Stephen Hart is a London-based singer, actor, and activist. An attractive man with shorn dark hair, clipped beard, and soulful eyes, Hart lived through a cruel childhood, was out on his own from an early age, and struggled to put himself through school. He forged a creative life that brought him work in film and television, and he was featured in the Andrew Lloyd Webber–produced West End musical Bombay Dreams.
Then one night in late 2005, he was out at a local bar. He remembers his friend departing early, leaving Hart to finish his drink solo. Suddenly, he began feeling woozy. He felt the heavy arm of a stranger around him, guiding him out the pub door. Then he remembers waking up alone, naked, and bloody. He had been raped. That brutal violation led to a diagnosis of HIV six months later.
After all this, Hart should have a bitter mean streak, a chip on his shoulder. Really, he should be pissed. Instead, Stephen Hart is charming, funny, kind, warm-hearted, and generous. Those life events that would have understandably made another man hide away have spurred Hart to open up and share his truth with the world, in hopes that his story will help someone else.
In 2009, Hart took his troubled and at times traumatic life story and created a solo play, Shadowed Dreamer, which he performed to great acclaim Off Broadway in New York City. He recently returned to New York to honor the 10-year anniversary of his triumph, and to re-create his show for a few exclusive performances. After one performance where he enraptured a theatre filled with teenagers, he talked to me about his HIV story, the evolution of the play, and how by sharing his story and trying to help others, he has healed a lot in himself.
"It's been a really long journey," Hart said, "because there were two years there [after I was raped] where I really just wanted to die." Hart put on a good façade and went to work and outwardly lived a normal life, but in the privacy of his flat, he would close the door and burst into tears. "I was crying about being raped. I was crying about the HIV diagnosis," he said. "And I was crying because I wasn't as smart as I thought I was."
He said that he'd felt like he was just waiting to die. Even though he was in care and had started taking HIV medications, he carried the weight of impending doom with him for two years.
"And then I woke up one morning and thought, 'I'm so bloody bored of waiting to die!'" Hart giggled. "I literally thought, 'Heck, I guess this isn't going to happen!'" Still, it was another two years before he started writing about it, or even considering telling people what had happened to him.
In 2008, Hart was working with students in London, helping them create their own solo work on a project called Bridges. This project brought Hart and the London students together with students at Brooklyn College in New York. Through helping those young artists, he realized he had his own story to tell, so he returned to the United Kingdom to create Shadowed Dreamer. "It took about a year to write," he said, "to get it to a place where I was ready to show people."
Hart created Shadowed Dreamer as a one-man dramatic monologue that honestly tackles multiple themes in his life, including child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, gay identity, surviving his rape, and learning to live with HIV. The play ends with Hart triumphantly singing Scott Alan's "I'm a Star," showing his own strength, resilience, and amazing hope.
In 2009, he performed the show for a limited run at the Bleecker Street Theatre in New York. "It was amazing," he said. "I was doing the show five times per week. There were people who came several times, you know. People who became die-hard fans of Shadowed Dreamer. It was really amazing."
Hart noticed those die-hards were not only showing up to the theatre repeatedly but also were bringing friends and family members along. "It started to build up this network of people," Hart said, "and you know, of course all this network is on Facebook." (Although he's done sporadic performances of the play in subsequent years, the Off-Broadway run was his major production of the work.)
After the show closed and he returned to the UK, he stayed in touch with many of his fans via social media. "They all got older, got qualified, and became doctors and all the things they've gone on to become," Hart said. "And still they ask, what happens after Shadowed Dreamer?"
He didn't know the answer. "I knew I had a voice," he said, "but I just didn't know how to use it." One day, he was watching videos on YouTube. "It had always been in the back of my head, you know, [to start my own channel]. But I'd always been scared." He thought, "'What happens if I'm a huge failure?' Then I realized that I've thought that before, and at least I can say that I did it, you know?"
Three years ago, Hart started his own YouTube channel and show, Hart Talks, where he uses the platform to talk about love, life, sex, relationships, and all things HIV.
"I've been telling my story very, very publicly, you know," Hart said. "Once you put it out there on the internet, there's no going back on it."
One of the most important things to Hart is telling his story honestly, so that maybe people won't be so quick to judge others -- or feel alone if they're going through rough times themselves.
"[On Hart Talks,] I talk about things that happened in my childhood, things in my adult life. But also," Hart adds, "there's me with my friends, being silly, being normal, because that's what happens after Shadowed Dreamer. I live my life, you know -- I carry on living."
"And that's why we do it, isn't it?" Hart concluded. "Whether you have HIV, or whether you have whatever-it-might-be, you've just got to do your best to keep on living."