HOW TO Keep An Alien, written and performed by Sonya Kelly, and which comes to the Town Hall Theatre next week in a staging by Rough Magic, is a hilarious, yet tender, autobiographical tale, recounting how Sonya and her Australian partner Kate had to prove to the Department of Immigration they had the right to live together in Ireland.
“We had to assemble a dossier, a paper trail of two years’ worth of documentary evidence to prove we had been in a relationship for that time,” Sonya tells me. “It included bank accounts, plane tickets, receipts, photographs, letters of support from friends and family. You assemble all and hand it into the Department and you wait about two or three months – it is probably longer now - until somebody looks through it and decides whether it is genuine or not and the visa is issued on the basis of that decision. The show is about gathering the evidence and the restrictions that were in place for us because Kate had to live in the UK as she couldn’t legally live and work in Ireland so there was to-ing and fro-ing with planes, trains, and automobiles of contemporary Irish love.”
What was it like dealing with the bureaucrats? “The Garda International Immigration Bureau on Burgh Quay is an interesting place,” Sonya replies. “You take a ticket and you wait, there is a glass wall in front of you and there might be 10 immigration clerks and you’re looking at them for about three hours, wondering which one is a good one to get, but you are also surrounded by the nations of the world and this extraordinary chorus of different languages and cultures.
"It is a very levelling sense, a very humbling experience seeing who is trying to get into this country and how easier it is if you are an Irish person with an English-speaking partner rather than two people from somewhere else. In terms of the people we met behind the glass, some of them were very officious and some were very empathetic. It’s strange when you meet someone and fall in love and then you find yourself at windows asking strangers for things you never imagined you’d need. That’s what really inspired me to write down the story and tell it to people.”
Joining Sonya onstage is Justin Murphy, the stage manager. “I originally wrote the show as a one woman play," explains Sonya. "I did a reading of it and asked Justin to read in the sound effects and stage directions and a couple of characters that I hadn’t yet worked out what to do with. He was so wonderful that a lot of the audience said ‘you know what, this play isn’t a one hander it’s a one and a half hander!’ So I asked Justin that if I rewrote the whole script would he be interested in doing it and he said yes.
"As a stage manager he operates the lights and sound from the stage and also plays various characters and reads them in. It’s almost like the play unpacks itself and turns itself inside out, you can see what the people backstage normally do where you don’t normally see them or how hard they work. He is extraordinary and it was just one of those happy accidents that happen when you are creating a piece of work.”
The play could be viewed as a love letter to Sonya’s partner Kate. “I guess so,” she says. “It is a gesture of permanence one might say, a sign to her family who miss her so much that she is being taken care of and loved. We did the show in the Brisbane Festival last year and all her family came along to see it. They all have a part in the show as well, because anybody who contributed to the dossier of evidence, in the form of letters and so forth, I contacted and asked them to record their letter and send it to me. All those recordings are in the show so you hear their voices. That gives a sense of realness to it.”
Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis recently made international headlines for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Did Sonya and her partner encounter any homophobia during their visa quest? “No, we didn’t,” she reveals. “There were one or two times where you feel a sense of your unusualness in their hetero-normative world but one of the most uplifting things about it was that we didn’t come away from any glass window feeling we were being marginalised. I think as time moves on and the more things advance you experience less and less of that kind of thing.
"One of the heartening things of the whole experience was not fearing you were up against that prejudice. Somebody remarked after it opened in the Fringe ‘Is that deliberate the way you never say the words gay or lesbian in the whole show?’ I hadn’t noticed that in writing the show because the story is about two people trying to get a visa. That is equal in relation to anyone regardless of their orientation. The fact I hadn’t noticed not saying the word gay was a testament to the fact that things have moved on; I don’t assess myself in terms of that difference anymore.”
How to Keep an Alien is at the Town Hall on Tuesday October 6 at 8pm. For tickets contact 091 - 569777 or see www.tht.ie