during hours and hours of thinking, allowing all the reading and research to ferment and distill in the mind and make a case for its usefulness. I call them work walks. A good old stomp up a hill is the best way to process and filter all the information. Last year I did a three month residency in Paris. Mornings were spent at the laptop then I would scribble a few questions on a scrap of paper: "What is this about?" "Who is it for?" "Why is it Theatre?" Then I would pick a destination, hit the streets with the questions in my pocket and not stop walking for three hours. Not only did it keep me fit, it allowed me to eat as much French cuisine as I liked without the guilt. 

How To Keep An Alien is at Q Theatre as part of Auckland Arts Festival
from Wednesday 22 March – Sunday 26 March
Tickets available here.