Literary Spotlight. Kaite O’Reilly in Conversation with Sue Burge

Kaite O’Reilly

For this issue of WordCity I’m beyond excited to be interviewing Kaite O’Reilly.  Kaite is a multi award-winning writer and dramaturg.  Her body of work includes, poetry, prose, radio drama, screen and theatre.

Kaite, I hardly know where to start, you are such a Renaissance woman and there are so many questions I’m desperate to ask!  Maybe it’s best to start at the beginning.  What drew you to the world of dialogue – scriptwriting, screenwriting, playwriting?  Did you love role-playing as a child?  Was this part and parcel of your studies?   

Thank you for such a warm and lovely opening!  I come from a family of storytellers – people who enjoy communicating and sharing experiences, the words alive in their mouths. Both of my parents were wonderfully entertaining and inventive with spoken language – they hadn’t received a huge amount of formal education, but like many Irish people, they were engaged and curious about the people and the world around them and were always talking, having a bit of craic. I learnt from them the richness and joy of communication. My mother and father were wonderful talkers. No wonder I became a playwright.

What a lovely way into this world of creativity!

I think many writers find dialogue quite tricky and in a play or film the characters’ speech is really exposed and has to be absolutely spot on.  What advice would you give writers who want to improve their dialogue skills and find distinctive voices for their characters? 

I think you have to love language and delight in paying attention to it in order to write good dialogue… listen to how people around you talk – what foibles, linguistic gymnastics or rhythms they use. Pay attention.

Read aloud any dialogue you write, noticing how it flows, where you may stumble because there’s a syllable too many, etc.

There are many, many approaches to improving writing dialogue. To give one example: Put aside psychology and work purely technically, linguistically, considering what clues to the characters’ backgrounds, personalities and aspirations can be revealed through how they use language and interface with the world. What vocabulary do they use? Little tics, sayings or phrases from other languages can reveal education or aspiration – are they pompous show-offs or desperate-to-impress malaprops?

I also always think about the rhythm of their language. Some writers make the mistake of giving all their characters a vocabulary and syntax/speech pattern similar to their own…. We can slip into patterns. You should be able to hide the names of characters in a playtext but still be able to recognise each character by the distinctive, individual way they speak. An easy way to change the pattern and musicality of a character’s dialogue is through punctuation. Vary the length of line from long, flowing sentences perhaps like this one. Then change. Abruptly. To the point.

Some really fascinating insights into your craft there Kaite, thank you.

I know that amongst so many other things, you are an important mover and shaker in disability arts.  You’re the Patron of DaDa (Disability Arts Deaf Arts).  Your radical, feminist Crip re-examination of Richard III, richard iii redux, which you co-wrote with Phillip Zarrilli, will be touring in 2023.  How did you start out in disability arts and what do you think the world of mainstream theatre could do better in terms of inclusivity?  I notice your play the 9 Fridas has a cast which embraces hearing and Deaf, disabled and non-disabled performers – could this be the way forward? 

Richard+III+Redux+Sara+Beer+panopticphotography.co.uk-3266

I became involved in disability arts and culture very early in my career and in the cultural form, (by which I mean working from a disability perspective in the stories told and how they are told – eg, bilingual work in signed and spoken languages; the creative use of audio description and captioning/projections – what we call the aesthetics of access, where access tools are put at the heart of the process, from inception) as it grew out of the disabled peoples political movement in the UK, which I was part of, where we were demanding our rights, not charity. It’s identity politics – I consider myself a disability activist, as well as an artist.

National Museum_1805.0582

I believe that the arts can change things – theatre and the arts encourage us to inhabit somebody else’s skin, enhancing empathy and understanding. I feel that the theatre is the place for change and equity – it’s where ideas can be discussed, explored, and attitudes and perceptions changed.

Regarding the work I do in diversity and inclusion: I’m currently in Germany, where yesterday I gave a keynote and workshop on inclusive practice and ‘the aesthetics of access’ at a symposium for German state theatres and the independent scene. It’s about social injustice and exclusion and giving fair and diverse representation in our culture and media, reflecting the actual make up of the societies that we live in.

