We Were There is the powerful new theatre work which focuses on the women of the HIV/AIDS response. A brave project from talented theatre makers Dirk Hoult & Gavin Roach, We Were There transports us back to the scary, fragmented beginnings of the emerging epidemic through to now, not quite triumphed over the virus, but a time to reflect on the great achievements made over this incredible, painful journey. It is a moving account of how the HIV/AIDS epidemic took women from all walks of life by surprise and how they their contribution has been essential to the lives of all touched by HIV and AIDS.
Over the past few years in Melbourne a good number of theatre works have been created, using the arts to explore the impact and reality of HIV and AIDS. Verbatim theatre, which uses the words of interview subjects arranged in a way which both makes sense and creates an artistic narrative, seems to have added relevance with the resulting work being both an act of archiving and preserving stories as well as creating works that are artistically arresting and deeply meaningful.
We’ve been fortunate to have seen other verbatim theatre works such as Collette F. Keen’s The Death of Kings (2013/14) and Michelle and Stephen Barber’s STATUS (2014). As with both those powerful works, Dirk and Gavin went through a process of interviewing subjects to record testimony and the words of the stories which make up the narrative of We Were There. Much thought and consultation has clearly gone into the preparation of the final text, as we really get a sense of the authentic voice of each participant no matter who voices her words.
Participants are listed in the online program but it would be remiss of me not to honour them all who created this moving tribute to the dedication, strength and resilience of the women who rose to the challenge of HIV/AIDS: Sally Bourne, Felicity Burke, Liz Crock, Margaret Davis, Judy Frecker, Yvonne Gardner, Bev Greet, Tammy Hall, Jenny Hoy, Sharon Lewin, Belinda White, and others who have requested anonymity. It’s a wonderfully diverse range of participants – PLHIV, doctors, nurses, community, scientists – all of whom have contributed in a meaningful way to the lives of people living with HIV.
To deliver the stories of these women are four incredibly talented women: Leah Baulch, Perri Cummings, Jodie Levesconte, Olivia Monticciolo. Not only are they required to give voice to multiple characters but they also mime, dance and use movement to create backgrounds, illustrate and provide effects which take us from an infectious disease ward in lock-down, a joyful wedding at the height of the devastation of AIDS funerals, walking the dog walk of a recently departed loved one, a family lounge room, a conference style speakers line-up, and many more.
It is quite incredible the number of ‘rooms’ or sets in the work. The delineation of each sequence is theatrical magic. These scenes are navigated with elegance by the subtle lighting of Jason Bovaird and the clever design of Alexandra Hiller. In one act we traverse not only 30 years, but move from the intimacy of a young woman admiring a gay dancer as she cleans a dance studio to a moment of enlightenment as a woman living with HIV has a transformative experience with her guru.
The stage management of Tonie-Rayne Steele and sound design of Connor Ross complement the production and help us to imagine each step of the incredible journey on which we are taken by We WereThere. The set is simple and almost static, but incredibly effective. At one time it provided the confined walls of a ward at Fairfield Hospital, at another time it became a mountain at the peak of which was enlightenment. The set provided the security and stability needed to anchor the many voices and rapid scenes which unfold during the play.
Sitting down before the show with old friends and seeing many new faces in the audience, I reflected on what a huge undertaking this has been for the team of We Were There. But how crucial it is as we reach into the 30+ years of the global epidemic to capture in whatever form we can the experiences of all those involved in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. Our duty is to inform new generations of what happened over these three decades. It’s something Staffan Hildebrand and the Face of AIDS Archive in Sweden have done by recording unedited interviews with AIDS pioneers around the world since the the mid 1980’s.
A moving highlight in We Were There was a poignant and eloquent explanation of the fears of those who bore the brunt of AIDS-related illnesses about living in the emerging “post-AIDS” world . This resonated deeply with my feelings about PEP, PrEP, and the newly understood realities of an undetectable viral load. The fear that non-reporting of AIDS might lead to a forgetting of those most impacted by HIV or that this might invalidate the experience of those who have survived AIDS-related illnesses struck a chord. Reflecting the courage of the women, there was no holding back how We Were There expressed 30 years of trying to make sense of the unthinkable havoc this virus continues to wreak on so many lives.
The work balanced pathos with so much joie de vivre, love and humanity that, at the end, I didn’t feel weighed down by this shared history but quite the opposite. My future is undoubtedly better for all the efforts of the women of We Were There.
Regardless of your gender or serostatus, see this play. To all the wonderful men and women who work tirelessly to understand and solve the problem of HIV, see this play. Everyone living with HIV, see this play. And everyone who has experienced the care and love of their grandmother, mother, sister, aunt, girlfriend, wife or that specialist, doctor, nurse or counsellor, see this play. You will walk away remembering the love you have been shown by the special women in your life.
We were there is showing at Chapel Off Chapel until 4 February.
The image used was lifted from https://www.tiltedprojects.com/shows without permission. Huge love to Chapel Off Chapel for supporting many great artists this Midsumma and every Midsumma.