"The AIDS Show": The Theater of Now in 1984

"Let me tell you right now--my objective is to illuminate and and not depress. I am here to tell you that there is a spirit which banishes all fear."
  • From 'Invitation (Part One)' by Dan Turner, the first scene of "The AIDS Show"

  • The AIDS Show. Photo: Joshua Rotsten.
    From L to R - Randy Weigand, Donna Davis, Doug Holsclaw, Bruce Johnson, Steve Abel, Ellen Brook Davis, Leland Moss. Robert Coffman (center).
    San Francisco, 1984

    Some theatrical expressions resonate for the ages. Some for the moment. And what a scary, white-hot moment it was in September 1984, when a pastiche of skits and songs called "The AIDS Show" opened at Studio Rhino, a tiny basement drama venue in San Francisco.

    What was "The AIDS Show"? A bulletin from the front, during the pitched opening battle of a "war" with a lethal new disease. An urgent dispatch from a large, prominent yet still remarkably isolated subculture, to its own members and the community-at-large. A protest, a teach-in, a pep rally, an elegy.

    And what wasn't "The AIDS Show"? It wasn't a shapely work of dramatic art destined for a Broadway run, or a Pulitzer Prize, or national recognition and debate--unlike some of the major AIDS-themed plays (William Hoffman's "As Is," Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart") to follow.

    "The AIDS Show" was stitched together by many eager hands, not guided by one artistic intelligence. It would have a shelf life of several years, no more. Reviving it, even now, would be anachronistic exercise. And yet somehow this passionate, motley, evolving stage display probably meant more to the artists involved in it, and the audiences who saw it, than any ten more artful evenings of early 1980's live drama, rolled together. Even as an historical curio, the show is an emblem of what I'll call The Theatre of Now --a rare-flaring genre fueled less by aesthetic inspiration, than by a spontaneous reaction to a communal outrage.

    The Theatre of Now is a creature of extreme times. It erupted in the pre-fascist cabarets of Weimar Germany, where young firebrands like Bertolt Brecht held forth. During America's Great Depression, the documentary "Living Newspaper" protest shows were vehicles for it. The Vietnam War era prompted such agit-prop, call-to-arms displays, by The San Francisco Mime Troupe and others.

    It's fashionable now to decry such polemical outbursts as aesthetically inferior and hackneyed. Many might agree with drama critic Robert Brustein's assertion, in his essay on "the theatre of guilt," that live drama is not "either a suitable or effective place for social reform and moral blackmail." In other words: if you want to send a message, call Western Union--not a crew of actors.

    I don't disagree that issue-driven theatre is often formulaic and simplistic, that benevolent intentions alone don't lead to powerful drama. But once in a blue moon the Theatre of Now transcends its formulas to mirror, catalyze, affirm, and, yes, teach, in ways no other medium can.
    My own memories of "The AIDS Show" are very much bound up in the atmosphere of San Francisco's Mission District in the year 1984. The production was triggered, in part, by the passing of someone I knew. And it coincided with my dawning awareness that something cataclysmic was rocking the world I lived and worked in.

    Let me clarify that I'm a heterosexual woman, and at the time I was the theater critic for an alternative weekly newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I also served as the director of Theatre Bay Area (then called Theatre Communications Center of the Bay Area ), a local resource network for drama companies and artists. The organization's offices were in an old brick building on 16th Street near Mission--when that corner was echt-grungy, not boho-chic. The same building also lodged the city's leading gay drama troupe, Theatre Rhinoceros, founded and led by Alan Estes.

    I kibitzed with Alan often--at work, on opening nights at his theater, at lobbying events for civic arts funding. Though I didn't always like his shows (the flimsier boy- meets-boy sex comedies left me cold), I liked him. Alan was a mover and shaker, a dishy eyebrow-archer with a good heart but plenty of attitude, a hands-on producer who shrewdly expanded Rhino into a two-stage concern with a loyal audience and a mixed fare of frothy farce and weightier drama.

    It was puzzling when, in the early months of 1984, Alan virtually disappeared from the stage scene he gloried in. Somebody told me he'd contracted a wicked case of flu he couldn't shake. Then I heard it was pneumonia. A healthy guy in his early 30's getting acute pneumonia, in a city with no winter? Weird.

    By the time I encountered Alan again in March 1984, he had declined terribly. Thin and trembling, he stood huddled in the hallway near his theater, bundled in an unseasonably heavy gray coat. His face was gaunt, feverish, mottled with purplish blotches. His eyes had hollowed.

    "Alan, I heard you were ill--what's happening?" I asked with alarm. "Is it pneumonia?"

    "It's something worse, much worse, " he responded grimly. The usual playful flippancy was gone from his voice. And those eyes were saying it more bluntly: "I am a dead man."

    Soon a friend came to shepherd Alan into a waiting car, and that was it. A few weeks later he died--of a malady people still called "the gay flu," even though it had an official name by then: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

    Alan Estes was the first person I knew with a full-blown, fatal case of AIDS--and, sadly, far from the last. He was also one of the first high-profile members of the San Francisco arts community to contract and perish from the disease, and his memorial service (at Rhino, of course) was a emotional for all concerned.

    But in the city's high-visibility homosexual ranks, and in the incestuous microcosm of the openly gay San Francisco theater world, the toll of AIDS cases and deaths was rising alarmingly. And a community which had long been accused of insularity and obsessive hedonism began to snap into action, determined to transform terror, grief and confusion into activism, awareness, solidarity--in the face of official indifference, and sketchy medical information.