Below is a poster for richard iii redux which speaks volumes…. The play is very much a reworking and answering back to Shakespeare’s problematic monstering of the historical Richard III from a disability perspective, featuring Sara Beer. It was recently on tour at National Theatre in Madrid and will be touring internationally into 2023 and beyond.  Here’s the Spanish trailer:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PVhJKOy35Y

Richard iii redux image

Your play, The Almond and the Seahorse, has been adapted into your first feature film and is due out soon. How did you find the process of translating a stage play into a screenplay?  It stars Rebel Wilson and Charlotte Gainsbourg, which is so exciting!  I noticed in one of your blog posts you state that knowing who will play the parts you have created enables you to create a “more complex symphony” when it comes to revisions of your work in the rehearsal process.  Did you find this applied to the screenwriting process too? 

I was one of the finalists of the Susan Smith Blackburn prize for women playwrights some years ago for The Almond and the Seahorse and part of the prize was dinner with some of the judges, including Sigourney Weaver, who turned to me and said ‘you do realise of course this is a film don’t you?’ And it stayed with me. For Phillip Zarrilli’s original production we were getting five star reviews but, unfortunately, the theatre never took it further, not making the most of the excellent response.  Some years later I was having a coffee with Celyn Jones – a close friend who was in the original cast – and we both agreed we hadn’t yet finished with this story.  Cel had begun to make a name for himself as a screenwriter, so we decided to adapt the theatre script for screen together.  Celyn knew the script inside out as an actor and was a very generous collaborator and I learned a huge amount from him.

I revised and changed the ending as things which may work in a theatre script may not translate or work for film. I knew this as a consumer of films, an audience member, but also as a dramaturg.

As to the latter part of your question – I’m afraid screenplays are written years before they get made – if you’re fortunate to get that far – and so I had no idea who would be playing the characters, so this didn’t influence the writing, naturally.

What is your process when it comes to writing a new work?  I’m fascinated by your choice of topics/themes.  The Almond and the Seahorse is about memory and brain injury and the 9 Fridas works with different representations of Frida Kahlo as she travels through memory and the afterlife.  What sparks you into new territory? 

I think that as writers and creatives we should work from our passions and from what fascinates us. It’s important to be curious, but also engaged and passionate about the world. If we care about the subject we’re writing about, it’s likely that will translate to the material and encourage the readers or audience to care too. I think we have to try and stay fresh, keep abreast with new ideas and never stopped learning. It’s from this that the ideas flow.

As a massive Peaky Blinders fan I was fascinated to discover that you are the production dramaturg for Rambert’s Peaky Blinders inspired dance production: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby. Could you tell us a little about your role and how it feels to work with dancers? I’m guessing that as someone heavily involved with the stage you constantly work with the idea of movement. Was it different working in the area of narrative dance and if so, how?

I’ve just started rehearsals with Rambert and am astonished by the virtuosity of the extraordinary dancers. It’s written by Steven Knight, the creator and writer of the TV series, but I’ve spent the past few months working on the script with Rambert’s artistic director and choreographer, the wonderful Benoit Swan Pouffer. Benoit and I have been identifying the beats of action, checking the flow and coherence of the story, translating it into a different form of storytelling – dance and movement. It is an immense pleasure and privilege to be working on this project – and especially so being Birmingham-Irish, like the Peaky boys themselves….

Here’s the trailer to whet your appetites!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37eOHPUqwKU

 

I hardly dare ask what’s next for you Kaite, you do so much!  Can you fit anything else in?  Do share if there’s something on the horizon…  And thank you so much for taking the time to chat.  I know you have a ridiculously busy schedule and wish you huge success in all your current and future ventures! 

The autumn is pretty busy as the film, plus Peaky Blinders and Unboxed festival are all happening.

