There’s a significant canon of well-loved dramatic works about the early days of HIV and AIDS. Plays like Angels in America, The Normal Heart, The Laramie Project and even the hit Broadway musical Rent continue to shape how we look back on that era of fear, confusion and massive loss.
But there’s really just one Australian work that has entered that canon – Tommy Murphy’s theatrical adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man – and none that focus on women.
A play by brand new Melbourne theatre collective Tilted Projects is seeking to tell the largely unknown stories of the Australian women who were (and in some cases, still are) at the centre of the onslaught of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and ‘90s.
We Were There is a work of verbatim theatre using words drawn from interviews with 15 different women: family and friends of those that have been lost, volunteers and medical professionals, and some women who are HIV positive.
“These women have lived to tell some terrible tales and at the heart of these intimate moments – beyond the sad and the scary – I think we see the resilience of the Australian spirit,” says Dirk Hoult, who co-directs with Gavin Roach.
It’s a rather heavy subject, but according to Hoult the show is laced with at least as much humour as there is tragedy; he says the subjects of the show have powered through the toughest of times by laughing in the face of adversity and exclusion.
One of the first people to become HIV-positive through a blood transfusion was Eve van Grafhorst, who was born prematurely and received contaminated blood. Her story changed the public perception of HIV and AIDS, but she became part of a big and very public debate when she was banned from her local preschool due to the fear that she could infect other children. Eve and her family eventually moved to New Zealand to escape the discrimination she faced – she was only ever allowed to attend school in Australia if she wore a plastic face mask at all times – and she died in 1993 at just 11 years of age.
Eve’s story is touched on briefly in We Were There, and was discussed by most of the interviewees. But she’s not a major focus; the purpose of the project is to blow open new and unheard stories.
Hoult and Roach also say that they’re aiming to eradicate the “male gaze” when it comes to HIV/AIDS narratives. Both creators are men, but the work uses only the words of women and is performed by three female actors.
One of those actors is Perri Cummings, who’ll play multiple women over the course of the show. She’s been involved in workshopping the show and said she was surprised to learn of the degree of ostracisation of positive women in the early days of the disease, as well as the stigma they continue to face.
“I'm not too sure which stories I'll be telling at the moment,” she says. “But the stories of the doctors working on a cure are just mind blowing, as well as the stories of positive women fighting for recognition and community.”
That fight has long been happening inside artistic spaces, and Hoult is keen for his company to continue along those lines. He hopes he’ll be able to tell this story to broad audiences, and even wants to take the show into high schools.
“HIV and AIDS decimated the arts community,” Hoult says. “And while our governments were twiddling their thumbs, artists and activists were telling their stories in bars, in the streets, on the page and on the stage.”
“This story is for the women who can say: ‘we were there – I saw what AIDS did and what it took; we were there, and we did our best.’”
We Were There is at Chapel Off Chapel from January 23 to February 4.