Stacey Gregg is from Belfast and is a writer, performer and director for stage and screen. Her plays include Josephine K and the Algorithms (Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 2018), Scorch (Outburst Queer Arts Festival, Belfast, 2015; Edinburgh Fringe, 2016); Shibboleth (Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 2015); Override ( Dublin Fringe 2017, Watford Palace Theatre, 2013); Lagan (Ovalhouse Theatre London, 2011); Perve (Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 2011; BBC Radio Drama Award 2012) and When Cows Go Boom (Abbey Theatre, Dublin 2008).
Her solo theatre piece, Choices, was part of B!RTH, a collection of international plays that question birth practice and the cultural pressures that surround it.
She co-created an interactive web installation for CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities).
Television work includes The Letter for the King (Netflix), The Innocents (Netflix), Your Ma’s a Hard Brexit (The Guardian/ Headlong), Riviera (Archery Pictures / Sky), Spoof or Die (Channel Four) and The Frankenstein Chronicles (Rainmark).
A Place to Think Communally
PC: What is theatre?
SG: The broadest definition of theatre, for me, is a place to think communally, where something live happens.
PC: What’s the role of the playwright in theatre?
SG: It’s been very changeable for me. I started out writing from a place of relative ignorance. I read a lot of plays but hadn’t seen a lot of theatre. There was a sort of dissonance between the work that I was writing and the work that was being programmed and commissioned. Then eventually, I wrote the most traditional play that I have ever written – Perve -and that was my first play. That was brilliant because it started my career, but it was also a weird process of having to undo something because that was all I was expected to write. So, I emerged as a certain kind of playwright and then I had to work out what kind of a playwright I wanted to be and how I wanted to work. I think that I’ve realised that I’m much more of a collaborative playwright now.
I actively try and write in a way that’s open – for better or for worse. I’ll never retrospectively disallow certain interpretations or versions of my work. That’s often built into the work: the stage directions are sometimes suggestive rather than prescriptive. I write things like, “maybe this happens.”
Also, the model of production is often quite fixed here: you write a play, it gets given to a director, there’s a couple of weeks rehearsal and then it’s on. That’s often not very fulfilling or satisfying or creative. Part of resisting that is moving into creating work where I perform it. It’s about being a bit bolder about ideas of control and authorship. It’s not something that I’ll do exclusively, but it’s something that I’ve really enjoyed, and I’ve benefited from as an artist.
PC: How have you felt bolder about ideas of control and authorship?
SG: It’s probably quite a subjective experience, but I felt subservient as a playwright at times. I started establishing myself as a writer and then started to perform, which is probably the wrong way around for most people. Then I started to direct my own work and then more recently co-directed Inside Bitch. It’s been quite a non-traditional, non-linear artistic pathway. That was, personally, about confidence as well and part of that is my personal journey to embracing queer in performance. Knowing who I am as an adult knowing what I’m doing, what I’m about, in general, as a human in the world has probably informed my confidence in terms of the work that I can make now or what I feel like I can share with an audience.
Also, I’m from a working-class background and even though I went to Cambridge, in some ways, that knocked me into feeling that was a big part of my identity in a way that it maybe hadn’t before. I’ve always been very vocal, but I think in terms of a sense of entitlement I probably took a little bit of a back seat for a while, also because I didn’t know how to enter the profession. There was a lot of learning and now I’m at a different point in that journey. Now the idea of creating solo work doesn’t scare me in a way that it probably did once, or, I couldn’t even conceive of what it was – what is live art? It’s been a really fun education.
PC: Has queerness, and the thinking around that, informed your journey towards the live art world?
SG: Massively, I think that there’s a great queerness that runs through the world of live art and contemporary performance more generally. We can see that in the mainstreamification or the appropriation of elements that have come from the queer scene and are now quite popular.