Unboxed is a celebration of creativity and new ideas, across science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics. In 2022, ten different projects will occur across England, North of Ireland, Scotland and Wales and I’m on the creative exec for GALWAD, the project from Wales, which has been astonishing and immensely exciting to be part of. GALWAD is a transmedia project, storytelling across many platforms, seeking to forge an emotional link to our future – and to make it a hopeful, inclusive and carbon-neutral one. It will be possible to access this project in person in Wales and also remotely, from any part of the world, through the use of digital platforms – seek out more here:

 https://www.galwad.cymru/unboxed 

GALWAD means The Call, or Calling, in Welsh, and I’ve been involved in conceptualising the story, events and ‘radical inclusion’ we have placed at the heart of the project. I’ve loved mentoring emerging Welsh and Wales-based artists who together reflect the make-up of our society, rather than the normative, limited representations we have rightly been so critical of. This, of course, links to my early work as a cultural activist and participant in the UK’s Disabled Peoples’ Political Movement – where we sought inclusion and social justice, rather than being excluded by so much in life owing to attitudinal and physical barriers. 

Once October begins, I hope to have some quiet time, dreaming up new projects and writing fresh projects. I’m going to be in Singapore working with collaborators in the winter, and completing a British Council Connections through Culture project (India/Wales), working with Navtej Singh Johor, based in New Delhi. We have been bringing together Indian and Welsh composers/musicians and traditional instruments, responding, through music and dance, to our theme: The Land is Calling Through the Body. We hope to make some short dance films to show at festivals.

My main feeling is one of gratitude – to be able to do the work I make, with such fascinating collaborators, full of integrity. Writing can be a very lonely process; I feel so fortunate to be able to bring a blue print to fruition through working with collaborators, whose talent and vision strengthens my work.

Thank you so much Kaite, you are an absolute powerhouse and it’s been a privilege to hear more about your work.

I feel so grateful, also, for your interest and to any readers curious about my work.

Thank you.

Diolch o galon!

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Kaite O’Reilly is a multi-award winning poet, playwright and dramaturg, who writes for radio, screen and live performance. She is known internationally for her pioneering work in Disability culture and the aesthetics of access. Prizes include the Peggy Ramsay Award, Manchester Theatre Award, Theatre-Wales Award and the Ted Hughes Award for new works in Poetry for Persians (National Theatre Wales). She is a two time finalist in the International James Tait Black Prize for Innovation in Drama (2012, 2019) and The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. She was honoured in the 2017/18 International Eliot Hayes Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dramaturgy for developing ‘Alternative Dramaturgies informed by a Deaf and disability Perspective’. She is the new associate dramaturg for National Theatre Wales. She works internationally, her work translated into fifteen languages worldwide, and is part of the visiting faculty at ITI: Intercultural Theatre Institute, in Singapore. She was the resident dramaturg/playwright of The Llanarth Group for many years, collaborating with the director, performer and actor-trainer Phillip Zarrilli. Kaite’s plays Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors and The ‘d’ Monologues are published by Oberon/Methuen/ Bloomsbury. International work includes the 2018 Unlimited Commission And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore/Wales ‘d’ Monologues, a collaboration between Deaf and disabled artists, now in development with partners Access Path Productions in Singapore and Body On&On in China, with funding from British Council China. Her plays the 9 fridas and The ‘d’ Monologues had their Korean premiere in Seoul, 2021. She is currently working on a British Council Wales/India Connections through Culture commission. She has recently been appointed as dramaturg for Rambert’s Peaky Blinders ballet, The Redemption of Thomas Shelby. Her first feature film, The Almond and the Seahorse with Mad as Birds films, will be released in 2022, featuring Rebel Wilson and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

www.kaiteoreilly.com

Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK.  She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University.  Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet.  She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris.  This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press.  Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News.   She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic.  Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon.  More information at www.sueburge.uk

Sue Burge author photo

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie is now completing her first novel where, for a family with a Seventh-day Adventist father and a Mennonite mother, the End Times are just around the corner. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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