    That September, a year before New York theater got its AIDS wake-up from Hoffman's "As Is" and Kramer's "The Normal Heart," a cadre of angry and concerned, male and female, gay and straight theater artists gathered in the basement studio space at Theatre Rhino, to quilt together an evening of short plays, comedy skits, monologues and songs addressing the "new plague."

    Titled "AIDS: Arts Involved with Death and Survival" but commonly known as "The AIDS Show," the critically praised production became the biggest hit of Theatre Rhino's seven-year history, playing in one form or another for more than three years. It also toured local arts and social service settings, in the area and in nearby cities as well. And in 1985 it was filmed for public television by Robert Epstein (who later co-directed the Oscar-winning documentary, "The Times of Harvey Milk") and Peter Adair (who guided the landmark film, "Word is Out").

    From L to R - Donna Davis, Stacey Cole, Robert Coffman, Doug Holsclaw. Photo: Doane LuskPhoto.
    It is telling that 16 years after seeing "The AIDS Show," in the over-stuffed, 60- seat Studio Rhino, I can instantly conjure up the electric sense of excitement and recognition it triggered. But until I tracked down the script in an old 1985 number of the drama journal West Coast Plays recently, I only vaguely recalled the substance of the revue-style production.

    The first edition (some material would later be added, excised and updated) premiered on September 6, 1984, under the direction of Leland Moss. The cast of 13 actors also helped write the show, piecing together a chronological portrait of San Francisco's male gay community from sybaritic 1981 to AIDS-wracked 1984, replete with insider references and cultural signposts.

    Several recurring bits marked the passage of time, notably Leland Moss's monologues as Murray, a character inspired by Harvey Fierstein's break-through gay play, "Torch Song Trilogy." In "Torch Song," the New Yorker protagonist Arnold muses about his life in chats with an unseen phone pal, Murray. In "The AIDS Show," we heard Murray's verbal San Francisco diary. Breathless accounts of sexual escapades in 1981, had by 1983 yielded to an outpouring of grief and fear. (Murray: "Arnold, don't you know what is out there? I have sworn off sex completely. I am terrified to kiss anyone, let alone do anything else....")

    In other sequences, pop-cultural markers were also used to address prevailing attitudes and transmit hard information. Robert J. Stone's skit "To Tell the Truth" was a campy game-show spoof, in which mock-celebs assessed the symptoms and lifestyles of three disparate contestants to guess which had AIDS. (The answer: all of them.) Dan Curzon's "Reverend What's His Name" broadly debunked homophobic ignorance and religious hypocrisy, in a mock-bible study class led by an anti-gay minister of the Fallwell type. Doug Hosclaw's "It's My Party" depicted a male slumber party and a game of Trivial Pursuit, to candidly discuss and promote "safe sex"--also the subject of a catchy pop tune by Karl Brown and Matthew McQueen, "Safe Livin' in Dangerous Times."

    Other pieces in the show examined the emotional impact of AIDS from different viewpoints. In the poignant, non-judgmental monologue "Alice" by Markley Morris, a guilt-wracked woman spoke by phone with her AIDS patient brother, trying to explain why she didn't want him near her children anymore. Ellen Brooks Davis's' "The Nurse" gave voice to the revulsion and fear of contamination among health workers. And the most somber sketch, Paul Attinello's "Hospital," dared to imagine the interior thoughts and feelings of a terminal AIDS patient in his final moments of life.

    From L to R - Donna Davis, Robert Coffman, Stacey Cole. Photo: Joshua Rotsten Revisiting "The AIDS Show," it's clear that its main didactic strength could also be judged as an aesthetic weakness. The script strayed all over the map stylistically and tonally, a grab-bag of segments with little development beyond an initial premise. Yet it was that multiplicity of perspectives, and quick-change rhythm, which made the show so lively and engaging, and kept it from wallowing in doom or canceling itself out in cuteness. By using mostly familiar, everyday characters to openly acknowledge the realities, myths, and uncertainties of the AIDS epidemic, the production "outed" issues much of the audience was facing on a daily basis. The show said loud and clear, before any other dramatization did: "Whoever you are, you are not alone--we're all in this together." And the largely constructive and gay positive tenor of the proceedings made it possible to contemplate the most dire aspects of the epidemic without inducing utter, paralyzing despair.

    Did "The AIDS Show" actually save lives, help procure research funding, convert bigots into agents of tolerance? Probably not. Did it preach to the converted? Almost certainly.

    But it is crucial to remember that in 1984, even the most enlightened gay and straight San Franciscans had barely an inkling of what AIDS really was, or what it would become. Therefore, the messages a collective of theater artists could deliver in the guise of entertainment were actually fresh and illuminating at that moment:
    1) That AIDS was rampant, its reach was growing, and people needed to know more about the disease in order to cope with and stem it.

    2) That AIDS wasn't a moral punishment for sins committed, or a justifiable rallying point for homophobic demagogues.

    3) That AIDS wasn't an intrinsically "gay" problem, but a broad-scaled concern which would impact whole families and communities; and

    4) That the AIDS epidemic necessitated a radical change in sexual practices, to be ignored only at one's own peril.
    Sure, one could have stuffed those messages into a Western Union telegram, and sent it to the thousands of people who saw "The AIDS Show" during its dynamic lifespan. Somehow, though, that just wouldn't have been the same.

    Misha Berson is the current theater critic of The Seattle Times, and the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1980-1991). She is the author of the two-volume history, "The San Francisco Stage" (San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum) and editor-author of the anthology "Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian American Plays" (Theatre Communications Group), a regular contributor to American Theatre Magazine and other publications, and was recently a Pew Charitable Trust National Arts Journalism Fellow at Columbia University.