The HIV and Aids pandemic has had a lot of money and energy thrown at it. Some of it wisely, some of it in desperation. Some of it hits the target, some of it misses…
Every year, TakeAway Theatre gets request for HIV-related interventions on World Aids Day (WAD), the 1st of December. Some people call early, some leave it a little late. We enjoy the challenge of multiple productions around the country – incidentally, my daughter Eve was born on the 1st of December four years ago, and I got to spend the day at the hospital while all the shows were going on.
I have always felt that is good to at least have this day, to focus on the disease and what it means in our lives, but part of me is also a little cynical, a little ambivalent. Because, I guess, people expect a message on this day – they need to see something happening – which then allows them to forget about it for another year. Businesses and organisations feel the imperative to ‘do something’ – and, now, that ‘something’ has become ‘something special’ (perhaps this is to do with Aids fatigue?) All this is about making a show, a spectacle, an event – something which is understood as compassionate, demonstrating connection with its community.
Yet often the community are at odds with the message. They might prefer to have the status quo reinforced, not disrupted. This is because the ways that we perceive HIV says so much about us – who we think is likely to get infected, and why – and how we rate our own chances of infection. These questions can be unsettling. But necessary.
Some years ago with with our sister company, Bonfire, we did some WAD stuff with a large multinational. Parts of their business – the management structure – were ruffled when our production strayed onto the twin ideas of responsibility and infidelity – something which we have found always generates interest and changed perspectives on HIV. (Infidelity is a cracker topic for people who feel that HIV has nothing to do with them or their world.) Afterwards the group expressed disappointment that the show wasn’t funnier, more enjoyable. On World Aids Day, they wanted light relief, you see – like they’d had the year before.
The other show we did for their business that day was for the disenfranchised ‘workers’ onsite – a black, Portuguese speaking group of about 250 people, who needed to interrogate what HIV was in their lives – and for them, a ‘song and a dance’ wasn’t’ going to cut it.
That show that occured was extraordinary. A member of the audience told a story of how he had had sex with a stranger in a bar, and the condom had broken. And now he was going home to his wife, who wanted to have children. Problem was, he was still in the window period. What should he do? Well, our business is not in providing answers – which is what ‘industrial theatre’, in the classical sense often attempts, namely, a transfer of information. Instead, it is in creating a space where audience members can reach their own conclusions, through the shared experience of what happens onstage. In this case, the audience had a very lively discussion about the man’s predicament. And it was funny!
So, I guess it depends on what you want to do… what you want to achieve. Is it just ‘awareness’ you’re after? Or do you want something more, to go deeper. Both have their place. But the second option – where the audience speak, and are empowered with their own voice – is much more interesting, powerful and ultimately, more effective.