entertainment

'In Bed With Madonna was the first time I saw gay men being accepted'

2015-09-28
With his new show Slap opening at the Theatre Royal Stratford East later this week, queer actor and theatremaker Alexis Gregory writes for Attitude about how gay icons including Madonna and John Cameron Mitchell gave him the courage to create his own work.  ‘I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through…’ The first piece of theatre I ever wrote and performed, Through the Wilderness was about a Madonna-obsessed, half-Italian, half-Greek gay kid growing up in the suburbs of 1980s North West London dreaming of becoming an actor. Yep, it was autobiographical. I performed it at my friend writer/director Rikki Beadle Blair’s 50th Birthday celebration in a theatre. Alexis Gregory - picture by Radu Negru. As a gay actor, I had always been very shy about addressing my sexuality in my work. It still isn’t easy for out gay actors but it was even harder several years ago. I was also shy about having my sexuality addressed in real life too. I remember being in my early twenties and a shop assistant referencing me to a friend as ‘that gay guy’. I am sure he didn’t mean anything by it, but I was mortified. Was I that ‘obvious’, that much of a ‘cliché’? Was that all people could see when they looked at me - as if I had nothing else to offer? Well, I knew I had plenty else which is why I was so frustrated by it. Yet the journey to self-acceptance isn’t always an easy one: I still had more work to do on myself at this point. Growing up, I’d always been drawn to anything that was ‘other’ and ‘queer’; I loved Sandra Bernhard, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, and I was beyond obsessed with Madonna’s behind the scenes tour documentary, In Bed With Madonna. I was fascinated by the world she created on tour as the self-appointed matriarch presiding over her harem of mostly gay male dancers. I recognised something in those dancers and I was terrified by them yet drawn to them at the same time. The film was the first place I saw gay men be accepted and not have to navigate school doors being smashed into their faces on a daily basis. Madonna was as fabulously queer then as she is now. All of these pieces of work (and more) were brave and had something to say to the world. There was a message in them all. Although I had always worked very hard on my career as an actor, I hadn’t yet explored the avenue of creating work that could express what I wanted to say; work that I hoped could capture an audience’s imagination, work that could be political but also fun, sexy, entertaining and engaging. I hope I have done this with my play Slap, which opens later this week. Alexis in 'Slap'. I wrote the play alone in my bedroom with just an idea in my head. After its initial staged reading at Stratford East with Rikki directing, Slap went on to be performed at Channel 4 and now returns to Stratford East with immersive stagin. The audience sits up close and personal in the flat belonging to male-to-female transsexual Dominque, played by myself, as her relationship with her gay, drug dealing boyfriend, Danny, unravels. I researched the play by attending gay and trans help groups - specifically those around drug use, sexual health and domestic abuse. I spoke to my trans friends too but the most powerful research was really just living my life and observing the lives of those around me. I don’t think I have ever worked so hard on anything as I did on writing this, yet at the same time it didn’t feel like work, it simply felt like I was on a mission; to tell the truth, that of my own and of our shared. When I was first creating Slap, I watched a documentary detailing John Cameron Mitchell’s iconic Hedwig and the Angry Inch, another favourite of mine, that traced the show's journey from the underground queer punk scene to mainstream theatre and then the big screen. That evening I went down to the Vauxhall Tavern and half way through the show, I turned around and there was John Cameron Mitchell! Within seconds we had been introduced and were chatting. He was very sweet and giving of his time and energy and charming and interested in my work too - which he didn’t have to be. "Slap?" he said, "That’s a great name for a play." He also told me how creating Hedwig had enabled him to meet, through his work, people he considered real and true, and that those were qualities he strived for in his own work. He warned me about creating insincere work and of the repercussions and trappings that can bring to an artist. I will never forget his kind words of advice to me. Maybe they are the route out of the wilderness. info: Slap runs from October 1-10 at Stratford East Theatre More stories: 'Who's The Boss?' star tells Oprah about HIV and crystal meth use Throw marriage licenses at Kim Davis in new mobile game