An Encore of Hope 1998
The Changing Face of HIV/AIDS in Australian Performance
By David Paul Jobling
Paper presented at the Australasian Drama Studies Association Conference, July 1998, University of Waikato, New Zealand

Between 1985 and 1989 the representation of the Person Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in original Australian theatre was bleak. Characters presented on stage were mostly guilt ridden gay or bisexual men, dead by curtain down.

Even before new developments in treating HIV in the early 1990’s there was an obvious need for different models; characters who were living with the virus, dealing with the problems associated with HIV that take you beyond the realm of medicine into social arenas – media representation, quality of life’ issues of poverty, leaper status, interpersonal relationships, education etc.

In Adelaide (1990) the AIDS Council of South Australia produced SWIMMERS by Nic Gill, a play set on a gay beat covering a time period of pre-AIDS through to AIDS = DEATH.
Curiously, the playwright chose never to mention AIDS or HIV in the play, but rather created the equation of Swimming = Sex.

The one character who contracts HIV through the exposition and drama of the play never mentions ‘safe sex’ or AIDS but does speak of a pair of ‘bright pink flippers’ he uses to amuse himself with, and there is much talk of the plague that is closing down the swimming holes.

So in 1990/91 we have a pseudo-educational theatre providing cultural representation that dare not speak its name.

The poster used to advertise SWIMMERS was the starting point for the then leader of the opposition in state politics to claim that “public funds should not be spent on promoting a homosexual lifestyle,” while the CEO of the AIDS Council of South Australia countered this claim by stating “(that) if the production SWIMMERS stopped one individual from contracting HIV, the whole project would have been justified.”

Most recent developments have sprung from Sydney PRIDE Lesbian and Gay Community Centre in Darlinghurst, Sydney with the development of PERFORMANCE POSITIVE a deliberate and highly successful attempt to explore the ‘Queer’ community response to HIV/AIDS

This paper is not a complete record of every Australian character written for the stage with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), it is a personal observation from my privileged position of working in the performing arts industry at a time when it is clear how things that happen in real life may become reflected in art.

Art does reflect life it is a valued creative construct. Art informs, transforms and offers opportunity for extending conventions and social boundaries.

In Australia the first images of the mysterious incurable virus called AIDS manifest as Death the Grim Reaper in a national media campaign. Half a dozen or so Grim Reapers lined up at a bowling alley knocking down innocent human pins – nice people, conservative men, women, babies, kids.

As this Death gang knocked the people down during the commercial breaks on television a frenzied panic started to set in. The advertising of this horror basically equated AIDS with DEATH. HIV didn’t even rate a mention. There were no alternatives, AIDS = DEATH.

Of course the media driven fear and associated stigmas being pitched into the community influenced opinions and understandings of the real human beings living with HIV who were backed into a corner socially because they were seen as dangerous and poisonous.

Between 1985 and 1989 the representation of the person living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in Australian theatre was most unappealing. So was dying of AIDS which is what an awful lot of people were doing.

Although the media image was unashamedly promoting the fact that the virus affects everyone, the main sector of the community who were actually being directly affected by AIDS deaths were from marginalised groups
men having anal sex with other men
injecting drug users
“The Devil’s own,” according to many.

PLWHA characters presented on stage were mostly gay or bisexual men dead by curtain down. Certainly this was reflecting the reality of the time.

I believe the first PLWHA appeared in the play SOFT TARGETS at The Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, Sydney. SOFT TARGETS was based on an idea by Timothy Conigrave which was workshopped by the cast and Director Peter Kingston at the Griffin Theatre Company.

The HIV infected characters in the play were white, male, gay or bisexual. A man lays in hospital waiting to die. When his mother arrives to visit from the country she discovers he is not only very ill, he is also living with a gay man. It is difficult for her to accept this notion let alone her son’s homosexuality.

A grotty queen chatters about life death and the whole miserable scene, a cynical joker into alcohol and drugs. A bisexual man’s wife and children go into a group hug of acceptance after painful deliberations, traumatic confessions.

SOFT TARGETS was a timely play about alerting people to issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. The PLWHA in the play all appeared to have seroconverted due to unsafe sex between two male partners.

The production aimed to assert something meaningful, that this disease was a community thing, not as general as the adverts on television would have you think.

In 1998 Brown’s Lane Theatre commissioned SOMETIMES MY FRIEND by Steven Dawson. A one act theatre-in-education play that toured through country and metropolitan high schools in New South Wales. It was the story of David, a teenage boy who has received HIV+ blood via a blood transfusion after a trailbike accident.

