'The AIDS Show' - Documentary about historic play

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday June 25, 2024
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'The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival' documentary
'The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival' documentary

When it premiered 40 years ago in September 1984, few realized "The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival," how groundbreaking this theatrical production, produced by Theatre Rhinoceros (the world's longest-running professional queer theatre company, founded in 1977), would be. It was the first creative artistic endeavor to deal with AIDS, a year before the first film, Arthur Bressan Jr.'s "Buddies," on the subject and two feature-length plays, "As If" by William Hoffman and "The Normal Heart" by Larry Kramer.

The revue addressed the fears of the disease and how it was affecting the entire LGBTQ community, as well as the lovers and families of PWAs. "The AIDS Show" gave voice to the emotional turmoil caused by the epidemic.

The HIV virus had only been identified a year before, reinforcing the theory the disease was sexually transmitted. It was an era of great uncertainty, like playing Russian roulette with one's own life. This theater piece was only supposed to play nine performances, but stuck such a chord with audiences, it ran for months. Designed to be portable, it traveled to street fairs, jails, and hospitals. It was used by the Shanti Project to help train volunteer supporters of PWAs.

Douglas Holsclaw (lower left) with the cast of 'The AIDS Show'  

Doug Holsclaw, the co-director, writer, and actor of the production, is one of the few surviving cast members and spoke with the Bay Area Reporter in an email interview. Holsclaw discussed the inspiration for the play.

"Allen Estes was the founding Artistic Director at Theatre Rhinoceros," said Holsclaw. "He got a small grant from SF Grants for the Arts to develop and perform street theater pieces to perform outside the 1984 Democratic Convention at the Moscone Center. Allen died in the spring, but the Rhino needed to do a project to fulfill the grant."

"Leland Moss acted on Broadway in 'Yentl' and directed at the Q Public Theater," Holsclaw continued. "Disillusioned, he joined a Buddhist colony in Marin. After three years of painting gold leaf, he sent his impressive resume to Theatre Rhinoceros. Interviewed, he was given this project, with no guidelines, to direct it.

"I had lived in New York, took classes, did Off-Off-Broadway shows, summer stock; your basic struggling actor. I ended up in San Francisco where I tried out doing standup at a gay club. That's why they called me. Leland and I hit it off. I would be co-director for the second season.

Douglas Holsclaw in 2003  

"We put up flyers in the Castro, ads in newspapers, looking for writers and actors. Anyone who showed up was in the show. We met on Saturday mornings, sharing ideas and our writings. Leland's concept was to have scenes, songs, monologues that could be performed individually or in groups at schools, churches, etc. Our directive was to educate, empower, and inspire.

"Each week we would bring new work and started getting it on its feet. Associate artistic director Chuck Solomon had the final say on scene selection. We opened our showcase of scenes and were blown away at the response. When SF Chronicle writer Markel Morris came, we got a powerful review. Audiences and critics were surprised at the humor."

Holsclaw said that "We focused on sex...safe sex, relationships, family problems, with songs thrown in like "Rimming at the Baths,' not for the mainstream, but our purpose was to affect people emotionally and hopefully save lives."

Party talk
The show featured skits such as Holsclaw's "It's My Party," with four guys playing Trivial Pursuit at a slumber party while talking about the death of a friend and safe sex, a nurse wondering in rage and grief how certain homosexuals can still be sexually promiscuous, a mother who learns about her son's homosexuality when he appears on a public-television show, a 75-year-old gay man named Peaches almost proud he has AIDS since it means he's still attractive, and a gymnastic instructor in denial about the disease.

A scene from 'The AIDS Show'  

Moss related that a man had called the theater saying his friend had been accosted on the bus, because he had visible purple lesions (KS), with riders threatening his life and throwing him off the bus. He was asking if the theater could teach him how to use makeup, so he could hide his friend's lesions.

Another scene featured a man talking to his dead lover at the cemetery a year later, while Moss described the death of an AIDS client, waiting five minutes to make sure he was actually dead, so nurses and doctors wouldn't resuscitate him.

