Sonya Kelly on the craft of playwriting

A note from playwright Sonya Kelly (Druid Debuts 2017) to this year's Druid Debuts playwrights.

I took a notion to peel away a corner of loose wallpaper in my living room recently to see what lay beneath, and found myself repainting the entire house. After five days of ripping and stripping, I wish I never started. My arms ache, my neck is in bits and I am literally sweating Eau de Abject Despair.

Of course, I didn’t have to rip that corner. I could have just gone ahead and painted over all the lumps and bumps and it would have been be fine, but no. I took a bold decision in pursuit of a lumpless, bumpless higher standard because I don’t want it to be fine. I want it to be breath-taking. So I keep going. Over and over, hour upon hour, day upon day, hacking away at the flowery notions of post-Vatican II yesteryear only to discover more wallpaper underneath, as if it’s telling me, ‘You’re done when I say you’re done.’

Before starting on the skirting boards, I am reminded of something a script editor once said to me as she passed me back my fifty pages of unkempt but well intended meandering waffle. ‘Ah yes… writing is like redecorating a house: everyone wants to paint, but no one wants to do the sanding.’ She was right. I had found myself in this position before when I ‘finished’ a play and was so horrified upon reading it that I threw it on the floor, stamped on it, tore it to pieces and threw it in the bin. Why? I knew in my heart of hearts that I had written the words but failed to look under them. In my haste to be breath-taking, I had failed to do the requisite sanding. Why? Sanding is hard. It’s the brain-breaking work you do that no one sees. Still, an audience will know if you skipped it.

So when I got the chance to develop my play Furniture as part of the Druid Debut series at the Galway International Arts Festival in 2017, I was careful to remind myself, ‘Sonya, do the sanding.’

In my experience, all the great leaps I have taken in my career have come from putting my pride in my pocket, having an open mind, an open heart and the courage to be vulnerable. It’s not easy. On occasion it’s mortifying. Sanding is starting a play over again because you just realised that you’re telling the wrong story. Sanding is opting not to defend your decisions just because you are the writer, or refusing to cut because they sound pretty. Sanding is about hearing a note from someone you respect and returning with an answer, even if it means months of work go in the bin. Sanding is admitting it’s not right because that’s the only way you’re ever going to fix it. Sanding is cutting twenty pages you spent a month on and replacing it with a line, or a look, or nothing. Sanding is doing two years of research before you write a word. Sanding is your play telling you, ‘You are done when I say you are done.’

I wrote the first draft of Furniture in 2016. By the time it was premiered in 2018, it had undergone eighteen drafts – that’s eighteen layers of wallpaper. With each draft came sharper jokes, bigger pay offs and a deepening of the play’s overall message that Furniture is not about furniture. Furniture is about people.

My next play for Druid, Once Upon A Bridge, was commissioned in May 2020 and premiered in February 2021. After the first draft was submitted and approved, I did a further nine drafts, going back and forth, back and forth with director Sara Joyce. We rigorously worked on the arc of the story, the politics, the subtext, setting up the dramatic highpoints, passing the baton of logic from one moment to the next until it was as lumpless and bumpless as we could possibly make it for rehearsal. The play then had a few more significant alterations in service of the performers’ perspectives. Sara and I ran notes with Garry Hynes after each run. I also took notes from the costume designer, the company manager, and various other people.

We put ourselves through this process in service of the audience. They bought tickets, left their homes, and gathered elbow to elbow in a in a darkened space to experience the powerful glow of your imagination - together. Going to the theatre is such a magically primal and deliberate act. Never has it felt more prescient.

Wishing this year’s Druid Debut playwrights every success with their work. Enjoy the highs and lean into the discomfort of those teachable moments.

And if you want an absolutely breath-taking paint job, do the sanding.

Warmest wishes,
Sonya Kelly

Furniture by Sonya Kelly was read as a Druid Debut in 2017, premiered as part of the Galway International Arts Festival in 2018, and embarked on a 13-venue national tour in 2019. The world premiere of Once Upon a Bridge by Sonya Kelly was live streamed from The Mick Lally Theatre, Galway in February 2021 to 35 countries around the world.

The 2021 Druid Debuts are And Other Hellish Things by Shane Burke, Flicker by Róisín Coyle and Håber Undone by Catherine Cronin. Tickets for this year's Druid Debuts are on sale now.