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Featured image courtesy of Steve Kraitt
The playwright, performer, director and producer sits down with Vada Magazine as he tours the UK with his solo show, Riot Act. He tells us about why it’s important for audiences today to know about LGBTQ+ history, and the pivotal moment we find ourselves when it comes to queer storytelling.
Alexis Gregory is doing the unimaginable this summer. He is touring UK theatres with his show, with only two suitcases. Having mastered the art of packing light, Gregory is also a talented storyteller. His show, Riot Act, is a deep dive into our community’s history, created from his interviews with three “key players” in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Firstly, Michael Anthony Nozzi, who is a survivor of the Stonewall Riots. “His story is extraordinary,” Gregory tells me. Aged 17, Nozzi was a drama student living in New York, when he found himself caught up in the middle of the riots. Gregory tells me this interview was particularly special. “Michael is one of the few remaining Stonewall survivors, as I’m sure you know, it’s very rare to find anyone who’s still alive that night.”
Gregory also interviewed Lavina Co-op, an alternative drag artist, who started out in the seventies. This interview opened Gregory’s eyes to a time in our country’s history, “when the gay rights movement really started up”, as he describes it, alongside underground drag squats and radical drag. Thirdly, Gregory spoke with Paul Burston, a prominent AIDS activist in the 1990s in London. The pair discussed how queer people were navigating a time of fear, death and uncertainty surrounding the HIV virus.
“With each of these three stories,” explains Gregory. “We don’t just focus on that one pivotal time in the character’s life, we go right up to 2022 with each story.” He says that he spends about twenty minutes with each character, covering several decade’s worth of stories. “That’s what makes the play very current, as we talk about things that are happening in the world today. For instance, Michael goes from being a 17 year-old kid to somebody in their sixties. We look at all the different themes that would inevitably go with somebody moving through different decades of their life.”
Being on stage alone, I say, must be somewhat intimidating, especially when the subject matter feels so important. “It’s not intimidating,” replies Gregory. “But it’s something that I have to really, really prepare for every single time.” Despite having performed this play since 2018, Gregory shares with me that he still learns lines on the train en route to a show, or studies the script to find new themes within it.
He also takes a moment to reflect. “Five years later, I’m older, and I think I look at scripts and what these men are saying in different ways.”
It’s also a huge responsibility to do their stories justice, I add. “Absolutely. I cannot drop the ball for a second,” says Gregory. “When I’m on stage, it’s an intense hour of me talking.” The script, he tells me, is just full pages of text. When he wrote the script, he had initially underestimated the “nightmare” of having to learn it, let alone carry the performance in front of a live audience.
I speak to him on the phone from his hotel in Birmingham. He will be performing that evening, and then getting a train to another town the following morning. His schedule is intense. When I ask him about why he chose to inflict a gruelling tour on himself, rather than stay put in one theatre, Gregory says he wanted to open up the show to people outside of London. “I’d already done London,” he explains, having initially performed Riot Act as part of the capital’s King’s Head Queer Festival.
The reaction to the show, I add, must be different depending on where it is being performed. “Not so much in my performance as such,” replies Gregory. “But this is going to sound very hippy, but you know, there’s a slightly different energy in the room between me and the audience every night.”
Through the course of his tour, Gregory has noticed that the way audiences engage with the performance also varies. In cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle, Gregory tells me that audiences can go “absolutely wild” when watching his show. “Whereas I think in more rural places, they’re a little bit quieter. But they’re still taking it in in their own way.” Gregory is also conscious of the positive impact his tour is having on queer audiences, especially in these rural settings. He hopes the show brings together local LGBTQ+ communities for one night. “It’s great to see queer people coming together to watch the show, who might otherwise feel quite separate and isolated.”
Gregory’s passion for LGBTQ+ history is evident when I speak with him. In fact, he argues that much of our history is forgotten, and that it is through shows like Riot Act that we are able to reconnect with it. “It’s important to that we as queer people understand where we came from, where these rights have come from, and what rights we still need to get,” he says. “These rights can be easily taken away from us. And bearing in mind, we are still a marginalised community, it’s important that we remind ourselves of this, and start to establish an infrastructure for queer storytelling.”
Gregory pays credit to Queer Britain, the UK’s first national LGBTQ+ museum, which recently opened in London. Yet acknowledges that it has taken a long time for such a resource that preserves and protects the LGBTQ+ community’s history. “And what’s also important is there’s so much misinformation that goes around about certain events in our history,” he adds. “It’s very easy to share misinformation with a meme in your stories on Instagram, and people rewriting history without even realising it.”
For audiences that aren’t able to see Gregory live in stage, he has also been working on a digital re-imagining of Riot Act, which he hopes will reach a wider audience and be a different experience than the stage show. “It fits somewhere between theatre and film,” he says describing the re-imaging, which will be making its US debut on Broadway on Demand for this year’s Pride season. Filmed in London’s Hackney Empire theatre, Gregory says that audiences can expect a greater focus on storytelling and sharing stories on a deeper level. “And because people might watch it at home or with a friend, it’s a very close up, intimate experience.”
When it comes to where Gregory sees LGBTQ+ storytelling today, he believes we are starting to see a shift from the hard-hitting queer stories, which he argues caters to the lens of a straight audience and their perceptions of being queer, to more life-affirming stories. “We’re starting to see a movement of storytelling towards something that feels more celebratory for queer people,” he says. “I think we’re at an exciting, pivotal point.”