The Play's the Thing
On an afternoon in December, three groups of New York City schoolchildren go on a field trip with a difference. Instead of visiting Ellis Island or the Bronx Zoo or any of the city's thousands of other historical and educational attractions, these kids are taken to Pace University's Downtown Theatre in lower Manhattan. Here, under the sponsorship of a group called Community Works, they will see This AIDS Thing, a frank and thought-provoking production by the fourteen-year-old AIDS Theatre Project.
When the students arrive, the stage is bare except for a few simple furnishings and props -- four chairs, a small table, a couple of telephones. Three men and a woman enter. As they begin to speak, it is to themselves, not each other, but each is saying the same thing: "I have AIDS!"
Over the next half hour, the characters -- "Chris Marshall," "Rita Brown," "Robert Findley," and "Kevin" -- share with the audience some of the problems and questions and fears that are part of the lives of people with AIDS. In a series of monologues and two-person vignettes, we hear about the difficulties of dealing with a diagnosis of HIV or AIDS. Among the issues they cover are decisions about how and to whom to disclose information, bureaucratic nightmares around insurance and preparing wills, and the practical problems involved in simply getting good and reliable health information. Rita looks back at her own history of drug use and ahead to the possibility of her own death. Chris fights isolation and stigmatization. Kevin talks about his anger, and his bereavement at the loss of many of his friends. Robert remembers being at the bedside of his dying wife and the conversation in which he gave her permission to go. The characters recount hellish emergency room visits and the delicate issue of disclosing their status to potential sexual partners.
At the end of the scripted play, the actors step out of character and are joined by ATP Managing Director Lisa Freedman. She introduces the actors and explains that all of them, and she herself, are HIV-positive, and invites the audience to ask questions about the issues that have been raised in the play, or any other questions they have about HIV and AIDS.
The questions are slow in coming at first. There is a lot of giggling in the young audience, a lot of whispering. Gradually, however, and with some prodding by Freedman and the teachers in the audience, some of the braver hands are raised. Once the ice is broken, it gets easier, and the Q and A becomes lively and far-ranging.
The questions betray greatly differing degrees of knowledge about HIV/AIDS, but they also demonstrate that these children know the disease is out there and that they want to know how they can keep from getting it. The ATP panel is careful to treat all questions seriously. When one young girl asks if she could get HIV from lip gloss, the question is greeted by laughs and groans from some of her peers. One of the actors silences them, however, with the admonition that there is no such thing as a stupid question, and uses it as an opening for an AIDS 101-type discussion of how the virus is transmitted. This leads to further questions about the safety of things like kissing, and even of oral sex.
At the other end of the spectrum, one of the young people raises the publicity about Magic Johnson's claims to have been "cured," leading to a fairly sophisticated discussion of viral load and how the new drugs may not work for everyone, and may not work forever.
The youngsters want to know if babies can be born positive, and whether two HIV-positive people need to use condoms when having sex. They ask incisive and poignant questions about how to talk to potential partners before "the intimate moment" and whether rejection is a problem for people with HIV.
At first, the questions from the audience all revolve around sexual transmission of the virus. When discussing how the virus enters the blood, however, the panelists themselves raise the issue of sharing needles for intravenous drug use or body piercing.
The ATP group answers the questions frankly, talking about their own experiences and those of their friends. They talk about the times they have been rejected, either by potential sex partners or by old friends and even family members. They also talk about the sometimes unexpected support they have found from loved ones and from others both within and outside of "the AIDS community." They talk about the importance of using condoms all the time, and why the girls should have their own condoms and not leave it to the guys. They talk about how they dealt with their own diagnoses, about their own feelings of fear and shame, and about how they are working to overcome them.
The AIDS Theatre Project was formed in 1987, making it among the older of the small programs formed in response to the AIDS epidemic. Managing Director Freedman draws a strong distinction between ATP and larger multi-service organizations such as Gay Men's Health Crisis or AIDS Project Los Angeles. "We're an educational theatre project," she says, "not an AIDS service organization."
The genesis of the ATP was in a series of writing workshops held at the AIDS residence Bailey House, originally conceived as a creative outlet for people living with AIDS. As the participants explored their own feelings, however, they wanted to share their experiences with others, and eventually they wanted to be part of getting the prevention message out.
The original members of the company were primarily professional actors who were too sick to work regularly. As the epidemic spread and its demographics changed, so too did the makeup of the AIDS Theatre Project. Today few of the participants have any prior theatrical experience, and members of the company include men and women, gay and straight, and all ethnic backgrounds. They include both people who contracted the virus through unprotected sex and recovering intravenous drug users.
All of the actors in ATP productions are HIV-positive, and volunteers include both those infected and affected by the virus. Paid staff include Freedman, the company's half-time managing director, and a part-time resident director who runs rehearsals. The Project is currently looking for a new artistic director. There are also three part-time volunteers, and three high school student interns from Generation Safe at Montefiore Hospital are scheduled to join the group soon. Freedman estimates that there are about six active "veteran" actors in the company. In addition, another four actors have become less active with ATP as improved health has allowed them to take on other responsibilities, but they are available to fill in when one of the regulars is unable to perform. Six new members were added to the company at auditions in December and are now being trained.
