A few years ago, at an early stage of her career, the Belfast writer Stacey Gregg took part in the Writers' Academy, a rigorous course designed to serve as both boot camp and launch pad for the profession. It was fascinating and so specific with its instructions that it seemed to have rendered creative writing into an exact science, with strict formulae involving plot structures and character arcs, and a symmetry of details in which problems established early in act one are dutifully resolved in the third. For most of the participants on the programme it was revelatory. For Gregg, it was a dead end: "It was essentially a sausage machine. I didn't write for about a year after that."
In the years since, Gregg has been making up for lost time. In the four short years since her professional debut, with the Abbey's production of Perve, she has had five more plays staged in Northern Ireland, Ireland and England. When we meet, her most recent play, Shibboleth, an anarchic piece about Belfast's Peace Walls, is coming to an end in the Peacock, while her next play, Scorch, a monologue involving a transgender teenager at the centre of a court case, is about to be staged by Prime Cut in Belfast's The Mac, as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival. Neither play is what you would call textbook theatre. Gregg, a bracingly unconventional dramatist, prefers forms and voices that correspond with our fractured times.
At one point during Shibboleth, for instance, the entire performance comes to a trundling halt under the weight of a big political question – "But change is possible?" – as though it's too much for any play to bear. From a young Belfast writer, it seemed alive to the perils of hand-wringing or finger-pointing Troubles theatre, while staying keen to avoid reductive interpretations.
“Once you try to commit to a dogmatic explanation or, even worse, a solution to something, then I think you lose the art,” says Gregg. “One thing I love is the sort of polyphony of experience in the audience. And not everyone likes that.”
The erratic form of Shibboleth – a play about identities defined by divisions but whose style observed very few barriers itself – was quite intentional. "There's a sense sometimes in the piece that coherency or synergy wasn't reached, and yet I would argue that was part of the intention, whether or not it was successful."
A non-linear career
Gregg studied literature at the University of Cambridge before pursuing a master's degree in documentary film-making. She also works as an actor (she was last seen in David Ireland's Everything Between Us, staged by Rough Magic). She has not pursued a particularly linear career. While working as a PA in London, she began writing in the evenings, something she regarded as compulsive. "So I always find myself freshly surprised to be in the middle of a production. I wonder if there is any coherent voice that will start to present itself across the pieces that I've made." She adds uncertainly, "I suspect there is?"
Nearly two years ago, during the Abbey’s Theatre and Memory Symposium, Gregg gave a trenchant speech about the canon and privilege, at one point quoting Walter Benjamin: “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism . . . Benjamin might posit that the literary canon is such a document, of all the voices not heard, not preserved. Their silence can feel deafening, bloody or absurd.”
When the Abbey's male-dominated programme to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising sparked online outrage two weeks ago, Gregg's Shibboleth was held up as a wan counter- argument. To most observers – including her – this seemed like the exception that proved the rule.
"Despite being produced at the Abbey I have no concerns about voicing exasperation at the gutting lack of women produced there. It's well past time to explode this – across the board. The wave of activists speaking out around #repealthe8th and #wakingthefeminists means there is no longer anywhere to hide from equality, and structures in whose interest it has been to remain blind can no longer do so, and there's passion and joy in the momentum. It resonates deeply here in the North, where we could do with some arms to interlink with – so here's interlinkin'."
Led by issues
From the outside, Gregg might seem to be led by issues. Her first written play, Ismene, was an adaptation of Antigone as a response to the McCartney sisters’ campaign for justice after the bar-room killing of their brother Robert McCartney, allegedly by members of the IRA.
Perve imagined a documentary maker teasing out the subject of paedophilia by spreading false rumours, which come home to roost. Override, performed in England in 2013 and due to be staged in Ireland next year, depicts a paranoid society in which humans have been augmented by technology. And now Scorch takes its inspiration from a knotty court case, just recently concluded, in which a woman was convicted of sexual assault, having tricked another woman into sex by pretending to be a man.
“I really think that I never start with an issue,” she says. “I usually start with a dream. Usually dreams have sublimated something that I haven’t yet unpicked, but which is something that I have been worrying at or thinking about. Most of the things I’ve written have started that way.”
Dreams – fractured, distended, not yielding to easy interpretation – might seem an unconventional inspiration, but Gregg tends to bring them into more concrete forms of theatre. She speaks frequently of Brechtian ideas, of defamiliarisation and distance, and resists the woozy reassurance of realism, where an audience “sympathetically disconnect” from representations of real life.
Without much experience of theatre before college, her own aesthetic sensibilities were initiated by the wild experimentation and deconstructionist comedy of Cambridge, further stimulated by reading abstract realism and German expressionism, and fully awoken by her experience of contemporary German theatre at Theatertreffen, while on Rough Magic’s Seeds programme.
Scorch, which Gregg originally conceived of as a film, might have skirted closer to something conventional. Out of frustration with its screen development, Gregg wrote it as a monologue, something uncharacteristically character-based. "My hope with the piece is to again somehow try and disrupt that voice," she says. "So we not only empathise, but we feel accountable and complicit in the gendering and sexualisation of this person."
The show is to be performed in the round, and casts the audience as members of the character’s support group. Kes, a young girl who identifies implicitly as a boy, is a gamer, well versed in sci-fi movies – watching those movies “through the dude’s point of view” – and the alternative identity allowed by an online avatar. “She thinks I’m a guy,” Kes says of an online acquaintance. “And I don’t correct her.”
Gregg’s hope is to make the audience understand and empathise with Kes, but also to feel accountable in the gendering and sexualisation of the character. There’s also a difference between a rigid “analogue understanding” of identity and a more flexible digital culture. “There’s a disconnect between the judge and jury often from an older generation and what young people now experience as a much more fluid sense of persona, profile and identity.”
Gregg is careful, though, not to undermine the victim’s story; although gender and identity might be becoming more ambiguous, matters of consent are not. In Kes’s story, however, “there’s a bigger question about the ways we castigate desire and how that desire is expressed”. That is present in the subtle coding of society, from the prioritising of “Player One” to the privileging of “the dude’s perspective” and the particular lack of social acceptance for trans men.
"Someone who presents as conventionally female in life, who has an expression of desire that's male, has experienced a different kind of force from the media and voices of authority than might otherwise be the case," says Gregg. "I wonder if that boils down to something that's actually much more mundane, which is just misogyny. Already people feel [Scorch] is a trans piece, and it definitely intersects with that territory, but in fact I think the question might even lie somewhere else that's much more universal."
Gregg is considered and cogent in her conversation but nonetheless says she struggles with “logic and lucidity” in her writing. “That is very much the dominant mode of communicating: to be logical and lucid,” she says. And yet, in this slippery age of identity, or the fragmentation between our real-life and online selves, or even the mismatch between people and politics, the dreamlike fracture of her plays offers an appropriate and revealing challenge to the dominant mode.
“That’s what consciousness feels like. Life is not formulaic: Where’s my fifth act? I have no other mode to set about writing characters than one that is naturally fragmented and self-contradictory. That is how I am in the world, and I’m not interested in – and truthfully I’m not capable of – writing in another way.”
- Scorch is at The Mac, Belfast, November 17th-21st. themaclive.com