I’m from a very ‘non-arts’ background and I’ve often found myself at a really tricky-place of how to make work that is conceptual and intellectually challenging but also not alienating or inaccessible. I think it can absolutely be done. Of course, we don’t all have a responsibility to do that – I don’t mind going to see things that chew up my brain and aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.
I’ve always felt like I come at things sideways. The fact that I come from Northern Ireland, which is itself a place of great duality, has always made me approach things sideways. Or being from a working-class background in an industry often with an absence of working-class voices. All that massively informs the way I make work and what I’m drawn to.
Simplicity is Underrated
PC: What are the obstacles to making intellectually challenging work accessible and how do you overcome them?
SG: I think it comes back to being compassionate towards your audience. I sometimes see work that doesn’t seem to care about its audience. I think the ideas of accessibility are manifold. Obviously one, pragmatically, is the fact that it’s still a problem that people think that theatre is for the middle-class and often the industry has done very little to help itself, despite all the talk of outreach and so on. Sometimes, I think theatre is maybe a dying art-form and maybe that’s fine and we can just get on with it. I joke sometimes that some people are into collecting stamps, some people are into motorbikes and some people are into theatre. The point is that there’s no value system; you’re not a better person because you go to the theatre. I think the first thing to do is to take value judgments out of it.
You can tell if work has its audience in mind. I try to make work where there’s a simplicity to the language. Simplicity is underrated, it’s really hard to make things simple. Choices is an example where I was trying to deal with quite political issues, but the simplicity of the story and the humanity of the story are the things that hopefully connect it to audiences no matter what their walk of life.
There’s also something about the openness and the unresolvedness that we’ve talked about that I think is kind to an audience because it leaves room for people to have whatever engagement is particular to them. Whereas, if you go to a piece that tells you how to think, I think that’s quite alienating and can be inaccessible in its own way.
PC: In response to that, a big obstacle I see with some young people is the “I don’t get it” response about work with any kind of openness.
SG: I think that’s also because we’re conditioned to be told what we’re supposed to think and it’s a destabilising experience to not be told. It’s something that you can get more used to if it becomes more normative. It’s much harder to get young people to a place where they feel invited to go and see something and have an open discussion or debate afterwards, than to go and feel like they’re going to be taught something. It’s about dissensus and critical thinking. We can really afford to improve on that.
PC: What do you mean by dissensus?
SG: I mean that’s how democracy technically works; you have to disagree. That’s how the world works, like it’s chaos and order, Dionysus and Apollo, it’s logos and mythos. Whereas it feels like there’s so much emphasis on conformity and consensus. That’s not to devalue those things in the right context, but the joy of being alive is the messiness, collapsing the binaries, the discussion; that’s how we learn together and progress together. Take Brexit, I just don’t believe that half the nation is right, and half the nation is wrong. It’s ridiculous. Again, I think that growing up in Northern Ireland has been really important – we learnt, through the peace process, to hold very opposing ideologies and voices and experiences. It’s also related to that sense of queerness – we should be able to hold two opposing experiences of the world. It is possible – in fact, it’s an ideal.
A Disharmonious Space
PC: What are the barriers to theatre being a place of communal thinking?
SG: The biggest barrier is work that leaves no space for the thinking; theatre that is overly didactic or resolved. I think that work where the space feels live and rich and disharmonious is most fertile.
I hope to create quite a tender experience because we’re sitting there together. I want people to think and feel and think feelingly. I talk about things being dissonant or disharmonious or awkward because I want to disrupt an easy way of thinking.
PC: How do you create a disharmonious space in your work?
SG: I lace the work with interruptions, disruptions, and contradictions, but I think that’s something I’ve always done unconsciously. The plays aren’t pointing at a thing to tell us what to think about it. Instead, they’re pointing at a thing to encourage us to think about why we’re pointing.
PC: How do you construct the tenderness for an audience?
SG: It can be in the quality of direct-address and the quality of delivery. So, in Choices,for example, I like there to be soft house lights. I’m also very keen on the performer being as present as possible – not to the point of ad-libbing but, should that happen, no problem.
