Gemma Stroyan is currently touring the UK with the cast of the play adaptation of Peter James’ bestselling crime novel Dead Simple. I met her after her opening night performance as Ashley Harper, the role she performed for the entirety of the Glasgow run. After some initial chat about how wonderful the Theatre Royal is as a venue – ‘It really is like a dream come true to perform here’ she explained – we launched into conversation about her time as an English Student at Glasgow University, STaG, Shakespeare, and what makes a good crime story.
Whilst you were at Glasgow you were involved with STaG (Student Theatre at Glasgow). What did you learn from your experiences in the club?
Well, it kind of put me off actually doing my degree but it was the best thing. I actually went to Stirling Uni for a year before transferring to Glasgow and part of the reason was I wanted a really active drama society. I ended up just doing single honours in English, I dropped Theatre after second year, but I was always doing as many plays as I could. I knew that I really wanted to be involved when someone mentioned it to me on Fresher’s week and I thought I have to come. I met lots of fantastic people through that. I played Lady MacBeth on my first year for one of the performances at the Gilmorehill. I went to The Fringe for the first time with the New Writing Festival, we did 12 shows at The Fringe.
That must have been quite extensive?
Yeah it was just such a brilliant thing, it’s still up there with one of my favourite things I’ve done, even professionally. I have really strong memories of it. Yeah I did a lot with STaG, probably more so than I did going to any lectures or anything.
The thing with university societies is that they are quite a community based thing, do you think that experience is useful when going into the Theatre industry?
Oh absolutely, absolutely! Some people that I know with very successful acting careers currently, started from finding it at uni. I mean I kind of knew I wanted to do this from the age of 9, I stepped on stage as this very chubby version of Annie with long straight brown hair and I just loved it, but I do think university kind of opens it up, especially having something so successful and as great as STaG really opens doors and it makes you put yourself out there. One of the guys I went to Arts Ed with for a Masters in acting after Glasgow had never done any drama before university but had then decided to pursue it so you know, there’s no rule on when you can find it.
Obviously you’ve said you wanted to act from a very young age but do you think studying English Literature was, in itself, preparation for this industry?
Do you know the massive link I found during English was Shakespeare. I am big Shakespeare fan. I’ve been in a number of his plays now, I don’t know how it’s happened, it just has and I love it. I love looking at it from an English perspective and an actor’s perspective now. I loved my English degree for the creative side of things, I would say I’m much more of a writer than a reader, I mean there’s so much to be gained from reading as well but I really loved the writing side of things, especially as time went on and you got to tailor your degree more to your own choices. But definitely a lot springs to the table from having studied English, particularly last year when I did Othello and getting to approach it firstly from a text perspective and then bring it to life.
Yeah, the attitude with a lot of students at the moment is that your degree is one thing but your other experiences are equally as relevant.
Oh absolutely, exactly that. Uni for me was so much more than the qualification I came away with. I think it was also about studying something I enjoyed , knowing all the while that I wanted to pursue acting, which meant I had something to fall back on. It gives you so much more choice.
On that note, what advice do you have for people who may be doing similar degrees or involved in theatre who want to pursue it professionally?
Just do as much of it as you possibly can, make the most of every moment. You are only at uni for a number of years. I moved back home after studying, I’d had a Scottish based agent throughout my degree so I had done bits and pieces of work but I’d never formally trained so I had to ask myself what I wanted the most. I looked into doing a Masters, for me personally I couldn’t afford the funding of a full 3 year course in acting – some of them are so expensive. But I would say, there are ways to get the funding, don’t let the finances put you off. I was holding myself back because of the prices but there are people you can write to, grants available, you just need to go for it.
So moving onto the play, Dead Simple has been so successful as a book, what do you think it is that has stuck with people about this story?
It’s a tricky question because I think it is different for everyone. What I would say is that, having done this for a few months now, it’s clear that the audience is always with you throughout on those twists and turns and it doesn’t fail to entertain. It’s always got you on the edge of your seat, you think you know what’s going on and then it gets you. But yeah it has almost a cult following with Peter James as the writer, Peter is just such a great writer in that he writes page turners. I think really it’s just good fun and very intense. My brother came the other night and he said ‘I don’t even like the theatre and I enjoyed it’. I think as well that the stage adaptation has something filmic and visual about it that works really well from a set perspective, for example to have those scenes in the coffin, it really adds to the suspense.
Playing a character like Ashley who has so many different sides and revelations to her must have been interesting, especially as people who are fans of the book will be coming with expectations in their heads.
Oh I did almost drive myself mad, getting ahead of myself with it. I kept thinking ‘oh wait, what is Alex meant to be thinking at this point, and what is she thinking here, what does she want from this person?’ and it is important for you to do that but then as an actor you just have to take a step back and think, well, her job is to con people, so you just have to believable in that moment. It’s about keeping it as simple as possible, and that keeps the audience from guessing.
It must be satisfying when you hear the audience react with gasps and surprise like they did tonight?
Yeah there are specific moments that as a company we know are coming up. But the danger with that is that you get your certain laughs or gasps but then if you don’t it can be really disappointing so you have to try not to tune into that too much.
This interview was originally published in Qmunicate magazine