Aaron Vodovoz stars alongside Alexander McMorran in Steven Dietz’s 1993 two-hander Lonely Planet, which he also produces. The production, directed by Ian Brown, transfers to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios next week after an acclaimed run last year at the fringe Tabard Theatre. Love London Love Culture’s Emma Clarendon talked to Aaron about his upcoming role and why the AIDS-era play is still so relevant.
For those who aren’t familiar with Lonely Planet, could you explain more about what the play is about?
Lonely Planet is a fantastically funny and sensitive play that tells the story of Jody and Carl, two gay men living during the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s in America. The play focuses on the friendship between Jody, a cautious and thoughtful map store owner, and Carl, a frequent visitor to the store with an unusually vivid imagination and multiple, ever-changing occupations. Carl notices that Jody is distancing himself from the outside world and tries to help him while also constantly bringing chairs into his shop. Lonely Planet deals with an individual’s struggle to come to terms with illness, friendship, their own mortality and the stigma associated with AIDS.
Could you tell me a bit more about your character?
Sure! Carl is a funny, enthusiastic, hectic, quirky, imaginative and endless ball of energy. He’s in his early 30s and has known Jody, and has been coming to his store, for years. His friends are his family and he loves to visit Jody, either to learn something new about maps or just to listen to Jody’s dreams. As much as Carl is constantly on the front foot, he is also very sensitive and decides to deal with things by collecting chairs, working at multiple jobs and telling stories.
What were your first impressions of the play? Why did you want to revive it?
I can describe my first impression of the play with two words – hilariously tender. When I first read the play, I couldn’t put it down and had this content smile spread all over my face. I just loved the funny yet sensitive relationship between Jody and Carl, and how in the midst of everything that was happening around them, with the AIDS epidemic, through their friendship, they managed to overcome their fears. It was this special relationship that Jody and Carl build, plus Carl’s energy and point of view that made me want to be involved.
What would you say is the relevance of Lonely Planet in 2018?
I’d say there is still a strong social relevance of Lonely Planet in 2018. Since Brexit and Trump, we can see how prejudice and bigotry have been allowed to rear their ugly face back up again. I remember reading, very soon after Brexit had been voted for, that there had been a steep rise in homophobic attacks against the LGBT community. This atmosphere, coupled with the declining public knowledge and awareness about HIV, makes Lonely Planet very relevant. Lonely Planet has the ability to allow the audience to relate and sympathise with the characters and, together with the Q&A’s planned during the run, help inform the public and raise their awareness and knowledge regarding AIDS and HIV.
Also, as part of the production and the fight to end HIV infection, we are hoping to encourage people who haven’t tested themselves for HIV yet to do so. Thanks to our sponsors, Pasante and INSTI self-test kits, who donated 50 HIV self-test kits, we are able to give them away to anyone who feels that they would like to test themselves having seen the play and Q&A sessions.
Given the play’s topic – do you think there is still a problem with people’s attitudes towards AIDS?
Of course not as much as what it was like in the 80s and 90s, but there is definitely stigma still associated with HIV and AIDS. And the public awareness of HIV and AIDS is dropping in the UK. I can attest personally to my lack of knowledge of what AIDS really meant when I had just read the play. Having been born in 1988, all I knew was that AIDS existed and was now treatable. I didn’t have a clear understanding as to what the difference between HIV and AIDS was, the impact and consequences of such a diagnosis, and the unbelievable effect and devastation it had on a whole community. I think most people my age have the same lack of knowledge. A recent survey found that only 45% of the population could correctly identify all the ways in which HIV is and isn’t transmitted.
People who are HIV positive today are still very hesitant about telling others about their diagnosis. People have been shunned by family members, sexually rejected by partners and have even been discriminated against by healthcare workers (including doctors, dentists and hospital staff). This, in turn, can lead to people preferring not to test themselves or do so dangerously late – 12% of people living with HIV are undiagnosed and 42% of people diagnosed with HIV in 2016 were diagnosed at a late stage of HIV infection, which means, if not treated, could develop to AIDS.
Lonely Planet runs from 12 June to 7 July 2018 at London’s Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY. Performances are Monday to Saturdays at 7.45pm, with Thursday and Saturday matinees at 3pm. Tickets are priced £20-£30. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!