Joy Gregory Brings Joy to America’s Living Rooms Through Her Writing

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One thread connects the vast variety of work Joy Gregory (Critical Studies MFA 99) writes—women fighting for their place in a hostile environment.  Describing herself as a journeywoman in series TV writing, Gregory has brought entertainment to America’s living rooms in 45-minute doses. 

Throughout her career, she has not only written strong female characters but also been one herself. Taking from the page to the streets, she fought for her and fellow writers’ rights during the recent WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. 

Gregory with her favorite strike sign at a WGA picket | Courtesy of Gregory

A Peabody Award winner and three-time Humanitas nominee, Gregory has been a writer and producer on a plethora of shows including Madam Secretary, The Resident, Switched at Birth, Scoundrels, Jericho, Devil in Ohio, Monarch, The Nine, Felicity, Joan of Arcadia, Windfall, Swingtown, and Trust Me. Gregory has also starred on the screen in Since You’ve Been Gone, Felicity, and Blink

She loves hearing about how her shows reach people; once, a young woman told Gregory that was inspired to study foreign policy because of Madam Secretary. The key role that writers play in crafting culture and lives is one of the reasons why she so strongly supported the strikes.

“We should get a share in what we created,” she said.

Gregory (center) and the early members of the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago | Courtesy of Gregory

Gregory got her start in writing through the world of theater. After attending Cleveland School of the Arts and finishing her undergrad in acting at Northwestern University in the late 1980s, she started the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago. There, she performed in many plays alongside cofounder David Schwimmer, also writing and producing plays like All Souls Day and dreaming lucia. Her musical The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World was nominated for the 2011 Drama Critics’ Circle Award and a Lucile Lortel Award. Gregory also did vocals and guitar with her Chicago indie rock band Tart, performing with Lookingglass member Laura Eason as well as Rick Karr and Michael Lenzi.

Wanting to dive deeper into writing, Gregory applied to CalArts and joined the second class of the new Critical Studies writing program. She recalls that she came to CalArts to accompany her husband to LA and work on plays, but she ended up creating solo performances on topics like female nudity through an art theory lens, starting a novel, and writing tons of critical essays. 

“I felt like a dog who was finally unleashed and romping through a meadow, following every new smell that tempted me,” Gregory said. 

Gregory with the cast of her musical The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World | Courtesy of Gregory

In the three years after her graduation from CalArts, Gregory built a base in the arts and arts-adjacent world. She taught arts and writing at a men’s prison in Chino through the California Arts in Corrections, taught at a Burbank recreation center, and worked with at-risk youth through the Theatre Youth Project. 

TV writing came into Gregory’s life through a writing group for women filmmakers. Collaborating with a recent UCLA grad, she and her co-writer wrote spec scripts for West Wing and Felicity. Lightning struck for the first time for Gregory when she got an agent, a job writing on Felicity, and membership into the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA). Lighting struck again when Barbara Hall, the creator of Madam Secretary and Joan of Arcadia, took a chance on Gregory.

Gregory making revisions for a Madam Secretary episode script on the State Department set. | Courtesy of Gregory

Up until the time she started writing for Madam Secretary, Gregory felt that she had carved out a lane for herself in writing teen and family dramas. This TV show brought her into a world that not only explored family dynamics but added a level of sophistication through the addition of foreign policy and politics. 

“That to me was like another graduate degree,” Gregory said. “I finally got to spread my wings and learn and write about something I didn’t know about. I could feel how quickly my brain could expand, and it reminded me of my first few weeks at CalArts when I would come back home and tell my husband that I felt like my brain had grown already!”

Gregory and fellow Madam Secretary writers celebrate finishing another season | Courtesy of Gregory

After Madam Secretary opened up a new avenue for Gregory, she began to delve into a wider range of stories, from politics to medical dramas, even rodeo and bull-riding stories. She learned to appreciate the different worlds into which character dramas could lead. Through collaboration with staff members, like the practicing physicians on the writing team of The Resident, Gregory became an instant expert in many different fields. 

Story beats for the TV show The Resident | Courtesy of Gregory

On these TV shows, Gregory has tried to portray women who navigate their way through environments where they are not always welcome. In an industry that is still not an even playing field for women’s shows and women’s voices, she has found comfort in the ability to create her own content.

Gregory (right) and other writers at the 100th episode celebration for Madam Secretary | Courtesy of Gregory

“I want to be modeling what it looks like to build a more inclusive world without becoming didactic or preachy,” Gregory said. “I love showing the difficulty of working, mature relationships, and how everybody is flawed but doing the best they can. Those are the shows I most like to watch and it’s the writing I think I am best at.”

Gregory picketing with the creator and showrunner of Ride, Rebecca Boss and Sherri Cooper-Landsman | Courtesy of Gregory

Gregory has yet to come across a talking point that makes her stop and acknowledge the studios’ perspective. Coming back from picketing at studios like Disney and Netflix, there is a sense of solidarity and support that she said makes it obvious who the “bad guys” are. The entertainment industry has remained a stronghold for unions despite national anti-labor efforts to de-unionize other industries. 

Because of the strike, she has been able to dedicate time to creating her own series, a project 20 years in the making. Gregory hopes that the way forward can be through “making our own content on our own terms.” Just like the women she writes, she and her fellow writers are making a path through the mistreatment of the streaming companies, insisting on their right to be here and be compensated fairly.

“You can’t break us,” Gregory said.

— Ishika Muchhal

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