The works performed by the AIDS Theatre Project are collaborative efforts based on the actual experiences of the company members. They are written collectively by company members and ATP's artistic director. These are constantly being updated as the epidemic changes and as new issues become apparent through either the experiences of new members or the questions asked by the young people attending performances. The actors do not always portray themselves in the plays, taking on instead the roles of other company members or of composite characters that exemplify common issues.
Three core pieces make up the base of ATP's repertory. This AIDS Thing, described above, is the Project's standard piece and features four individuals telling about their own experiences and feelings as PWAs. The Waiting Room is aimed specifically at adolescents and is set in the waiting room of a health clinic. An adolescent woman is waiting for a pregnancy test, while two adult women are there to be tested for HIV. The women begin to talk, and the older women tell of their experiences and why they think they may have been exposed to the virus. Gradually, the younger woman realizes that the same unsafe sex that may have resulted in pregnancy could also have put her at risk for HIV. She decides to have an HIV test. The story very closely parallels the experience of a young company member who tested positive in her teens. The older women's stories contain elements of Lisa Freedman's experience and those of company member Wilma Rivera, who died last year, and of Kathy, the actress who portrays Rita Brown in This AIDS Thing (see below). Moment to Moment is something of a concert piece, including poetry, storytelling, and song exploring the intricacies of living with AIDS.
The Project also conducts writing workshops, which will resume within the next few months, and has other projects on the drawing boards. The high school student intern will be working on What'd You Get?, set in a high school cafeteria, which is currently being workshopped on its way to becoming a play. A small grant from the Manhattan Cultural Arts Fund of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council has been added to ATP's Wilma Rivera Memorial Fund for bilingual and Spanish productions. Esta Cosa del SIDA -- This AIDS Thing in Spanish -- is set to premiere in March. A group of five HIV-negative people have expressed an interest in working with the Project on a piece exploring the impact of HIV on individuals who are affected by HIV but not infected.
ATP productions are aimed primarily at young people in high school and college. One of the groups of students at the Pace University performance of This AIDS Thing was a class of New York City fifth graders. While it is unusual for ATP to perform for children this young, the class was included at the request of the teacher, who felt that the students had had enough classroom-type information to enable them to receive the more personal message of the play. This AIDS Thing is soon to be performed at the Center for Community Alternatives, a program that serves children at risk of trouble with the law. The Project is New York-based, but is willing to go anywhere to get the prevention message to young people. It performs in both the inner city and the more affluent suburbs, and has traveled as far away as Indiana and Georgia.
The underlying philosophy is that it's never too early for children to begin learning how to protect themselves, and the Project places great emphasis on presenting the information in age-appropriate ways. The focus is on getting the information to kids in a way kids understand. Older children in particular may be self-conscious and as a result self-censoring, and ATP participants are careful to protect children's feelings. Cast members are trained to try to elicit the right questions from audiences of different ages and levels of knowledge, and may turn the tables and ask questions of the audience.
Finance and Publicity
Like many AIDS-related programs, ATP faces the problem of raising the money to stay in business and do its job. In addition to performance fees and a few small grants from the likes of the North Star Fund, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and some pharmaceutical companies, ATP sponsors an Open Mike Night approximately every two months.
The Open Mike Night is something of a hybrid, doubling as a fundraiser and a vehicle for getting the organization's name known. It is held in the lower level of CB's Gallery, a somewhat quieter adjunct of the rock club CBGB on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The space is a long, comfortable room somewhat reminiscent of the poetry-and-folk-music venues of a generation or two ago, but with better acoustics and without the haze of blue smoke. The Gallery donates the space in exchange for proceeds from the bar, and the audience is asked to make a donation to ATP. Performance is open to everyone, regardless of HIV status. Participants have the choice of whether to give any autobiographical information before they perform, and of whether to mention their HIV status. A recent Open Mike Night featured poetry reading and singing by both regular participants and newcomers before an overwhelmingly supportive audience.
As this article goes to press, ATP is facing something of a logistical crisis. Now, however, that facility is being renovated, and health concerns resulting from the construction work have mandated that everyone be moved out of the facility. At this writing, ATP isn't sure just where it's going to be by the time you receive this magazine.
It is sure, however, that it will survive, however in temporary quarters. Anyone wanting to audition or volunteer for the company, to book a performance, or simply to get information about performances or Open Mike night or be added to the mailing list, should call the ATP Info Line at (212) 802-7736. You can also visit ATP's website at aidstheatreproject.org or e-mail the Project at email@example.com.
Late Breaking (Good) News: As this issue was going to press, ATP announced the appointment of J. Drew Picard, founder and director of the Barrier-Free Theatre Company, as artistic director. ATP was also entering the final stage of negotiations to sublet office space from the non-profit HIV education organization Mothers' Voices, located in the theatre district.
