Riot Act: Alexis Gregory’s hilarious and moving exploration of LGBT history through real-life stories comes to Blackpool

In 2017, Alexis Gregory had an idea. To execute it, he needed to speak to three people: an unwitting protestor who had a front-row seat to history being made, a radical drag artist from the underground scene in 1970s London, and an AIDS activist. He picked up the phone.

A London-based playwright, performer, director, and producer whose work largely explores LGBTQ themes, Alexis’ germ of an idea eventually became his latest play Riot Act - a gripping and moving exploration of the personal tales which weave together to form the rich tapestry of the LBGT movement.

With Alexis having worked in film, TV, and on stage since he was in his teens, Riot Act is a one-man show; a verbatim play in which he channels his three interviewees over the course of a triumvirate of 25-minute monologues delving into their unique stories. Ahead of the show coming to Blackpool next week, where better to start than with his three subjects?

“Michael-Anthony Nozzi is one of the only remaining survivors of Stonewall, which is considered to be the start of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement,” says Alexis. “It’s rare to find anyone who was alive at the time - most of the patrons were pretty old and many of them died in the ‘80s of AIDS - but Michael was 17 and on his first night out in New York.

Alexis in make-up for Riot Act (credit Holly Revell)

“Lavinia Co-op is a radical drag artist who came to prominence in the ‘70s - radical drag is punk, it’s street, it’s homemade, it’s political, and it’s fun,” continues Alexis. “She lived in the drag squats which existed in London in the ‘70s and ‘80s, still performs to this day, and has even appeared in Vogue and at the Brit Awards.

“And Paul was a prominent AIDS activist with ACT-UP in the 1990s,” he adds. “All three stories follow the characters from young to old, right into 2022 and all three interviews were unforgettable in their own way because they involved such extraordinary people. That’s what the show is about: these brilliant and brave people. I’m just the vessel.”

Directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair, Alexis says Riot Act picks at threads of history which are innately ‘political, personal, hard-hitting, hilarious, and unapologetically queer’, bleeding into the modern day by dint of their echoing through time. Showcasing the hidden stories behind the more visible LGBT movement, it’s raw, real, and radical.

“The motivation behind the play was a desire to demonstrate the history of the LGBTQ+ movement and tell the personal stories behind it - stories which fed into a wider political situation,” says Alexis. “I think that’s why it works; it’s been designed as much for 15-year-old members of the queer community as those who actually lived through those events.

Alexis in Riot Act (credit Holly Revell)

“But it’s also for those who aren’t in our community - the stories go beyond LGBT people - so it was just about telling our story on our terms and not sanitising it for a wider audience,” he adds. “That was a challenge that I relished, even though the play is incredibly demanding as a result. I’m constantly learning and getting to grips with the material.

“I play all three characters standing on one spot and I hardly move during the play,” Alexis explains. “But I channel them; I don’t do impersonations, it’s more theatrical than that. It’s a meeting of reality and theatre shaped by hours of interviews condensed into a 25-minute monologue per person which contains elements of their innate character.

“The show is funny and challenging and in-your-face, but it’s accessible and truthful. The characters are flawed and might contradict themselves because they’re real people telling extraordinary stories, stories where fate took over. I never take it for granted because I’m constantly finding new things in the material and new ways to deliver lines.

“Keeping the play fresh is important to me, but I have included certain elements I picked up in each interview as part of the performance,” Alexis says. “For example, the voice I use for Michael is very different from his real voice, but there are a few gestures I do as Michael that I can clearly remember him doing. I use their rhythms, but I exaggerate them.”

Alexis in Riot Act (credit Holly Revell)

Off the back of Pride month and a successful outing on the West End, Alexis merges hilarity and hard-hitting poignancy with Riot Act, describing the chance to play the three roles he has been exploring since he first envisaged the concept some five years ago as ‘an honour’. The 2022 tour of the play, funded by Arts Council England, is one he is relishing.

“As demanding as it is, the response makes all the hard work worthwhile,” says Alexis. “I really want people to think ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before; I’ve never heard these stories before and I’ve never seen one guy stand on one spot and cover all these decades of queer history’. I want them to see the humanity in the stories, to laugh and cry.

“I want them to get swept away in the exchange, because the play is a conversation,” he adds. “People always ask two things: they ask if it’s different performing to different audiences around the country and they ask if it changes each night. The answer to both is yes and no, because each night presents a different potential relationship, but that’s theatre.

“You have to step out onto the stage each time and say ‘okay, how’s this going to go?’ It’s like a first date: we’re getting to know each other,” continues Alexis. “I’ve also gotten older since I started performing the play, so I approach it in a different way and, as funny as the play is, it’s also about loss, which comes into play more as one gets older.

Alexis in Riot Act (credit Holly Revell)

“You think about things slightly differently with time, but it’s never not extraordinary to perform the play and to have people be moved by it in front of you. “Plus, while I’ve always been keenly engaged with the human stories behind the LGBT movement, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the depth of people’s individual stories and their personal histories.”

Paying homage in his own way to the everyday superhero tales which proved to be the ultimately world-changing catalysts for the far more accepting society in which we live today, Alexis is uniquely talented at finding the remarkable in people. Fascinated by narrative and respectful of the weight of history, his grasp of the materials is powerfully fulfilling.

“You’ll never hear those stories, the stories people are carrying around, until you ask about them so that they can be told,” he says. “I found out things about drag, AIDS, and Stonewall which, even for someone who knew about these things already, were still eye-opening and new. Those human details can get lost in time, but it’s a valuable layer of history.

“That angle really makes each performance an organic learning process on stage,” adds Alexis. “So I’m really excited to come to Blackpool - you must put that in. It’ll be my first time and I can’t wait to come along and meet everyone. And I’m being taken out to the Flying Handbag after the show as well, so I’m really looking forward to that, too!”

Riot Act is coming to Blackpool Grand Theatre on Saturday, July 16th. For more information and tickets, head to https://www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk/event/riot-act

Alexis in Riot Act (credit Holly Revell)
Alexis Gregory (credit Matt Spike)