StageArt’s Falsettos, the Victorian AIDS Council and the legacy of AIDS advocacy in theatre
StageArt’s Falsettos is currently playing as part of the Midsumma Festival in Melbourne to strong reviews from critics and audiences, but a behind the scenes element makes it more than just another successful artistic notch in the belt of the company. Continuing their run of producing high quality shows that represent marginalised identities and diverse stories on stage, Falsettos has seen StageArt partner with the Victorian AIDS Council, allowing the company to extend the central messages of the musical beyond the stage and into reality.
Taking place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Falsettos tells the story of an unconventional and often dysfunctional American family. Marvin, the central character, had the perfect family with a loving wife and a young son, but has left his happy home for a man named Whizzer. It is through this relationship that the musical explores the effects of HIV/AIDS in the early days of the epidemic, and that StageArt can build on a strong legacy of the theatre world and AIDS movement working hand in hand.
Relationships between service providers and productions are not a new concept in Australian theatre, with large scale professional musicals often announcing national charity partners for special performances. These partnerships are normally a gesture of good will from producers or marketing teams, but Falsettos is a musical that has advocacy built into its DNA. HIV/AIDS has a long history of being ignored by mainstream culture, and in the absence of government recognition and funding, the theatre industry has worked to fill a gap in advocacy and fundraising. StageArt have chosen to highlight the themes of the musical by elevating the message of an organisation who would support people like the Falsettos characters, giving audiences the chance to get to know the organisation through promotion of its services. Extra material about HIV/AIDS and the impact of the VAC’s work is available at Chapel off Chapel following performances, and VAC counsellors can be contacted should the musical bring up any personal issues for audience members.
Speaking to John Hall, partnerships manager for the Victorian AIDS Council, it is clear that the VAC prioritises theatre as a form of outreach, relying on elements of compassionate and visceral storytelling to enlighten audiences.
“Back in the earlier days where shows like The Normal Heart were on in St. Kilda, there were no treatments, and we would use any vehicle to build understanding of what people were living with. We’ve always been working in partnership with theatre groups, as they were disproportionately impacted upon by HIV/AIDS. There’s a natural link between actors, dancers, operatic performers… Wherever you look in the arts, AIDS has been a shadow, and we as the major Victorian AIDS organisation have always worked in partnership doing what we can with the arts world.”
Out of the tragedy of the AIDS crisis and the failure of mainstream society to support AIDS issues was borne a community of action, with activists and artists at the centre. Hall talks about losing a generation of creative queer people as a devastating effect of HIV/AIDS on the theatre world, and says that the response of the industry has been instrumental in the support of AIDS movements. He cites the work of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Oz Showbiz Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (their Australian counterpart) in the development of support for dedicated AIDS organisations.
“When I think of all the creative spirits that were around… We lost eminent actors and theatre people due to AIDS. It’s just an overwhelming avalanche of talent, of skills, of oratory, of writing. The number of people in the theatre world who have died of AIDS will overwhelm you. We’ve lost some of the soul of the theatre world. You can’t calculate [what the world would look like had they lived]. It’s too overwhelming to try.”
Hall believes that in the case of Falsettos, StageArt have the insight, the creative spirit and the sensitivities to both reflect and celebrate the LGBTI and HIV positive community. Working together, Hall says, is about recognising the ability of theatre to educate and advocate for social issues using emotion.
“It’s about bringing awareness for the greater good, [The VAC] are the sole voice working in this space in Victoria, and if theatres and theatre people can raise awareness through sharing stories with the public, then it is a win-win for us.”
Hall believes that the stories we tell in theatre have greater impact when we come together and work as a collective, rather than as individuals. If your goal going into a production is to use the material to speak out for change or to agitate for a cause, then working with organisations who have a common goal is a logical move. He believes that because artists and theatre people have such a deep capacity for caring, we are in the perfect position to support service organisations in ways that government and funding bodies often cannot.
“The VAC is a committee-based organisation, and we only receive limited funding from government. We depend upon donations, the odd bequest and fundraised money. It’s critical to our work that these opportunities come, that people with good will put their energies into raising funds and awareness for us, because we never have enough government funds to deal with this issue.”
Hall suggests that more professional, independent and amateur theatre groups harness the power of partnerships with community organisations to influence life off stage. He believes that any advocacy that comes through in theatre material can have applications in the lives of audience members, and causes can be fortified if we choose to work together.
“I would be very happy to see [partnerships formed] more and more, you don’t need to stand alone or fight a cause by yourself. There’s lots of people with lots of knowledge across this area, we can strengthen outcomes by working together.”