Regarding his own experiences at ATP, he says that at first they were somewhat unnerving. "When I had to shout 'I have AIDS,' I was terrified. That almost blew me away." He stuck with it though, and feels that he is making a real contribution. "Kids seem to gravitate to me," he says, "thinking that I'm younger than I am." And he admits to a certain ambivalence. "I don't go around saying that I am positive," he says. "A lot of people don't know. It seems contradictory, but I'm still working through it myself."
Ray (Robert): Ray, who chooses not to give his age, is a self-described "eclectic." He was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1989, but guesses he became infected in the late 1970's -- a time when the AIDS epidemic had not yet revealed itself. With hindsight, he recalls that during the 1980s, he had bouts with at-the-time unexplainable physical conditions, which today would be perceived to be early symptoms of HIV infection.
Ray was first introduced to the work of the AIDS Theatre Project by a long-time acquaintance who was working with the company, and who invited him to attend several of the company's benefit performances. The performances impressed Ray very much. So when he became disabled by illness in 1996, he decided to join the company. Ray's motives, like those of many others, were to give back to the community. Although he's not comfortable with the term, he admits to seeing himself as somewhat of a role model. "I have something to say to young people," he says, "I have the knowledge to give to them. I believe I became infected before anyone knew AIDS existed. But, today, young people do know about it and have an advantage I didn't have. They need to think about what they're doing." He sees ATP's approach as particularly effective in reaching young people. Some people may not get the prevention message from other approaches he believes, "Because they have no way of attaching to it. It's abstract. We are real. We bring it closer to home."
Ray does not attend support groups, but volunteers at several AIDS service organizations. He underscores Friedman's point that ATP is a theatre company, not an ASO, and the company is not a substitute support group for him, but more of an avocation. "Like anywhere, there's been bad chemistry at times. Like any workplace, there are people I wouldn't normally find myself socializing with. Even though there are some people who may get on nerves, there are many others who have become nice friends." Ray is also ATP's archivist and is ensuring that its history is documented for future reference and research.
Kathy (Rita): A 51-year-old black woman, Kathy was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1994. She spent her adult life as a homemaker and raising her three children, now ages 23, 25, and 12. She shared the information with her two older children, both boys, but felt that her daughter, then 5, was too young to understand. "I was afraid to let them see, and I would wait until they were in bed and hide in the bathroom and cry." As a result of the stress of her diagnosis and her fears for her children, Kathy suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. When she was released, she was called to the school because one of her sons was having trouble. She was referred to family counseling for HIV-affected families, and her therapist suggested that she look into joining ATP -- "You're so dramatic!"
The decision to join the AIDS Theatre Project had a profound effect on Kathy and her family. She realized that if she was going to speak publicly about having the virus, she could no longer keep the truth from her 8-year-old daughter. Reluctantly and nervously, she told the girl about her HIV. To Kathy's joy, the girl's major reaction was to ask, "Mommy, why didn't you tell me?" Kathy credits ATP with some of the new openness and support in her family.
As for her experiences within the company, Kathy says, "I've never felt so good about myself. Kids relate to me because my kids were young when I was diagnosed. I've had kids come up and hug me after the show and tell me about family members who have AIDS. And others, like kids up in the Adirondacks, don't believe it can happen to them because they don't know anyone with AIDS. I had a woman in Georgia say, 'I could be walking in your shoes.' And I had a minister in Indiana say we deserved what we got." Overall, she says, "I care about children. I feel good being able to help."
Garret (Chris): Garret is a 38-year-old white former schoolteacher originally from Long Island City. Diagnosed in 1993, he joined ATP about a year ago in response to an ad in Body Positive. His experience triggered a long-dormant interest in the performing arts, and he is now doing non-AIDS-related theatre work. He has done three children's shows and is preparing to appear in his first adult Off-Off-Broadway play.
"It's just a good thing that we do," he says of ATP. It seems like an old story, and it has been around for several years, but it's still important, especially now that the drugs aren't working for everyone." Garret knows, having been through just about every HIV cocktail there is. "I'm on the newest, and it's already showing signs of resistance. They seem to work for about six months." He thinks the Project is one way he can help. "Kids are aware, but they don't get it. It's not part of their world. It can't happen to them. I felt that way too."
Lisa Freedman (Managing Director): Lisa Freedman, a 38-year-old white woman, traces her involvement with ATP to 1995, when she responded to an ad in Body Positive. Somewhat shy and reluctant at first, looking for a quiet backstage assignment, she soon found herself acting in the company's productions. She joined the staff in 1996 as the Project's part-time managing director.
Freedman was a writer and editor in Washington, D.C., in 1991, when she was diagnosed HIV-positive. Like so many, she had seen HIV as something that happened to other people. It was the knowledge that there were many others putting themselves at risk through ignorance that led her to become an AIDS educator. She worked as a speaker before coming to New York in 1995 and joining ATP. She has since grown to appreciate what she sees as the unique role of the theatre in spreading the prevention message. A young audience responds differently to a play than to a speech, she says, adding, "The theatre provides a neutral place, separate from the audience and the actors, so the audience members feel comfortable enough to absorb the stories and internalize the information and ask good questions."
Laura Engle is a freelance writer with a special interest in HIV/AIDS issues and a former editor of Body Positive_._