The Theatre: Guardian Angel of AIDS Awareness

A student production with relevance beyond the Drama Barn? Nan Langfeldt-Flory looks at how Angels in America, in conjunction with Student Stop Aids Society, has reawakened awareness of HIV / AIDS on campus.

The 1st of December was World AIDS Day – an opportunity to regenerate awareness of a condition which is a potential threat to us all. Here in York, Martha Paren, Chair of the University branch of the Student Stop AIDS Society, organised a week of events aimed at putting the issue of AIDS back into the spotlight. In recent years the issue has taken a back seat to seemly more pressing concerns.

This week’s activities included an interactive mural to which people could add their thoughts and feelings about the AIDS crisis, collection tins (one of which was carried by a large bear for novelty’s sake), sponsored abseiling off Central Hall and, to bring the week to a close, Full Stop, in collaboration with the Afro-Caribbean Society and James College. Full Stop took place in Vanbrugh College and featured live samba music. The money raised on the night, along with the proceeds of the other activities, is going to The AIDS Support Organisation in Uganda, Student Partnership Worldwide and, closer to home, North Yorkshire AIDS Action.

This local focus is an important addition to the list. If you go by the statistics, the UK population has developed a dangerous tendency to see HIV and AIDS as illnesses which only affect other people. In the same way that people go to Live 8 and then think they’ve done their bit for world poverty, people in Britain (where good medical practice and the wide availability of condoms mean that nearly everyone should avoid infection) are becoming complacent. The initial uproar that arrived with AIDS in the late 1980s has died down and the Britsh no longer see themselves as being particularly at risk. HIV is seen as a foreign problem.

The significant increase in HIV infection in the Third World, particularly in Africa, is terrifying. The escalation is due to several factors: poverty means there is more chance of transmission in medical procedures; there a weaker educational infrastructure to inform the population about prevention; and contraception is less widely available. The fact that infection rates in the UK have also been constantly on the rise since 1999, however, demonstrates a worryingly blasé attitude. The fear in the late eighties and early nineties, when the epidemic began, has been forgotten. Educational campaigns, although helping to break down prejudice against victims, have failed to keep people vigilant against infection. The statistics speak for themselves: in 2004 there were 7,275 new diagnoses of HIV compared to 3,851 in 2000. From 1992 until 1994, the number of new infections decreased, but since 1994 the number of infections has been on the rise. There are now an estimated 74,977 people with HIV or AIDS in the UK.

In the arts, there has been a similar drop in interest in the crisis. Thematic preoccupation with the AIDS epidemic was common in many circles in the eighties and early nineties. This was particularly prevalent in contemporary gay American theatre, where performances were used to raise money and awareness for the cause and/or to remember victims. The homosexual community in the US was the first to really feel the brunt of the epidemic and their creative output was the first to study the impact of infection. Several short, experimental works were developed, and in 1984 a group of theatre practitioners in San Francisco set up a company called A.I.D.S. (Artists Involved with Death and Survival). These early creative attempts to face the AIDS crisis paved the way for addressing AIDS on the mainstream stage. This happened in 1985 with Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and William Hoffman’s As Is, both of which played in New York. The plays were met with an enthusiastic response, with As Is winning the Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play and being nominated for three Tony Awards. They did, however, attract a lot of critical attention due to the novelty of their subject matter, since they were very clearly categorised as ‘AIDS plays’.

Then, in the early 1990s, Tony Kushner’s work, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, arrived on the scene. As the title suggests, this is not a play which allows the AIDS epidemic to be seen as purely the concern of a minority of victims and their communities, and out of which uninvolved audiences can get a cathartic kick. The play studies mainstream American culture and shows how AIDS is an established part of the new national equation, as prevalent as religion, politics, drug addiction and love. In one of the play’s key lines, Louis, a gay character, rejects the idea that tolerance of the homosexual community is acceptable. Toleration is passive hatred, he argues; a fact which becomes clear when you find yourself in trouble, as being tolerated doesn’t mean anyone is going to help you out. This is what Kushner fights against in his play; he wants an assimilation of AIDS so that it becomes everyone’s problem.

Kushner’s piece is made up of two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Put together, they form an epic production that can take up to seven hours to perform. Sam Hanna, a second year English student, decided to take on the challenge and revived the play this term as a part of Martha Paren’s week of action, and thereby bring back theatrical engagement with the condition and its effects. After weeks of preparation, it was performed in the Drama Barn on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of week eight. In spite of the high ambition of the project and the many hurdles encountered along the way, Hanna and his eleven member cast pulled off the biggest and most unusual show of the term, moving away from the trend for terse three or four handers and taking the chance to really experiment with the Barn’s possibilities.

