Friday, June 12, 2015

Stacey Gregg: Expanding Theater’s Boundaries

Irish playwright Stacey Gregg, who just completed a month-long residency at VCCA, came armed with an ambitious project: to begin and end a play commissioned by the distinguished Abbey Theater, Dublin. She accomplished her goal, leaving Mt. San Angelo with a completed first draft and even got to experience “a sense of completeness” in her last two days.

Stacey writes for theater, film and TV. She’s incredibly prolific having written numerous plays including the award-winning Perve, several television scripts, a couple of films and even an opera. “I’ve always operated at a high energy level,” she explains. “Though it never feels that way. I’m always driving myself and really pushing.” If all this writing wasn’t enough, Stacey also performs as an actor in other people’s work. She started acting because “I just needed a break from myself. Acting’s a really good way to be in a room, to be physical and yet be out of my brain for a while. It’s galvanizing to disrupt patterns. And so far, I’ve gotten away with it.” 

From East Belfast, Gregg read English at Cambridge University and received a master’s in documentary film from Royal Holloway. She is eager to return to this medium.

When describing her writing process, Gregg says: “I look for a voice and a form that suits the subject matter, more so maybe than other writers would. While they have a particular voice that becomes, you could argue, kind of like their brand so you know what you’re going to get with them. Maybe I’m just naive; maybe objectively my work is like that as well.”

“The first play I had produced was probably the most conventional play I have ever written. It’s totally ironic to me that it’s the one that started my career and subsequent commissions. I think I had an expectation that I was going to have to write in a way that was going to have to be conventional in order to be successful. But in the last couple of years, I’ve been able to push the work back towards where I originally come from and where my excitement lies. Some people might refer to this as post-dramatic theater—it’s theater that’s aware of its form; it isn’t trying to trick you.”

Commissions vary from project to project. There's always a balance between buying the freedom or earning the money to have the freedom to write what you want to write and then hope to find a home for it. “In terms of cold hard cash, which is what you need when you’re starting out, commissions are a great way of supporting yourself,” says Stacey. “Sometimes theaters will come to you with a brief or sometimes because we’re so financially conservative at the moment, it’s gotten more like TV where even though they don’t like to admit it, it’s more and more expected that you go in and pitch an idea and then they’ll commission you. But I don’t tend to take very restrictive briefs that are more for TV. In theater, you can kind of be your own boss and that’s the privilege of being able to write in that medium.”

Though she engages in close discussion with directors when she can, Stacey is pretty hands-off when it comes to the play’s production. She likes the idea of the refraction of ideas. How first the director’s vision, then the actors’ interpretation followed by the audiences’ experience all shape the work. “I get really excited about the audience having a polyphonic experience that is really hard to translate into something clear and safe that the marketers can sell.” One area where Stacey does want to maintain control is the imagery used in promotional material, believing a production can sink or swim just because of a bad poster or poor marketing campaign.

Stacey’s more recent dramatic work deals with the intersection of ethics and technology and the debates and discussions that we should all be having right now about them, but aren’t. According to Stacey, for a long time, theaters were really nervous about dealing with anything that dealt with the future or technology.

Two years ago she wrote Override a play about body augmentation, this was not mere plastic surgery, but explored the very frontier of human enhancement and biometric medicine. Her play posited the question, how far can we take this? When she first pitched it, everyone seemed quite apprehensive at the idea of a sci-fi play, but it ended up being just ahead of the curve. Sci-fi plays are now all the rage. Stacey finds this exciting. “Because the thing about theater is it’s magical; you can go anywhere you want. I think people forgot that for a long time. But now, we’re seeing a reinvigorated wave of really bold experimental and hypothetical works.”

Stacey divides her time between Dublin, Belfast and London. The different cities offer different attractions for her: the theater scene in Dublin is very European looking and feeling, more expressive and experimental, whereas in London, the taste is for traditional social realism. Belfast is home. Stacey would like to move back there, but there isn’t enough work currently. She feels enriched by exposure to these three cities and proud of her felicitous relationship with them because they’re very different. She’s also become very adept at moving between Irish and British culture and navigating the different ways that people work and think.

“I’m still waiting on making that piece of work—maybe it will never happen—where I go, yes. I’ve nailed it. So I think I’m still learning, certainly and that’s the funny thing about theater and having work produced: it’s only after they’ve had an opening in front of an audience that you really know what the play is.” One thing you do know is that Stacey’s rigorous and challenging plays are expanding theater’s boundaries into new and experimental territory.  





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