Real stories resonate in Status the play
Status the play is one of the premier events as part of AIDS 2014. Stephen A. Russell talks to director, Cameron Menzies, about this extraordinary work which relays real stories from real people about their experience of HIV/AIDS.
When renowned theatre director Cameron Menzies, was tasked with creating a new theatrical work for the cultural program attached to the 20th International AIDS conference, he started with the stories of the people directly involved. He interviewed around 45 people about their own experiences, from gay men living with HIV/AIDS to negative men with HIV positive partners, to medical practitioners or heterosexual women who have faced stigma resulting from the automatic assumption their status means they are wither sex workers or drug addicted.
Gay or straight, male or female, they were asked to relay their experiences of HIV/AIDS candidly, revealing not only the heartache and prejudice they have faced, but also the personal triumphs, and a rich vein of undaunted humour.
The resulting piece, Status, which evolved from Living Positive Victoria’s stigma-tackling ENUF campaign, started life as a staged reading during Midsumma. The show will now receive a full staging at the Arts Centre’s Fairfax Studio, with the original line-up’s Will Conyers joined by three new actors, Kath Gordon, Brigid Gallacher and Matt Hickey.
“The space is very abstract, however the performances are exceptionally real and three-dimensional,” Menzies says. “It won’t look like someone’s lounge room or bedside. It’s kind of like an exploded wall. There are pieces you can pull out, so the actors will create little spaces for themselves.”
One of the nameless real life characters represented in Status is a 70-year-old woman who has spent over 30 years working as both a carer and then as a volunteer supporting people living with HIV/AIDS.
“She would take men in who were completely rejected by their families, no questions asked,” Menzies says. “Before the Make-A-Wish Foundation even existed, she’d raise funds to organise balloon flights or boat rides for them. She’s an amazing woman.”
One of the most upsetting encounters, which has been retained from the original production, is recounted by a woman working in a hospital during the height of the AIDS crisis in the late 80s. A mother visiting her young son, who had become blind because of AIDS-related retinitis, was too scared to allow his young brothers to hug him.
“Of all the senses, depriving someone of touch is apparently the most detrimental,” Menzies says. “It is such a devaluation of the human being.”
Status also throws light on the personal toll experienced by doctors repeatedly delivering positive diagnoses. “You get a sense from this that they have to put themselves in the right mind frame,” Menzies says. “You have to do the right thing for every person, you can’t go into rote.”
Even in some of the bleakest moments, the indomitable nature of the Australian humour shines through. “We meet a man who is HIV-positive, and has been for a very long time, who talks about helping his friends take control of their lives and essentially euthanise themselves,” Menzies says.
“It’s very sad, but the way he told us had such an edge of humour to it, so full of life, that he makes you chuckle.”
Menzies was very conscious of not creating a time capsule piece – he wanted these stories to feel very current, particularly as they will play out to an international audience in town for the AIDS Conference. “We’re all, as human beings, responsible for tackling the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. Every detail is so charismatic and these stories need to be told, to be given a voice.
Does anyone deserve it more or less, whether you’ve gone out to nightclubs and slept unprotected with 50 people, or you slept with your boyfriend for the first time?”
He has been humbled by the support from the organisers of the cultural program, and from the Arts Centre, who jumped on board. He hopes HIV negative audiences will embrace Status and gain a better understanding of the broad range of stories at play.
“You think you know about HIV/AIDS and then all of a sudden you start researching and being told stories and you think we’re not told any of this? Why is our education so minimal or so hollowed out? The cast are doing such a fabulous job. It’s gonna make you laugh and it will also break your heart.”
[Images] Polaroids from Status. Photo: Supplied
Status is at the Arts Centre, July 23-27, 2014. For more info or to book tickets, go to artscentremelbourne.com.au or aids2014.org