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"I Imagine Gay Men Who Lived Through AIDS at Its Most Ravaging Will Never Stop Thinking About It"
An Interview With playwright Christopher Shinn

February 28, 2013

Wendell Pierce in Four, play by Christopher Shinn

Wendell Pierce in Four, play by Christopher Shinn

Last month Wolfe Releasing acquired Four, a film that explores one night in four people lives, that touches on sexuality, desire, and how we get what we want from others. Staring Wendell Pierce, directed by Joshua Sanchez, the film is based on the play by Pulitzer Prize finalist Christopher Shinn. Currently Shinn's latest play, Teddy Ferrara, looking at media representation, sexuality and how we know what we know, is wrapping up a debut run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Amid all this, Shinn answers a few questions from Visual AIDS about understanding AIDS, mentorship, and trusting your audience.

Visual AIDS: In Four Joe says, "Sometimes I think this virus is the best thing that ever happened to us, it reminds us we are human." Was the line something you had been thinking a lot about before you wrote the play, or was it something that the sprang from Joe the character as you were writing him?

I wrote the play in 1996, when I was 20 years old, so it's hard for me to remember some aspects of how the play came into being. But I know I wrote the play very quickly and intuitively and I'm sure this line originated with the character of Joe. I just heard his voice so clearly -- the voice of a conservative and closeted man who would need to justify the horror of AIDS in a moralistic way.

Visual AIDS: What does the line mean to you? Do you believe it?

I don't believe what the character is saying. It's hard to argue that disease makes people more empathetic. For many people disease is something that makes them flee others, frightened of understanding and imagining what it is to be sick. It's possible in theory that sickness will humanize someone who isn't sick, but in reality often it serves as an excuse for people to dehumanize others.

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Visual AIDS: As someone who writes across generations about sexuality, where and how do you place HIV in the lives of the characters you write? How does it fit into the life of Gabe (from Teddy Ferrara)? Or Joe's? Is there a difference?

AIDS was obviously still very much in the discourse when I wrote Four in 1996. It's hard for me to say how it exists today in 2013. I've been monogamously partnered since 2007 and it isn't something I think about in personal terms very much anymore. I know my friends in their 30s worry about STDs but AIDS does not come up much in their conversation. Is this because the disease is perceived to be manageable now? Or is AIDS too scary and still something people are in denial about? It's very rare that I hear my younger students talk about AIDS and they never write about it. I don't think the word AIDS comes up once in my play about young LGBTQ students, Teddy Ferrara, though there's plenty of talk about infidelity, anonymous sex, pornography, homophobia, civil rights...

I imagine that gay men, like Joe, who lived through AIDS at its most ravaging will never stop thinking about it.

Visual AIDS: In Four, sex is something that happens early on, precipitates other action to take place, and unlike most narratives that may occur on "a steamy July 4th night", it is not the most important thing shared by two people. I wonder if you want to discuss this in relation to how you see drama unfolding? Where does sex fit in? How does it play out for characters that you are interested in?

When I wrote the play at 20, I felt that during sex, lots of things got communicated that couldn't be put into words for some reason. I was in my first real relationship when I wrote Four and I remember feeling that sex was largely about these mysterious other things. So I think the play and the movie probably reflect that.

Obviously there is some biological element at play in desire, but ultimately that element seems minor to me. I think we actually understand desire very poorly, despite our culture's superficial insistence that desire is some kind of transparent and objective force in human nature. I think this is a fantasy we agree to believe in to protect ourselves from its mystery, its links to trauma and its overwhelming nature at times.

Even though the characters of Four don't know each other well they are communicating to one another what their deeper feelings are -- isolation, disappointment, grief. These feelings then propel the story forward.

Visual AIDS: Both Four and Teddy Ferrara deal with subjects that if you are political and queer, can seem almost banal. But if you are not, may provoke intense emotions and lead to larger conversations. How do you tease out what is interesting to a diverse audience when topics like suicide, resiliency, same sex desire, and HIV are part of your everyday life? How do you know what needs to be explained?

I just try to write directly and truthfully about my world. If the audience has trouble keeping up with it, I just trust that as time goes on they will find their way. If you go to a Shakespeare play the language can feel foreign to your ears as can the idiosyncrasies of the setting, and you have no choice but to work hard and adjust. I'm happy to ask audiences to adjust to my world. Hopefully they are up for it!

Visual AIDS: In the wake of growing interest in HIV/AIDS activism, and as conversations around teen suicide continue, a lot of talk has been had around queer mentorship. I wonder what you think about role models and how queer history and information is passed on?

I think today you see a lot of mentorship happening through 12-step programs, and also from therapists to patients. But mentorship is tricky -- often it doesn't get to the heart of the agony in the soul of the needy individual. There's some deep area of human nature it can't touch, which is one reason we have art. That said, I think our deepest selves are ultimately only reached through our intimate relationships. It's there that any possible salvation lies.


Links

Wendell Pierce speaks about his role in Four with IndieWire.

Christopher Shinn talks "It Gets Better" with Buzzfeed.




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