Luminaries of Melbourne’s theatre and HIV communities will come together tonight to discuss the ways HIV has been represented in contemporary Australian theatre in a panel discussion at the Victorian College of the Arts.

Leading the panel is Dr Alyson Campbell, Head of Graduate Studies in Performing Arts at the VCA. Campbell has for years engaged with the way HIV has been represented in theatre in Australia and overseas and how that has changed over time.

She told the Star Observer she became interested in this through her own work in the Los Angeles theatre scene at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and by working with celebrated Australian playwright Lachlan Philpott.

Philpott told Campbell that when he went to update his acclaimed play about gay masculinity Bison in 2009 around 10 years after its initial writing, he couldn’t explore the play’s issues without engaging a phenomenon he saw as prevalent in the community around HIV.

“He felt a real forgetting or a cultural amnesia about HIV in the gay community. So the play then shifted to reflect that,” Campbell said.

She explained the panel will seek to engage with many of the ethical issues and complexities associated with making contemporary theatre about HIV, such as the importance of ensuring the perspectives and voices of people living with HIV are a part of these processes.

Campbell also argued there was a need to explore these issues to ensure a greater plurality of representation around lived experiences of HIV, to break down the cultural touchstones of the height of the epidemic such as the infamous grim reaper ad campaign.

“Every representation goes into circulation and is repeated. So for instance in the early years the emaciated bodies and illness and people who are dying was the image that got circulated repeatedly,” she said.

“But in fact now we’ve got a world where people in the developed world are living well with HIV, so there’s no point repeating the 80s scarred body because it’s just not correct. But there are other issues that are facing people who are HIV-positive.”

Campbell also argued a shift in the gay community’s focus from HIV to marriage equality — and its perhaps more individualistic goals — has left less space in community dialogue for those complex representations of HIV-positive people.

“Equal marriage and the assimilationist agenda that has been very much at the forefront of gay rights in the last 10 years has further left out people who are not white, people who are not economically contributing to the nation, people who are not monogamous, people whose gender identification is not normative, people who are sick, people who are disabled,” she said.

There have been some major Australian theatre productions about HIV in recent years, including Holding the Man based on the Timothy Conigrave memoir and local, high-profile productions of Angels in America.

However, Campbell argued that rather than engage with HIV as it is currently lived, these pieces are almost cultural artefacts, capturing something from another time.

“That moment seems to now be a historical moment from the past, and that it’s almost like we’re suddenly at a safe distance to talk about it,” she said.

“And so suddenly we’re seeing this wave of things that have a certain, I think nostalgia’s probably putting it too far, but have a certain safety in having distance from that particular moment of crisis.

“And yet when you look at the infection rates at the moment, with the dramatic rise in infection rates amongst certain demographics, and that is young [men who have sex with men] it is a new moment that could be called a crisis.”

In the lead up to the International AIDS 2014 Conference to be held in Melbourne in July, the panel represents an increased focus on the role of the arts as part of the broader HIV response in Australia, and ties into a larger VCA-coordinated project around HIV.

Through the VCA, Campbell is working with HIV advocacy organisation Living Positive Victoria on two theatre pieces inspired by experiences of people living with HIV, with theatre makers Noel Jordan and Maude Davey directing VCA theatre students.

Campbell will seek to put many of these ideas into practice through the project, working towards encouraging a new generation of theatre makers to engage with the complex breadth of experience of people living with HIV.

Jordan and Davey will also be on the panel, along with writer and activist Dennis Altman, choreographer Phillip Adams, Living Positive Victoria’s Daniel Brace, among other experts in the theatre and HIV communities.

The panel Cultural Representations of HIV and AIDS in Australian Contemporary Theatre and Live Performance is on March 26 at 6.30pm at the Victorian College of the Arts. Visit the website for more information.


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