My play Paper Cuts went live on Bloom Theatre’s YouTube channel last month. I thought I’d share a bit more about this play, and how it came to be. I think of this play and I think I’ll always think of growing as a writer. Which makes it apt for Saplings really…
This play was a long time coming… hopefully, this isn’t the end, and it’s got a way to run. But it feels like it was a long time getting here. Back in around 2012, I was midway through my PhD and suggested to my supervisor I wanted to incorporate some kind of creative response into it. She shot me down. Which was not exactly an unusual occurrence. But it was clear, stay in my lane, and my lane was not to be creative.
And so, I spent four years writing a PhD on theatre as a response to the AIDS pandemic. If you want the incredibly witty, catchy title (which I had to actually Google) it is Angels at the National and Bohemians in the West End: transposing and reviving American dramatic depictions of AIDS to the British stage in Angels in America and Rent. Snappy right?
Writing that monstrosity (fun fact I once had a journal article rejected for my definition of ‘monstrosity’) meant immersing myself in the history, the stories, and more importantly, the people affected by the AIDS pandemic. I read not every, but most play written on the subject. Read novels, memoirs, history books, I can tell you a decent amount about virology (coming in handy in a way a never anticipated right now…), I know more about the failings of the American medical system than I care to, I know more about funeral practices and legislation than I care to…I’ve heard more heart-breaking stories than I needed to. But I’m glad I did. Because similar to what Danny says in this play for every one of those, today there are a lot more happy, healthy people living their lives with HIV.
And for me maybe, continuing to tell those stories was the point. Partly through academic work (hello please buy my book, please also make me finish my book). About yes, a good deal of shouting on Twitter, be that to tell younger people to ‘Know your history’ (one of my favourite refrains) or through promoting sexual health initiatives, via my many knowledgeable sexual health professional friends (did I mention my HIV knowledge is only good up until about 1995?). Forgive me for getting a bit ‘History Boys’ here but ‘pass it on’ (but not pass THAT on) seems to be the mantra.
Ok perhaps ‘the world only spins forward’ would have been a better choice of words, but you all expected me to say that right? Right.
And so, what is this play saying? Why say anything at all?
In the play, we follow Will. Newly diagnosed with HIV. Why tell his story? Surely, it’s just a case of ‘get a test, take some pills, carry on’. I mean sure, in an ideal world. But even if we take out the stigma that still exists around HIV, if we take out the emotional, mental health impact around how it’s contracted – the messy complicated nature of sex and relationships and throwing in something like HIV. Even taking out all that, being diagnosed with a lifelong condition isn’t something that is ‘just’. You can’t ‘just’ get used to taking pills every day. You can’t ‘just’ adjust to a different relationship with your body. Because however manageable the condition, however ‘minor’ the expectations of the impact on your life, the fact is it changes you- mentally as much as physically. Later- not in this extract- Will describes it as ‘like a paper cut to your brain…you forget it’s there until you brush against it and it hurts like hell’ which is the closest I’ve ever come to describing life with a chronic condition. The idea of a mental paper cut also sums up everything from anxiety to depression that lurks within- until you hit it and it rips through you again. Tiny, to the eye, but devastating.
That in part comes from personal experience- there’s a lot of me in that part of Will I guess. Living with a chronic illness that came along at around the same time as my PhD work (timing, timing). Mine (Ulcerative Colitis) has its own set of ‘undesirable’ connotations that it’s considered ‘impolite’ to talk about. But more importantly, as with anyone facing a lifelong change- medication, new threats to wellbeing, adjustments to what you can expect in life, there was a period of mental adjustment. Years on there still is. Add to that the feeling of having to hide what’s ‘broken’ about you. Fearing that nobody will ever want to be with you because you’re ‘broken’ – who willingly takes on faulty goods right? Or even asking someone else to take on all the above concerns and potential obstacles. Yes, you can manage a condition but you also have to manage its impact and learn to live with that.
And that’s what Will, and the others who he joins in the support group, are designed to show. That adjustment. A mindset shift. And an impact on mental health. And for HIV we can’t pretend that there isn’t a stigma still attached. That’s why I wrote a story of a mixed group for starters- to move away from the idea of ‘gay man’s disease’ and to show a different set of experiences.
Even in our gay man- or gay men- in the play, I wanted to tell new stories or at least stories we don’t see. The gay introvert is not one we see in most of the contemporary gay plays out there. The gay nerd, unless it’s similar to one in a terrible American high school film either. What if this gay romcom of sorts takes place in museums not nightclubs? Because what I also got conscious of in consuming all that history, was the gaps in it. And that’s what I’ve ended up ‘writing back’ to.