I’ve just written a five-minute piece for one-audience member and the one big wish that I shared with the performer was that if they find themselves ad-libbing, or if something happens in the moment, to just commit to it. That isn’t an invitation necessarily to ad-lib but it’s just about acknowledging the liveness and the presence.
Again, with Scorch, even though that was scripted, we worked very hard on a sense of communing and presence with an audience. We also constructed a character that felt vulnerable and messy. I think messiness and vulnerability are important to me. I often seem to have young people and children appear in the work.
Even when I make work for tough men in Shibboleth, I think that the harder your characters, the more tender those moments are whenever that hardness cracks and we see something.
I think that tenderness comes from a combination of the form of the piece, the delivery of the piece, your relationship with the audience, the characters and what you show of those characters. That’s not to say that I don’t value really brutal and dark work, but I think tenderness is a great way to get people thinking with their hearts and not just with their heads.
PC: How do you create space for things to be unresolved?
SG: I think it’s about embracing failure. I think that you can have a very successful process that also feels, to another person, like it’s been a massive failure, and that’s alright. Learning to be brave about that and hold your nerve has been a big part of that journey towards being vulnerable and tender. It’s important an audience don’t feel confused or they don’t “get it,” however allowing a piece to be unresolved is saying that, as a writer, you don’t take a concrete position, or you don’t know the answers yourself, or one’s self is a mass of contradictions, and that’s okay. I love polyphony – I’m very happy if an audience comes out arguing about the piece.
Dissonance and Disruption
PC: Identity is a common theme in your work, how does that inform theatricality?
SG: I get impatient with reductiveness around characters. I’m interested in complexity and contradictions, we all contain multitudes and that’s rich and truthful and impossible to render, and so it should be.
We’re also in an interesting time for identity politics and it can feel quite reductivist when, actually, we’re all quite complicated and intersectional. Like I said about theatre more broadly, I’m interested in awkwardness, dissonance and disruption also being contained within individuals. I think those are truthful characters.
PC: Authenticity and deception are important narrative themes in your work. How has that informed your journey experimenting with different forms?
SG: I’ve always suspected that the binaries that we create between monsters and victims is often nonsense and that we’re all capable of much more than we’d like to admit. Maybe that transgression actually lives in the queer part of me. I had a sense from quite a young age that what’s considered socially acceptable and establishment, and what’s considered deviant, is often nonsense. So, a more humane and compassionate exploration of that might create a space where we can be honest with ourselves. Yeah, it comes back to honesty and vulnerability and collapsing false binaries. I think sometimes self-deception is the product of what happens whenever society tells us one thing and we can’t fit into it. Instead, you have to create a version of events or a mythology in which you do seem to fit, but what happens when that mythology breaks down? I love the idea of the deviant who doesn’t realise they’re the deviant – I think that’s just something that tickles me – it’s that moment when the Rebel realises that they’re the Empire.
PC: What makes a place or a ‘setting’ fruitful for characters that are open and challenging?
SG: My Northern Irishness is hugely informative. My sense of identity was fired in the kiln of being brought up with a very homophobic, quite patriarchal, sectarian background. I had to unlearn those things as a teenager and somehow, instinctively know that that’s not where I belong. Then wondering if I belonged anywhere and having to masquerade as certain things at certain times. It’s not a difficult reach for me to understand that people can live with a huge amount of cognitive dissonance in their everyday lives – that’s not a weird thing in Northern Ireland. I guess I’m drawn to and fascinated by places where that’s at play in other situations or cultures or characters. I recognise it and know that it’s human and it’s messy, and I can’t judge it.
Another recurring theme is the technological and scientific frontier. Those things ignite the same interests and concerns that I have with the unknown. I’m interested by how easily we can discover ourselves to be in a place that’s considered morally questionable and what you might do once you’re there. I’m attracted to those thorny ethical and moral contradictions.
