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Why ‘Affection’ is an HIV-themed play for the 21st century

By Will Stroude

LGBT theatre group Outbox present their new play ‘Affection’, which looks into the life of people after being diagnosed with HIV. Here, the group’s founder, Ben Buratta writes exclusively for Attitude about the new production…

For the past few months, when friends and colleagues have asked me about the new play I’ve been working on, I’ve found myself feeling very sheepish and then finally stuttering out the words “Well, it’s a play about… um… HIV?” Then came the assurance, “But it won’t be depressing, promise.”

Recently a friend pointed out to me that this weird apology for the show I was making wasn’t exactly the best marketing strategy, and it made me interrogate exactly what it was that was making me feel so embarrassed about it. Gay men and HIV in a new theatre show? Hasn’t this been done a million times before? Isn’t there something a little bit 1990s schools tour about doing an HIV play? Except, I knew that it was important. I also knew that we could make the play in a way that was contemporary, artistic and completely devoid of the ‘issue based’ plays that leave audiences cowering in a corner craving Netflix.

I founded Outbox Theatre in 2010 with a mission statement to tell the untold and forgotten stories of the LGBT community. Outbox make work that has high production values and artistic quality but also creates a dialogue with the LGBT community.

We are funded to run theatre workshops for LGBT youth across the country and to include older LGBT people by bringing workshops and presentations to their community hubs. Our work is devised by a company of professional LGBT performers and is based upon interviews conducted with people who identify as LGBT, and ranging across age, culture, class and location.

It is fascinating to hear the diverse experiences that these interviews cover from the fun (cottaging, cruising, celebrity, campary) to the painful (suicide attempts, mental health issues, rejection and abuse). And, of course, HIV/AIDS. This is the Big One. The one that has affected all ages, all ethnicities and all class systems. Yet, it was the one I’d avoided for so long. Yes, we had shown scenes about HIV and nodded to it a few times in various shows… but to make a whole show about it? Depressing, right? And yet…

When I listened to these stories about living with HIV, then and now, I was struck by how often how funny, sexy, naughty, heartbreaking and queer they were and often could be – all the things that I love about theatre were in these stories. Alongside this, rates of HIV infection in gay men are higher than ever and the Daily Mail are calling PrEP a ‘gay lifestyle drug’ on their front page. Now is exactly the right time to make a show about bodies, intimacy and HIV.

I set out to speak to people about how HIV is affecting the lives of those gay men living with it in a contemporary landscape. These stories seemed to be those missing from the public’s consciousness. There is so much confusion surrounding what it is to live with HIV in 2016, I knew about the huge medical progress in the managing of the condition but I had no idea of the huge stigma and shame still surrounding those who are diagnosed. Even more shocking was the negativity, abuse and violence that is projected on to those living with HIV from within their own community.

There is a lack of education within the gay community around the condition, how it is transmitted and what is like to live with it. Then the further complexities of PrEP, PeP, being undetectable, the chemsex scene… I spoke with two of the most prominent HIV organisations in the UK who are doing amazing work (Positive East and 56 Dean St) and they both told me the same thing – when you’re diagnosed with HIV now, physically you will be alright. It’s emotionally that it will take its toll.

The men I spoke to had seen their identities completely shift since diagnosis, they faced rejection from potential and existing partners, they had felt intense feeling of shame, anger and fear. They had experienced massive strength and saw their ‘oh so handy in the gay scene’ bullshit-filters become vital in social situations. They had found love, had the best sex they’ve ever had, opened their eyes to new possibilities. These were diverse and distinct experiences brought together with a commonality of living with the same condition.

Affection is not a pity party or an ‘issue’ play or an attempt to recreate The Normal Heart or As Is or Angels in America (if only!). It’s not a play in which a gay man comes out, has sex with another man, gets HIV and dies. So many things have changed since that time. The drugs (both medical and recreational) have changed, but all too often the attitudes and the education have stayed the same.

The cast and creative team have set about to make a show that uses movement, text and projection to create a piece that is queer in form, contemporary in content and will start a creative dialogue about a condition that so affects many in the LGBT community. So when people ask me now about what the new show is about I will say – Affection is about gay men who are living their lives with HIV – it is beautiful, funny, provocative and political. And I won’t apologise about that.

Affection‘ runs from 13th – 24th September 13-24 (excluding 18,19) at The Glory in London, and from September 31 – 1 October at Birmingham’s A. E. Harris.

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