Matthew Ryan, playwright, Kelly
I find inspiration in stories ... If a story has been crafted well and can hook me, surprise me and take me somewhere, I'm incredibly energised by it ...
Matthew Ryan is undoubtedly one of the country’s most prolific playwrights having ten mainstage theatre productions in the past decade including Chasing the Whale, Boy Girl Wall and Harbinger. His latest work, the critically-acclaimed Kelly, presents a dramatic exploration of the final hours of Australia’s most infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly. The Weekend Edition Gold Coast caught up with Matthew ahead of Kelly’s showing at The Arts Centre Gold Coast on March 13 and 14.
What motivated you to write Kelly?
It was really the desire to tell a story about two men in a jail cell with one about to be executed while the other gets to walk away as a free man. The idea of it being the Kelly brothers just popped into my head one day. I grew up in Kelly Country as a kid so I was already well-versed in the mythology.
What was the most surprising thing you uncovered during your research for the play?
It was undoubtedly discovering all the evidence that Dan Kelly survived and moved to Queensland. I had never heard that before. But there are all these eyewitnesses who saw him after Glenrowan. It certainly throws the official story into some doubt.
Ned Kelly has become a kind of anti-hero in Australian culture, what do you believe is the reason behind his enduring popularity?
We’ve really only ever looked at half of the story. What Ned was doing was protecting those around him but whenever we hear the story, the others are often taken out so that Ned’s extraordinary actions stand alone. This play attempts to bring the other side of the story (Dan Kelly’s side) back into focus. I also think the faceless helmet is a very romantic notion. We can project ourselves into that experience. Who hasn’t imagined it was them wearing that thing?
The play touches on the tumultuous relationship between Ned and Dan Kelly, what do you think happened to Dan?
I think it’s impossible to prove conclusively. The police used to lie to get the convictions they wanted. The Kellies used to lie to stay free. It’s a story ripe for fiction but it’s hard to find the real truth.
Rewind a bit, you got your start right here on the Gold Coast, what was it that originally attracted you to theatre and writing?
I loved Drama in high school. For me it was a real escape from teenage life. I had a wonderful drama teacher at Somerset College named Robert Mulder who cared so much about the Arts. I kept acting after high school at Gold Coast Little Theatre, Spotlight and Javeenbah and then started writing a few years later.
How did it all begin for you?
After I moved to Brisbane I was looking for the sort of plays I wanted to be in. Then I realised the things I wanted to be in hadn’t been written. It started at the University of Queensland with a crazy student production I co-wrote and co-directed. I loved it so much I started writing my new play straight after the first one. It took me another seven years to get a work on the professional main stage (at La Boite) but I was committed to achieving it.
Do you have any favourite memories from your early productions at Gold Coast Little Theatre, Spotlight and Javeenbah?
They’re all fond memories for me. The directors and the people I performed with were so wonderful and talented. The audiences were so giving. Everyone had so much care and love for what they were doing. I think my favourite memories were the techies. These people who were electricians or worked for Telstra during the day and at night got to use those skills to be part of something special. I never asked why they did it. They just seemed so happy to be there.
Do you have any advice for someone who might be interested in becoming a playwright?
It’s a craft. It won’t come naturally. It takes years to learn. Read the books. Listen to the experienced people. Keep trying. Keep getting the work in front of an audience. And then try another one. And another. And another.
What do you consider to be your career highlight so far?
One night at the end of the original Kelly production in 2012 the lights went down and the audience didn’t make a sound. They were barely breathing for about five seconds. Then the clapping and cheering started. But that five seconds in the dark with those stunned people was probably the happiest five seconds of my career.
What inspires you?
Stories. I don’t care what they’re about or what genre they’re in. If a story has been crafted well and can hook me, surprise me and take me somewhere I’m incredible energised by it.
What is your idea of complete happiness?
Getting work done and having a happy and relaxed home life.
What are your essentials for a well-spent weekend?
A sleep in. A cooked breakfast. No pressure. No obligations.
What’s your personal definition of success?
I don’t think I have one. I’m still trying to figure out what success actually is.
What’s next for Matthew Ryan?
Next is my play BRISBANE, a large scale work set during World War II that Queensland Theatre Company is performing in the QPAC Playhouse. It’s the biggest and most stressful thing I’ve ever done and I’m already looking forward to the time off afterwards.
Image Credit: Amelia Dowd