Some love stories will take you straight to the altar; other's will take you straight to the local immigration bureau. In How to Keep An Alien actor and writer Sonya Kelly tells a remarkable true life story about falling in love and then having to prove it to the government.
The prove it part happened because Dublin-born Kelly fell in love with an Australian, which meant two separate jurisdictions got involved in what is, let's face it, one of the most intimate and private moments of your life.
“Life is about bits of paper, moving bits of paper around,” Kelly tells the Irish Voice. “It's about moving words and digits around, from one department to the next, from one bank to the other.
“Of course we have some gloriously exuberant moments, and really down moments along the way, but generally it's ‘where's the thing’ and ‘can you find that yoke,’ and that's generally what life really is.”
It’s because she can talk and write like this that her play How to Keep An Alien has become a hit touring show in Ireland and the U.K. and even New Zealand. It will play New York at the Irish Arts Center as part of its new season in September.
Like a lot of the best theater work, the play is based a real incident.
“I did two auditions for a play back in 2010 and I got the job,” Kelly explains.
“There I met Kate, an Australian stage manager who was in the dying throes of her one year Irish visa. We met and we fell very much in love and then we found ourselves in this bizarre conundrum where I was over 30, and no one wants you anymore when you're over 30 and you want a work visa or want to go places.”
Kelly found out that moving to Australia to live and work would be very difficult, and for Kate to get back to Ireland she would have to earn €60,000 a year or more. “If you've ever worked in the arts you'd know €60,000 a year is pretty impossible. So we were caught in this wormhole of how to be together.”
Kelly remembers thinking at the time if it all works out she was going to write a play about it.
“You find yourself standing at windows asking strangers for things you'd never imagine you'd need. You find yourself looking up your own nation's immigration policies for the first time, because now it's something that is actually relevant to you,” she said.
“You get politicized by your own immediate needs, and within that you learn a great deal about Ireland's own immigration system.”
The only way for Kate to come back to Ireland was for her to document her relationship over a period of two years, then she could return legitimately on what's called a de facto visa. “Come to my play and you'll find out how it happened,” she says.
With marriage equality the law of Ireland, the situation hasn't actually changed much.
“All marriage equality has done is waive some fees. People would tell me to just get married, but I didn't want a visa to be the reason I married someone,” Kelly says.
“I wanted our relationship to go through the usual process relationships go through. To fast track that would be an indictment on how I felt.”
Kelly reveals she would rather spend the €350 a year on Kate's de facto visa than hurry things along when they don't need to.
“We hadn't known each other enough for marriage equality to be a factor,” she explains.
Getting her professional start with The Gate Theatre, Dublin's most well appointed house, after graduating from Trinity College's School of Drama, Film and Music, Kelly worked solidly for 10 years and on the way “sort of crept” into standup comedy.
“I found I really enjoyed writing my own material. But I wasn't really interested in being funny all the time, which is what you have to be if you're a standup,” she says.
“So I kind of developed this style of theater slash comedy storytelling. It caught the attention of a couple of Irish theater companies (her first was with the new play company Fishable and the second was with Ireland's premiere company Rough Magic). Now I mostly write and tour my own productions instead of being in other people's.”
Although she was proud of the theater work she did, she noticed she was playing a lot of funny ladies or funny maids, and there wasn't anything about my characters driving the narrative.
“If you have 10 acting jobs, seven are usually written for men, maybe three for women, and there's actually many more female actresses than male ones in Ireland. You start to think unless you create your own stories you're going to get frustrated.”
There's been a tipping point in Ireland in the last few years with the Waking the Feminists moment, Kelly says.
“It's caught the imagination of the good people of New York. It's good for audiences too.”
Ironically, 150 years previously her partner Kate's ancestors left Cobh in Co. Cork and traveled to Queensland by ship on one of the most treacherous sea voyages known to seafaring. All these years later one of them tried to return to Ireland and found she is unable to. These are the kinds of challenges she never expected.
“Sitting in Irish immigration and just seeing who was trying to get into the country and why, that was a great leveler. I observed the daily struggles of asylum seekers. I thought my needs were bad but they were only a small part of a much more complex food chain,” Kelly said.
“That was quite a humbling experience. I was waiting for hours in the immigration office in the Dublin quays listening to people who could barely speak English, listening to translators help entire families.”
Now she often says to people they should get the bus or the train into Dublin, go to Eden Quay visa office and sit in there for five minutes to get another perspective on their own nation.
“It’s a good leveler. It's a great way to get perspective on things that we think are a problem when they really aren't.”
Still, you have to laugh, she adds. “The play is funny with some sad bits. If you make people laugh and think you have an opportunity to give them a different perspective. Funny makes you laugh, witty makes you laugh and think. I always try to be witty if I can.”
Kelly admits she's looking forward to coming to the Irish Arts Center with the show because she's curious to see how the play will perform to Irish audiences here.
“In Ireland we speak in such ridiculously long sentences. I often wonder if it was because Gaelic was outlawed, we were forced to speak English, so we had to find another way to confuse them? It'll be interesting to see how it all goes down.”
Get your tickets HERE.