With the Fringe’s reputation for wall-to-wall comedy it’s good to see someone making a bold stab at an important social issues play. William M Hoffman’s As Is – at Bedlam Theatre – was the first play to take a clear look at the AIDS pandemic back in the 1980s. Here director Milla Jackson talks to The Wee Review.
Why As Is? Why now?
This year is the 30th anniversary of As Is’s premiere Off-Broadway. In terms of how far we’ve come in understanding and treatment options for HIV/AIDS, it feels like a lifetime ago. But the fear and stigma associated with a diagnosis still seems to be prevalent; we are working with Waverley Care in Scotland this year, and they estimate around 25% of people with HIV don’t know their status. Theatre has a fantastic power to be a non-threatening and non-militant way of raising awareness of an issue, and allowing people to take the thoughts and feelings raised away with them and apply them to their own lives, and create their own stories. Live storytelling has always been the most powerful tool for people to broach subjects difficult to fully understand or talk about. This play is a stimulus to talk about AIDS, true, but also about life and death, sexuality, and how we can love people ‘as is’. That’s our philosophy when it comes to theatre-making, and we think this play is a fantastic way to do that. Hopefully at least some of our audience will feel more open and positive about knowing their status.
The time period, too, was very pertinent for me – in some places, almost a whole generation of gay men died from HIV/AIDS. They can’t tell their stories, so it felt very poignant and significant to try to tell a part of their stories.
A play about AIDS. It sounds depressing?
There are beautifully written moments of tragedy of course, but for me the play is more a love story against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis than an ‘AIDS play’. That’s what we really want people to know about – yes it’s a social issue play, but the most important thing is that it’s about people, how they respond to times of crisis, and their capacity for frustration, fear, cruelty, and above all love. This love story is uplifting and full of hope!
It was written back in 1985. Has it dated?
I think it’s very much of its time in terms of the politics and cultural references in the play, and with the design, we have been very influenced by 1980s art references, like Keith Haring, Gilbert and George, Sam Caulfield. But in terms of fear, ignorance and stigma of HIV – that still exists, and that’s something that this play has the power to address by making information accessible in a very human context, rather than militantly educational or preaching. Plus the play for me really is a love story, and that never dates!
This was the first play to tackle the AIDS pandemic or was that the more famous The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer?
This play was actually first staged in March 1985, a month before The Normal Heart. So I think there had been some Off-Off-Broadway shows addressing it, but this was the first play to really stand up to a wider audience and say, look, this is how people are feeling and it’s frightening. The Normal Heart is a fantastic telling of the political history of the AIDS crisis in New York, but As Is is more of a social history – what the zeitgeist was and what was happening to everyday people.
In 1985 the New York Times said that As Is was ‘lively’ and full of ‘charity and humour’ but it’s in no way a comedy. Is there a lot of humour in it?
In the first read-through of the play in rehearsals, everyone was surprised about how funny it is. It’s got incredibly sharp and witty observations about human nature and is very self-aware about the aspects of culture it’s depicting. It’s a very human play. We’ve had a real treat with it in that the characters are so well-developed and rounded, and exploring human nature and all its foibles is so often funny. It’s depicting things we’ve seen and things we know we’ve done ourselves.
Does the play have resonances for a non-LGBT audience?
Absolutely. Of course, HIV doesn’t just affect the LGBT community – it’s only recently that new diagnoses of HIV in men who have sex with men have overtaken those in heterosexual people. But the themes in the play are completely universal – love, fear, sickness, and the fragility of life and our own mortality. That’s why the play still holds up now. When the [US] Supreme Court passed legislation recognising marriage equality, the really impactful message for me was ‘love is love’ – gay, straight, somewhere in between, whatever. The love in this play is love, no matter who it’s between, and that resonates with all of us.
Many young people – gay and straight – think AIDS is now curable but it’s not. How big a problem is it?
HIV/AIDS doesn’t have a cure, it’s true, but medical advances are so great now that with the right treatment programme followed correctly, a person’s viral load can drop to such a low level that the chances of transmitting the virus are virtually non-existent. The biggest problem is people who don’t know their status. That’s one of the biggest causes of the virus being transmitted. There are definitely a lot of possible reasons for people not knowing – there’s fear, there’s the stigma associated with it, that it’s something that couldn’t possibly have happened to me because it’s other groups of people it happens to, and for me that’s something that’s really difficult to address and change.
Was it this that made you decide to revive the play?
That was definitely part of the reason. Arts and information work so well together to break down difficult issues without an agenda, and to allow people to take stories away and create their own from them. This play felt like a real opportunity to do that. The time period is really inspiring – we’re taking advantage of multimedia, graphic design and the street art of the 80s to bring people into the world. And the themes of truth, love and humanity are so important and relatable and told in such a well-rounded and witty way. It’s a story that everyone can be a part of.
It’s ambitious of you to put on a play like this at the Edinburgh Fringe – it’s not a comedy, it’s not a one-person show – can you say something about this? What motivated you to choose this play?
It was really the power of the story. Comedy, solo shows, whatever kind of art you’re making, is all about storytelling. It’s been a real challenge – we are committed to paying our artists, and everybody on the show (with a cast of eight!) is being paid National Minimum Wage, so we are still fundraising so we can offer those opportunities to emerging artists. Bringing As Is to Edinburgh will expose the play to an intellectual, arts-loving audience from all over the world and all different demographics. In my experience of the Fringe, the audience is looking for a more challenging and stimulating theatre experience, to have their preconceptions and boundaries pushed so As Is’s message will be able to have a huge impact in this context.