Playwright and screenwriter Dennis Kelly is the man behind the acclaimed, award-winning Matilda the Musical, which features songs by Tim Minchin. He wrote the plays Debris, Osama the Hero, and Love and Money, and co-wrote the BBC Three comedy Pulling. Here, he talks to Eleanor Turney about his late start and his writing process...
Tell us about your theatre background.
I didn’t do any drama at school and left at 16. I was working in Sainsbury’s and went along to a drama centre, and it was just this amazing creative outlet. I did various crappy jobs and stayed involved with theatre.
And how did you get started as a playwright?
I just decided to write a play – I think it was so that I could give myself a part! I imagined that I was going to become an actor, but preferred writing. I was doing a full-time job, so it was difficult: you don’t realise that it’s possible to make a career out of writing when you’re 29 with no qualifications. At about 30 I went to Goldsmiths and did a Drama BA. What was great about it was having three years to think about nothing but theatre. When I graduated I started taking writing very seriously.
Can you describe your writing process?
You don’t just leap up full of joy and start writing; my process often involves feeling guilty that I’m not writing more. You can’t sit around waiting for inspiration – you’ve just got to do it!
I tend not to think about audience too much when I’m writing – it makes you start second guessing what they’ll like. I’m not, as an audience member, interested in someone trying to figure out what I think; I want to know what someone else thinks.
I’m not trying to teach anyone any lessons. I just pose questions I don’t know the answers to, and then use plays to explore them. It can sound really wanky when we start talking about creativity, but it isn’t. It’s really important. We live in a culture that values things by what you can get out of them, but there are things to value that aren’t economic.
And does your process differ if you’re writing a musical instead of a play?
With Matilda (pictured above), the big difference was that there was an existing story. I didn’t take much from the book, though, because dialogue that works brilliantly in a novel doesn’t always work on stage. DNA [his current play] was very different – in a straight play, you have to believe that the characters are real. It’s my job to find out what happens when they start doing things to each other.
What advice do you have for young people starting out?
I used to write something and then feel like I’d climbed a mountain. You don’t only have to climb that mountain again as you rewrite, but you then have to go out and climb a whole bunch of new mountains! You won’t write one thing that suddenly works, but keep writing. Get things wrong, but then put them right. It’s not wrong to write bad things, you just have to recognise that they’re bad before they get on the stage. The skill is in figuring out if something is working before you show it to other people.
Matilda the Musical is at Cambridge Theatre, London. Book tickets. DNA is touring the UK from 1 February – find out more.