Daniel Kelly interview
By Conor O’Neill
Headshot photo courtesy of Simon Fallaha, Stage photography courtesy of Carrie Davenport
After his success with his one man show A Thought For Your Pennies which details his grandmother’s dementia, memories of his grandfather and his life as an amateur boxer, actor and writer Daniel Kelly talks to CultureCrush NI about the show, writing and a hectic future including his biggest role to date, the approach of fatherhood.
With praise from many established in the Northern Irish theatre circuit I couldn’t wait to get to the bones of his success and the nitty gritty of the life of a working actor.
Kelly mentions in his notes on A Thought For Your Pennies on how the collapse of the building industry led him from the building site to theatre. He’s friendly and oozes enthusiasm. I ask if he comes from a theatrical family?
“No mate, the first play I saw was one I acted in. I was working as a plumber until 2010. I then went to tech and then got into Queen’s studying film. We had to pick an elective class and the only one I could do was acting and performance. After about a month I changed my degree and started the drama degree. That was back in 2013. The first play we did was called Tartan about the Bay City Rollers. I played Sparky alongside John Travers, Brian Marky and Matt McIllhenney and it was good craic. It played at the MAC in the Cathedral Quarter’s Arts Festival and then toured.”
Tell me about the boxing, obviously your grandfather was a huge influence going by the notes in the play’s program.
“My Granda was a professional way back in the day. I boxed for Pegasus Boxing Club in Downpatrick, I’m from Killough which is about six miles from Downpatrick, I started when I was about 13-years-old. I fought mostly in exhibitions but I never lived the life enough to have a good run at the amateurs.”
Is that what’s called ‘white collar boxing’?
“No. Just exhibitions between clubs. I never got into the white collar; I was a sparring partner for a lot of guys. I just liked being around the club and keeping fit, I’m still about the club and help out. Myself and a mate opened a wee club in our hometown a couple of years ago.”
After the play at the MAC and finishing your studies, how did you progress beyond that? What got you into writing?
“I starting writing when I was at Queen’s. I broke my hand boxing and I was in a cast. I’ve broke the same hand around six times. A tutor was talking to me about acting and boxing and maybe doing a play.
“There was a play based in Dublin called Fight Night and he wanted to direct me in that but we couldn’t get the rights. He said to me, ‘put pen to paper and see what comes up. At the time I lived with my grandmother in Beechmount. I was really struggling, and she was going through dementia. I was sort of her carer and looking after her every day. That’s when the idea came about, ‘Don’t just make this about boxing, make it about my life at the minute’, that went on for about four years.”
It took four years from the initial idea to its stage debut?
“Yes. It just kept going about in my head. Then there was an open submission for Tinderbox Take Away Theatre Initiative last year and I submitted it and they messaged me and pushed me on to finish it.”
How many drafts did you go through?
“Oh God, about 10.”
The play’s running time is around 50 minutes and it’s usually a page per minute, was that the case with the play?
“No, not at all. Because of the training sequences and the music, I think the final draft was around 20 or 21 pages.”
A lot of writers say it’s cathartic and helps them deal with things, did you find that when writing and acting the play?
“It was with the writing but acting it was difficult because it brought a lot back. In the rehearsal room there was a few times when I had to walk away because it brought me right back down to dark days. The writing was definitely cathartic, but I didn’t always enjoy acting it.”
Boxing is obviously seen as manly and testosterone fuelled, the same can be said of the building trade. When you moved from those environments to studying film and then theatre and drama, what did your mates say? Was there one or two eyebrows raised?
“To be honest I come from a kind of rough wee area and there would be very few theatre goers, but everyone has been supportive. I thought I was going to get more of a slagging but from day one everybody’s been, ‘Happy days, fair play to you Dan for doing something different’.”
On collaboration: you approached Tinderbox, what did you offer them and what did they give to you, what was the relationship there? Did you have to give Tinderbox creative control over things?
“No” states Kelly, “Tinderbox’s approach was this is your baby. They helped with the direction where we flip between the present and memories. That wasn’t my idea, they brought that to my story. What we done was sat down and cut up what worked as present and what worked as memory. I couldn’t have asked for a better team than the guys at Tinderbox. They were just fantastic.
You’ve told a massive story about one aspect of your life, are you writing at the moment?
“No, not at the moment. I’ve a baby on the way and a girlfriend at home. We both work in the same bar in Downpatrick. I’m going in to do a double shift tonight because she hasn’t been well. The baby’s due on February 18th. I write at night, so she’ll be good company for me with the night feeds”
Tell me more about your writing habits? Some writers set a time, other wake in the middle of the night with a cracking idea, how do you go about it?
“A deadline helps but I’m still a very impulsive writer; one night, I think it was about half three in the morning, I went up and got my girlfriend out of bed and got her to listen to me. Fair play to her but I’m sure she wanted to kill me.”
Do you think your writing style will always be based on the autobiographical?
“85 per cent of A Thought For Your Pennies really happened. I write about what I know. I think the next thing I write will probably be about will be about my friends and taking their stories.”
The discipline of being a boxer is familiar to the discipline to the physical discipline of an actor, do you see the similarities between the two?
“The feeling when you’re boxing is the exact feeling you get as being on the stage, at least for me anyway. You can’t see a thing except for what’s in front of you. When I first played in Tartan all I could think was, ‘This is like being in a fight’ and I approach it like that in rehearsals with another actor. I tell myself, ‘This is an opponent, I have to give them everything’. It’s my philosophy and it comes across both in the boxing and when acting”
There was talk after the shows in August there was talk about A Thought For Your Pennies touring, any idea when?
“Well, with all that’s going on at the moment it’ll have to be next year. I haven’t been in contact with Tinderbox since the end of the run. I’ve hardly had a day off, but we’ll get that sorted.”
Interesting times ahead for the 28-year-old actor and writer. The construction industry’s loss is surely of the benefit to Northern Irish theatre. If you happen to see anything with his name included be sure to get yourself a ticket.