I spoke to Hanna and some of his cast in the days before the show’s opening night about the process of putting on such a large-scale show in the barn (which, as even its most ardent supporters must admit, is at best a humble venue). The barn has no backstage area, but rather a sort of side stage which also serves as one of its fire exits, hence stringent health and safety rules about how much scenery can be stored there. There is only one entrance to the stage, unless the actors go outside after the audience has arrived and come through the front entrance. Apart from its simple lighting rig, there is no technology to speak of, not even a curtain. Nevertheless, York is purportedly home to the most prolific Drama Society in the country, staging more productions a year than any other University.

Hanna took advantage of the opportunity this presents to theatre-interested students when deciding to stage Angels in America. His reasons for choosing to put on this play in particular were convincing. Firstly, he said, he loved the play for its eloquent and beautiful writing, secondly he enjoyed the challenge it presented and wanted to test the limits of student theatre. He also cited the lack of gay theatre at the University and the small number of plays with large casts as motivators (Hanna created space for two additional parts to increase the number of people involved). The collaboration with Student Stop Aids was a ‘happy accident’.

The process began with auditions where sixty-five people vied for 11 parts. A varied company was created, including five first year students and an exchange student from America. The cast testified that, in rehearsal, Hanna took a laid back and collaborative attitude. Far from being a dictatorial director, scenes were workshopped by small groups of actors and were followed by feedback from the rest of the cast. Katy Kelly, who played the Angel (amongst other small roles) explained how this style of working led to interesting and enlarging debate amongst the cast and crew. A long period of intense rehearsal with a close-knit group of people meant that no one was uncomfortable in the open and frank discussions which arose. The diversity of the people involved came in handy with the two Americans, Havilah Gianette, playing Belize and Mr. Lies, and Diedre Yee, the make-up artist, training the cast to perform with American accents.

Ben Anderson, a Drama Barn veteran, played Joe. He said that this was the first production he’d been involved with where he wanted to read around the play and find out about its theatrical context. He said ‘It’s not been just about acting, about being on stage, it’s also been about learning about a great play and all the issues it brings up. So much of what’s on in the Drama Barn is ‘done’; this is difficult, different’. Difficult seems to be an appropriate adjective; the show encountered some trouble in getting health and safety clearance: it had to abandon some of its more radical set plans and was asked to cut Joe’s nude scene (although why seeing Ben Anderson in the buff poses a health risk to anyone was beyond us all). Surely abseiling off Central Hall has more potential for fatalities, unless Anderson is secretly a Gorgon beneath those very trendy clothes of his?

For those involved, the experience clearly spread beyond simply learning lines and blocking scenes, and this will be extended to a wider audience in week ten when a representative from North Yorkshire AIDS Action will be coming in to give a talk to students. Sam Hanna will also be there to share his experiences of directing the play, as will Martha Paren.

Paren spent her gap year working in Uganda and can provide illumination on the other side of the AIDS issue: the extremely high infection rate in Africa. In the West, anti retro-viral drugs mean that HIV and AIDS patients can potentially live with a good quality of life for many years. In Africa however, profit-hungry drugs companies prevent access to life saving drugs. Given that over 40 million people are living with AIDS or HIV, the connection between AIDS and art is as important as ever, ensuring that it remains within the cultural arena. If we can encourage discourse, then work to reverse the growing trend of infection will hopefully begin to take effect. The Stop AIDS Society slogan is ‘The world is watching’, in reference to their vow to hold world leaders to the G8 pledge to work towards universal AIDS reatment by 2010. In a world with an increasingly short attention span, perhaps the best way to ensure the validity of that slogan is to give us something to watch, something to make sure we don’t lose our focus.

HIV and AIDS information and support agencies in York:

To find out more about HIV and AIDS in York:

To get a confidential and free HIV test, contact Monkgate Health Centre GUM Dept, 31 Monkgate, YO31 7WA, on (01904) 725417 to make an appointment

If you are concerned that you may have been exposed to the virus, or are worried about your sexual health, contact:

Young Person’s Sexual Health Advisor (01904) 725444 (ask for Ginni)

Yorkshire MESMAC, (for homosexual males) The Workshop, Marygate Lane, YO30 7BJ, (01904) 620400

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