Moss later commented that blunt sexual imagery was deliberately used in the show, which bothered some people, "as if AIDS wasn't a sexually transmitted disease and not talking about how it is sexually transmitted...clinical terms like body fluids were later used, so many Americans thought you could get AIDS from tears, rather than semen and blood."

Insisting the community would survive this disaster, the show ended with the cast singing, "Not A Day Goes By," by Stephen Sondheim.

In 1985 the play was updated since more information was known about the disease, including a test for the virus. The name of the revue was changed to "Unfinished Business," to reflect that the community was learning to cope, realizing "there were resources of support and comfort." New skits, songs, and monologues were written.

Holsclaw noted that many gay men believed the disease was a conspiracy by the government to kill them. Telling gay men sex was going to kill them was a tough sell.

He said, "Some cities produced the script themselves and we performed in Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Berkeley, Phoenix, Denver, some were shortened versions, but others performed the whole show."

A cast member saw Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Rob Epstein ("The Times of Harvey Milk") walking by a laundromat. She ran out and invited him to the show. Epstein and his working partner Peter Adair ("Word is Out") wanted to do a documentary and began raising money, mostly from the gay community at cocktail parties and social-service organizations.

They had wanted to make a film on the effects of AIDS on gay men in San Francisco, documenting its social impact rather than the medical aspects. The documentary is the only record available of the original show. It was produced by KQED public television, where it later screened.

Excerpts of the play were combined with interviews of the creators and performers of the show, a kind of hybrid documentary. Epstein told the Los Angeles Times, "As gay men, AIDS was becoming more and more prominent in our minds and in our lives, as more and more people we knew were dying of the disease. We haven't yet seemed to be able to control the virus, except to try to prevent its spread, but we can take some control emotionally."

The cast of 'The AIDS Show' in a Nov. 15, 1984 B.A.R. review  

Outrageous humor
In an interview with Edward Guthman of The San Francisco Examiner, Epstein said how the irreverence, tenderness, and outrageous sense of humor helped deflate the crisis's horror, "hitting him like a ton of bricks emotionally."

Adair said, "One of the things the play didn't do was to take a passive attitude toward the epidemic. The actors in the play had stopped running, stood their ground, looked at the disease, and said, 'Wait a minute.'"

Epstein was impressed that KQED didn't want them to cut back on the campy humor and sexual references. Holsclaw at first didn't like the first version, because he thought it heavy-handed and depressing, but after 23 different edits, he felt they finally gotten the right mood of the play.
In the documentary, Holsclaw quotes actress Shirley McClaine, "How we behave now, is what we will remember about this disease long after there's a cure. It's a litmus test."

Epstein and Adair said audiences would look at the gay community and see the strength they found in each other's caring and love, that what seemed an unimaginable threat, enabled them to discover hidden resources of support, endurance, and courage.

Holsclaw views "The AIDS Show" as a period piece, though even with the recent COVID pandemic, believes, "scenes would still play well in the right context, like Ellen Brook Davis in 'The Nurse,' about a woman afraid to bring something home to her children, was repeated thousands of times during COVID."

The opening skit in which cast members are celebrating the (future) discovery of a vaccine for AIDS is sadly still true and relevant 40 years later.

For Holsclaw, the skits were a source of information and validation to the public.

"I just found a heartbreaking letter today from 1987 from a man with AIDS who had seen many of our shows, thanking me for the comfort he received," he said. "We set out to do scenes that could educate, enlighten, and empower and that we did. This was emotional triage, not just for the audiences, but for ourselves. It was a theater company responding to a catastrophe in our community, people coming together in a time of need to comfort ourselves and our audience, fulfilling our mission as artists. That is its legacy."

'The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival,' produced and directed by Peter Adair and Rob Epstein, is available on DVD, $15.96, distributed by Kino Lorber www.kinolorber.com

Read the 1984 B.A.R. review on www.archive.org

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