David and his parents hide the fact that he is dying from his friends at school. One friend of David’s a young girl, discovers his situation and becomes a support for him. David dies, but not before leaving a message of courage and hope for his family and only friend.

In 1990 SWIMMERS by Nick Gill produced in Adelaide by the AIDS Council of South Australia (ACSA). This was pseudo-educational theatre pitched at the gay community first and general public second providing cultural representation that dared not speak it’s name. Set on a gay beat covering a period of 1970’s pre-AIDS promiscuity through to late 1980’s AIDS = DEATH horror.

The playwright chose never to mention AIDS or HIV in the play; instead he created the metaphors of AIDS = PLAGUE and SWIMMING = SEX.

One character who contracts ‘the plague’ after slipping through thin ice on the local swimming hole never mentions safe sex or AIDS but he does speak of a pair of bright pink flippers the uses to amuse himself.

The poster used to advertise SWIMMERS was the catalyst for a local political controversy, the South Australian Leader of the Opposition claimed that “public funds should not be spent on promoting a homosexual lifestyle,” while the CEO of the AIDS Council of South Australia countered this claim by stating “(that) if the production SWIMMERS stopped one individual from contracting HIV, the whole project would have been justified.”

SWIMMERS provided no real insight into HIV or AIDS, attempts to tour the play nationally were abandoned.

At the same time Alex Harding’s BLOOD AND HONOUR was playing in Sydney, New South Wales and the virus is such an important element in the play it gets dialogue, chilling scenes taunting Michael the main protagonist.

1992, adapted from the novel by Morris Gleitzman, first published in 1989 TWO WEEKS WITH THE QUEEN by Mary Morris.

Griff the PLWHA appears saying, “When I look at myself in the mirror I give myself a fright. The treatment made my hair fall out, I can’t eat much anymore. I’ll be out of here soon, one way or another. Don’t get many visitors. Mum and Dad don’t come. I’m not their favourite person. They can’t accept things (me and Ted). Don’t get much to laugh about here.”

Colin, the twelve year old boy notices the men in the AIDS ward of the hospital where he visits Griff. “Some of them don’t look like they’re going to die. I mean they look real crook and everything, but they don’t look… miserable,” he says. The final visual image of Griff is of him in his wheelchair, head hanging, eyes closed. Cheers Griff, your death has taught us something.

1993 Barry Lowe’s RELATIVE MERITS has two characters, Adam in his early thirties, an Australian Football League star living with AIDS and Clay his younger brother from the country.

Moments into the play we discover Adam is kicking in his career as a football player and he is gay. By the end of the play he is in hospital, not quite dead.

I think my play, GROWN-UP’S PLAYROOM in 1994 in The Space Theatre was the first Australian play to contain an HIV+ character whose story is not one of death or dying. The main protagonist is HIV+ but he is dealing with censorship, discrimination and at the end of the play alive and ready to face another day.

However in Barry Lowe’s HOMME FATALE a monologue presented by porn star Joey Stefano, who towards the end of the piece reveals he is HIV+ just before stabbing himself in the groin with a syringe and licking the blood the way he would lick seamen in a porn flick, described in the direction as a “frenzy of self-loathing and disgust,” it is dramatic and tempered with sadness, “Hey you gotta laugh,” says Joey, “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. And a dose of HIV. I don’t believe it, I got the report on the phone outside McDonalds.”

Being an American Joey could have received his HIV test results over the phone but that would not have happened in Australia.

Most recent development have sprung from the Sydney PRIDE Lesbian and Gay Community Centre in Darlinghurst with the development of PERFORMANCE POSITIVE an educational and highly successful attempt to explore the Queer community response to HIV/AIDS in changing times. Even before new developments in treating HIV in the early 1990’s there was an obvious need for different cultural models ; characters living with the virus, addressing the problems associated with the day to day living with the virus in your life.

The short plays and variety acts presented by PERFORMANCE POSITIVE looked past the pathology story and that dead white guy by curtain down. A diverse range of men and women were stepping up and sharing their insights through dance, monologue, song and story.

Issues of media representation, quality of life, sero-discordant relationships, bisexual women with HIV being rejected by both straight and same sex attracted women, gay families and their straight friends, drugs, hopes, dreams all of these things emerged at PERFORMANCE POSITIVE.

I look over the development of the type of character we met on our Australian stage in those early days and I would make a couple of points.

It was not a government directed exercise to create an HIV character on our stage.
HIV+ people were not pushed to the front of the line in order to truly represent themselves.

There were no national campaigns to push playwrights towards developing PLWHA characters, or indeed to undo the damage caused by the stigma attached to the original GRIM REAPER Campaign.