Stacey Gregg

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Read full interview here.

Part 1: 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.


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).

She co-directed Inside Bitch with Deborah Pearson as part of a collaboration between Clean Break and the Royal Court in 2019.

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).

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Littlewood’s Continuous Loop and the Authentic Voice

Interview with Nadine Holdsworth: Part 3

Nadine Holdsworth is Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Warwick. Her research has two distinct, but sometimes interconnected strands in Twentieth Century popular theatre practitioners and theatre and national identities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. She has worked particularly on Joan Littlewood and has written Joan Littlewood for the Routledge Performance Practitioners Series in 2006 and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre with Cambridge University Press in 2011.

email: n.holdsworth@warwick.ac.uk

Connections to the GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Key collaborations with other artists
  • Influence
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Theatrical style
  • Innovations
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice

PC: What was her existence during the Second World War? Did she continue making theatre?

NH: She was making a living by doing lots of radio. There is an early period when she went to Manchester because she’d met a guy called Archie Harding at RADA. He’d come and examined a verse speaking competition that she’d won. So she went off to search for this guy and he offered her work at the BBC. This led to her doing quite a few documentary pieces; most famously a piece called The Classic Soil. She’d go out, again you can see real links with the theatre, she’d go out and interview ordinary people in their ordinary working or living environments and just talk to them. She had a big thing about wanting to hear the authentic working class voice.

PC: How common was the documentary style that presented the authentic working class voice?

NH: Not common at all; it was a really new thing; it was again with Ewan MacColl. We mustn’t underestimate the importance of him in that early period. The two of them were totally in cahoots and developing things. It is worth looking up The Classic Soil.

PC: This search for an authentic voice and specifically an authentic working class voice in Joan Littlewood’s work, along with Erwin Piscator’s Living Newspaper technique and Peter Cheeseman’s Stoke documentaries, are seen as early examples of what has become known as verbatim theatre. Joan’s legacy can be seen in Alecky Blythe’s Little Revolution or Dan Murphy’s new play Carry on Jaywick. Are there examples in her theatre work that were influenced by the radio documentary form?

NH: Yeah, I think definitely that idea of presenting the authentic voice is a root of modern verbatim theatre. She felt the authentic working class voice wasn’t being heard on the British stages at that time so it became really important to her. A good example is a play called You Won’t Always Be On Top (Henry Chapman), which was set on a building site. It was one of the plays that she did in the 1950s in which she collaborated very closely with the writer and the script was evolving in rehearsals, which happened a lot with her work. She took all the performers off to a building site and they had to learn how to build a wall because they had to build one in the production every night. She had this incredible replica of a building site on stage. But more important than the visual authenticity, was the focus on patterns in the voice. Joan wanted to have that very real quality of back and forth banter that happens in lots of contexts, but this building site in particular. I think that idea of trying to document and record and authenticate the voice does have a line through to verbatim theatre today.

PC: In terms of records of those things. Is there the play text?

NH: Yes there is the play text of You Won’t Always Be On Top and there are some great photographic images as well. Another is The Long Shift, a play she wrote with Gerry Raffles, who became her partner.

the-long-shiftCourtesy of Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive Collection.

It is about miners down a mine shaft so you see that attempt at visual authenticity there.

This is the set for You Won’t Always Be On Top.

you-wont-always-be-on-topCourtesy of Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive Collection.

You can see she is trying to create a truthful recreation, a very naturalistic looking environment.

PC: She is not usually associated with that style of work.

NH: No but it was a major part of what she did. I think that is one of the things that is really interesting about her: there is no set style. She believed that theatre should always be organic, made in the moment.

PC: The authentic voice seems to be an important debate at the moment, in the theatre and broader society. Theatre is accused of being too London centric, whilst the country, post-EU Referendum, as a whole is suffering a disconnect with working class people, particularly illuminated by the Labour Party’s current identity crisis. So a hypothetical question: How might Joan Littlewood respond to modern Britain in terms of creating her theatre?

NH: She referred to the idea of the continuous loop between the theatre, the audience and the local community. So I think it would be interesting to think about what the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, has become. When Littlewood was there it was a staunchly working class environment predominantly. It is now an incredibly multi-ethnic community and the theatre has evolved to reflect that community. Theatre today, like in Littlewood’s day, is predominantly a white middle class pursuit but at Theatre Royal, Stratford East it absolutely isn’t. It is one of the most diverse audiences and I think that is because they work with that ethos of the continuous loop. You have to go out into the community, find out about the people, who the people are, what their narratives are, what the voices are, what the stories are that they want telling. Then you go back into your theatres and you make that work, you commission it, you make it.

Summary

  • Ewan MacColl was an important part of Joan Littlewood’s life and career in that early period. We mustn’t underestimate the importance of him.
  • Littlewood had a big thing about wanting to hear the authentic working class voice. She’d go out and interview ordinary people in their ordinary working or living environments and just talk to them.
  • The idea of trying to document and record and authenticate the voice does have a line through to verbatim theatre today.
  • You Won’t Always Be On Top and The Long Shift had a set that tried to be a truthful recreation, a very naturalistic looking environment.
  • The continuous loop: you have to go out into the community, find out about the people. Then you go back into your theatres and you make work in response to what you find.