Culture Shock: what sings in one place can sink in another
‘Australia may be the flowers, but Ireland is the soil’
Sonya Kelly: “The audience buy the tickets, not you. It’s no longer your experience. It is now their experience of your experience that matters”
I am off on my travels again. Rough Magic Theatre’s How To Keep An Alien: a story about falling in love and proving it to the government, is off to New Zealand for a tour of three festivals.
The play charts my de facto visa application process, enabling my Australian partner Kate to live in Ireland indefinitely. I hear you ask, “why would an Australian who is free to live in Australia all of the time, want to come and live in Ireland deliberately?” It turns out the Irish happen to be very fall-in-loveable with, or to quote an Australian friend of ours, who also lives here deliberately, “Australia may be the flowers, but Ireland is the soil”.
Still, as I check the temperature in Auckland and pack my bag accordingly, I remind myself, Sonya, default to factory settings. Wipe the slate clean.
Forget about the show you did in the Town Hall theatre in Galway when the lights went down at the end and you were deafened by the thunk of flipping seats as the good people of the west stood in unison.
Forget about the woman in the herringbone twinset and pearl necklace who sauvignon plonked her way up to you in the Garden of Ireland and slurred, “how dare you bring this filth to Wicklow”.
The coalface of experience has taught me when it comes to theatrical memoir, what sings in one place can sink in another. My first play, The Wheelchair on My Face, a myopic memoir produced by Fishamble, toured to 50 Irish venues in 2012. The tender narrative about getting my first pair of glasses set against the backdrop of ferocious First Holy Communion preparations, struck a chord with Irish audiences. “Oh, stop, I can’t cope! My hernia!” was one woman’s cry in Kilcrohane in Cork.
Overjoyed and completely arrogant, I was ironically blind to the comeuppance that was ahead of me.
Opening showHunger Games
There were a couple of trip hazards.
One: The Olympics. Every Katie Taylor boxing match was scheduled for the same time as my show. Essentially, I was abandoned by the diaspora, dumped for Ireland’s sweetheart of the moment, right hooked by my own nation’s hope for gold.
Two: The unforgettable ritual that is the First Holy Communion doesn’t have the same emotional recall in the UK. Being more religiously diverse, they weren’t anointed to the same industrial scale as my generation. They laughed, but never the collective galvanizing roar I received in Ballydehob.
I spent most of that Edinburgh crying in toilets, occasionally posting thumbs-up selfies on that big old smoke screen they call the internet.
Then, bizarrely, in the last week, I was awarded a Fringe First. It turned out in the UK The Wheelchair on My Face was a tragic tale of a young child’s blurry isolation in a world of adults obsessed with Margaret Thatcher. They loved its sorrow, not its joy.
It was a lesson. The audience buy the tickets, not you. It’s no longer your experience. It is now their experience of your experience that matters. Later that year, we took Wheelchair to New York, where we were asked to change the title to I Can See Clearly Now as the venue felt that the metaphor of wheelchairs on faces was too disparate for their audience. There at Theater 59E59, where the audiences have a strong Jewish contingent, I was regaled in the bar with tales about the joys and horrors of bat mitzvahs. The connection ran deep.
Total silenceHow To Keep An Alien
The auditorium was packed with straight-backed Ouluians. It was like Scandinavia had a convention for Christmas jumpers. Later, over a beer the price of a small mortgage, I complimented the festival director on the Finnish theatre-goers’ timekeeping integrity. “If a Finn arrives at a theatre even one minute late, they will say, ‘oh no, I am too late’, and go home,” he replied.
So New Zealand 2017, here we come. Judging by an interview I did for a Kiwi newspaper, it could go either way. New Zealand has long been trying to jostle free of its neighbour’s schoolyard hair-tousling headlock. “You fell in love with a woman from Queensland. They don’t even have gay marriage over there, you know. Course, we’ve had it here since 2013. Yeah, we’re way more progressive.”
Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep An Alien is currently on tour in New Zealand in March and April