As well as writing in that history. Danny’s story is a way of doing that. Because if we stop telling those stories we get lost. Hopefully, Danny is a window to that. Through the stories, he’s still telling years later. And in himself a nod to saying, we should keep telling those stories. So, don’t forget. That act of memorial, of sharing, AIDS theatre was always written for a number of reasons; for activism, memorial, for the community, for education, to bear witness. And to gather. That last one seems more pertinent right now than ever but we’ll return to that. And all those things still apply. HIV might be a manageable condition. It might be a condition people thrive with, but those things still apply. For both the historical context, those who ‘came before’ but also to acknowledge all those things for today. There’s a connection, not just between those with HIV and those previously who lived through the worst years, the worst of times of the epidemic, but also to the wider community, or more accurately communities in which they sit.
And that’s just it, this play is also about people. Pure and simple. It’s about people seeking a connection in an isolating age (to appropriate a quote from another of my research subjects). And this became even more apparent in shifting some of this story to the virtual world. Above all this group of misfits that Danny would normally assemble in a church hall, are now even further from the human connection they need right now. So, they’ll all have to work a bit harder at it. And in the longer piece that this part is from, we get to see that while they all may have very different backgrounds, situations and even takes on their HIV, there’s something uniting in their shared experience.
And yes, of course, there’s an element of a love story. We don’t get many of those in LGBTQ stories, had you noticed? Not ones that end well anyway…not that in this extract we know if that’s the case. But how often do you get a gay meet-cute. How often does that take place with trains? Yes, trains. Because again, hopefully, these guys are a bit different. We don’t get many gay introvert stories either, many gay nerd stories. Let’s start a revolution (quietly, so as not to bother anybody). Perhaps more than anything, I needed to write a love story that doesn’t revolve around clubs, or Soho, and parties but books and museums…because sexuality isn’t our entire personality, and we need more stories that show the rest of us. Plus, nerds are so much more fun to write…
That’s the story of why. This play will always have a special place in my heart, wherever it ends up. Matthew, my original collaborator, was the first person to believe in me creatively and ask me to create something. A weird winding path led us together- he saw my programme essay on Angels in America, which happened because of my Ph.D., and remembered a short play of mine and put two and two together in a way nobody else believed in before. A little down the line, Jack and Simon saw something in the messy version of that play and put it in this brave new experiment for Bloom Theatre. And then we threw together a few of the very best people I know and added a whole group more of now, even more of the best people I know. Our Director, and my friend, Neil took all this and ran with it and reminded me that as a writer, I’m part of that process. ‘My’ Will, Mateo not only gave a brilliant performance but tirelessly pushed me as a writer and most importantly, believed in me enough to do that. Above all that though, in what are quite frankly the very worst of times, the eight of us came together and made something. That feels important. In the context of this piece.
As a student of that ‘other pandemic’, I’ve really struggled to have the one thing I always held to be ‘the answer’ – theatre and its power- being taken away from me in this pandemic. I think I hope, we’ve just proven it hasn’t. Not quite. We will find a way, to assemble, to raise our voices through theatre. We will do it because, as a community, we know what it feels like to have a virus decimate us, to have our governments look away, to be denied the care we need, to lose those we love…so we will find ways not to stay silent.
And so that’s it, for now. I can’t wait to get back to redrafting the longer piece. For a teaser of what’s to come (and to end on a lighter note) here’s an additional snippet…
Joe: Look, if you don’t want to, if it’s something…I don’t know I can’t even guess what this big scary thing is. But I promise you it’s probably not as big a deal as you think.Will: How do you know?Joe: Well try telling me. I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours. Mine’s tried and tested. Repels not only gay men, but friends and the occasional family member. Though that’s sometimes a bonus.Will: It can’t be that bad.Joe: Ha! See. Ask my last five dates. Ask Aunt Barbara.Will: Alright…Joe: Alright so we’re doing it?Will: Ok…Joe: Ok then.Will: I’ll go first..Joe: I’ll got first…Will: What no-Joe: Wait I’ll-Joe: Ok…Will: Ok..Joe: I’m an undertakerWill: I have HIV.Joe: What?Will: What? Joe: I’m an undertakerWill: I have HIV.Joe: Oh.Will: Oh.PauseJoe: I mean I still think mine wins for originality.
And doesn’t that sound like the rest of a play you want to hear? Watch this space…hopefully. And see you back in the ‘real world’
Paper Cuts will be on Bloom Theatre’s Youtube from 7.30pm on Monday 18th May.
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