Research: Collect, Choose Lens and Refine
PC: How do you manage the breadth and depth of research and development that comes out of those areas and how do you wrangle it into a piece of theatre?
SG: I naturally love research and I’m naturally a collector and a magpie, so that’s part of the process but that’s also just how I am in the world. A lot of the time is refinement and choice of lens. More recently, I’ve discovered that working with a dramaturg that I trust can really speed that process along.
Otherwise, I often start with an instinct or an image and then I do a lot of exploring and collecting around that. The ideal place to be is where you’re just simmering on an idea that’s dying to be written. Ideally you can’t get to it straight away so that by the time you can get to it – it just needs to get out of you. Probably the best things that I’ve written have been very quick. Perve, my first play that went on, was written in a week and didn’t change very much. The first draft of Scorch was written in a couple of days and didn’t change very much. There’s something that I really trust in the sublimation of ideas and the coherency with which they can come out. Then sometimes, there are plays that are just like pulling teeth and that change massively over time and that’s just the hard work that I think a lot of artists have to navigate.
I think an idea can cook for years before it presents itself. That work is never wasted because it often finds an expression in the next project. Scorch, Choices and another idea that I developed as a screenplay started as one piece, but their various expressions found their way into separate projects.
PC: How do you navigate the care around researching and then representing particular things without broad generalisations?
SG: That’s a really tough and scary question for any artist. I think if you are humble and you’re thinking about it, that’s a great place to start from. And I think being as inclusive and making sure that, if a voice that could be heard, and is of more value than yours, then finding a way to lift up that voice or incorporate that voice – I think these are questions of our time. No-one’s saying that only writers of a certain identity can write that experience but we’re in a time of really valid reassessment about what it means to represent certain experiences and stories responsibly. It shouldn’t only be working-class people writing working class stories, but if we look at the industry, it’s still essentially middle-class people (occasionally, if we’re lucky) telling working-class stories. There’s a balance that needs to be addressed. But I think openness, and humbleness, and humility are a big part of approaching work with care. Also, you have to be prepared to step away or step down if that’s what’s required.
Kindness, Endurance and Entitlement
PC: What would you recommend aspirational, working-class creatives do to make their way in the industry?
SG: If you’re giving advice to a young person you can’t tell them, “Well, you know the system needs to change.” So, until it changes, I think a sense of entitlement, unfortunately but pragmatically, is hugely key. A combination of endurance and entitlement. I would also say kindness feels important to me and it helped me to get through on my journey.
It takes a long time to cultivate any sense of your own voice, or your own entitlement to be an artist, or a community of people that nurture and support you. I have collaborators that I work with now that weren’t there ten years ago but maybe those relationships have been ten years in the making. Kindness is a crucial part of building that community around you.
It’s also about knowing why you want to make work, why you’re creative. For me, it’s a way of being in the world, it’s a compulsion. You need patience as well, because, for most people, there’s a lot of hanging around and even when people seem to have “arrived”, they’ve probably been beavering away for years.
PC: Lisa McGee has described you as a fearless writer. What is there to fear about theatre and how do you overcome it?
SG: I’ve had to cultivate a sense of entitlement but even then, to hear Lisa McGee say something like that, I think it’s hilarious. I think it’s funny that you’re interviewing me, I think, “Is he sure?” That imposter syndrome lingers forever but it’s really healthy if you can harness it. I often perform confidence and I’ve got really good at it. Sometimes that performance becomes inhabited by someone who is confident. I’ve always been curious and honest, and I think that some people perceive that as fearlessness. But again, that’s just how I was made, I can’t take the credit for that. I’m willing to put myself out there because I’m so curious and say, “here I am, are you like this?” I find it hard to be any other way.
Knowing why you’re doing something, knowing yourself as well as possible and interrogating your blind spots feels like it could be part of the recipe for fearlessness.