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The Stage Lights This Month Are Focusing on AIDS

Careful planning would have had a hard time pulling off what coincidence accomplished this month: San Diego’s first AIDS-awareness theater festival.

No one’s calling it a festival, of course. In fact, most of the individual participants are downright surprised to learn of the plethora of other AIDS-related shows on stage throughout the community.

Among the works with the disease as their theme are Harvey Fierstein’s “Safe Sex,” which opened Thursday and plays through March 20 at the Bowery Theatre; “As Is,” by William M. Hoffman, a University of Arizona production playing Thursday as part of the American College Theatre Festival at San Diego State University’s Don Powell Theatre; “Transfusion,” a world premiere by local playwright Janet Schechter Tiger showing Friday at the Lyceum Stage in Horton Plaza, and “Jerker,” by Robert Chesley, playing Feb. 18-21 at the Sushi Performance Gallery.

By far the largest event is the Actors for Life 24-hour play-reading. It begins at noon Sunday at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse and continues from midnight to noon Monday at the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza.

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The marathon, a much more substantial version of the Artists for AIDS benefit staged at the Lyceum Stage last February, includes at least 25 individual readings and performances--many of them world, West Coast or San Diego premieres--and brings together 150 actors, 15 directors and 40 technicians from the area.

The event, which will benefit San Diego’s AIDS Assistance Fund, sprouted from $1,000 in seed money from actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg, a San Diego Repertory Theatre alumna who brought AIDS consciousness into her own show at the Rep last month by having one of her female characters contract the disease.

By any measure, the myriad of shows mark a significant leap for San Diego, a city that staged its first AIDS-related work, “The AIDS Show,” only four years ago this week at SDSU.

It is a development that reflects the maturation of San Diego’s theatrical community into one large enough to call upon a substantial pool of talent, from such organizations as the newly formed Actors Co-op. It also reflects the impact of the disease on those involved with San Diego theater.

Thomas Vegh, artistic director of Diversionary Theatre and producer of “The AIDS Show,” is now producing “Life of the Party,” an AIDS-related play by Doug Holsclaw.

For the openly gay Vegh, this week “is very special” because of the four-year anniversary. The interim has seen not only the loss of several friends to AIDS--"I’m hearing about diagnoses every day"--but also a groundswell of support from non-gays, he said.

“I would venture a guess that everyone participating in this event has had some life experience with AIDS or knows a friend of a friend who died of it,” said Darla Cash, an actress who organized the 24-hour play-reading with Will Roberson and Bryan Scott, part of the team behind “Suds,” an original musical that will open at the Old Globe Theatre March 31.

“You can’t be in the theater and not know people who have it,” she said. “The numbers are growing so rapidly.”

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In a way, Cash’s increasing awareness of the AIDS crisis parallels the city’s as a whole.

“Three years ago, when I first heard about this disease, I thought it was bizarre, that some doctor in UCLA invented it to suck people dry,” she recalled. “Then Philip Dimitri-Galas died two years ago within two weeks of his being diagnosed. The next person, Jim Wirz, box office manager at San Diego Rep, died four months ago after suffering for a long time.”

Not long after Cash and her husband, Doug Jacobs, artistic director of the Rep, held a wake for Wirz at their home, Cash got the idea of organizing the marathon. Then she approached Roberson and Scott.

It was a natural choice. While Vegh produced the first AIDS-related drama in San Diego, Roberson and Scott produced the second, “Warren,” staged at the now-defunct Triteria Theatre above Busalacchi’s restaurant in Hillcrest.

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According to Scott, neither he nor Roberson at the time knew anyone who had been stricken with AIDS. It was Vegh’s work that inspired them to produce “Warren,” Rebecca Ransom’s true story of a man who realizes he is dying from the disease.

“Warren” was only the beginning of the pair’s acquaintance with AIDS. Less than six months after the play was presented, Scott’s lover was diagnosed with the disease.

“And all of a sudden I was living the play. Life was imitating art,” Scott said.

For Scott, whose lover died last March, it was one of those tragic coincidences that seem to crop up again and again as one talks to the people producing the shows and organizing the benefits.

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Olive Blackistone, artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre, had not had experience with the disease until she decided to produce “The Normal Heart” in October, 1986.

To do justice to Larry Kramer’s autobiographical story of a man who develops AIDS, she contacted San Diego’s AIDS Assistance Fund for advice. They put her in touch with a man diagnosed with AIDS, Glenn Miller, who became the show’s adviser and the cast’s friend as it went through rehearsals. He died less than a year after the play was staged.

Similarly, when Tiger first presented her then-new play, “Transfusion,” for a reading at Scripteasers in July, she didn’t know anyone suffering from the disease.

Then she found out, months later, that Robert Cyr, an actor who had read one of the parts, had developed AIDS and died Jan. 6. Today she recalls her surprise when Cyr, an experienced actor, had trouble with some of his lines in the play, which is about a young man with AIDS who unwittingly gives a tainted transfusion to his father.

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“Now I understand why he stumbled,” Tiger said. “I think they (the lines) must have meant more to him than we realized.”

Many theaters producing plays on AIDS or other gay-related topics earmark certain performances as benefit nights.

The money earned from “Transfusion” will go to San Diego’s “Walks for Life”; the Bowery Theatre, which donated money from last year’s “Bent” and “The Shadow Box,” will give proceeds from its Wednesday performance of “Safe Sex” to the AIDS Assistance Fund; San Diego Stageworks, which will do a reading of “As Is” at the marathon, has designated three days of preview benefits for its show when it opens in July, and North Coast Rep staged benefit nights for “The Normal Heart” and “Torch Song Trilogy.” In addition, the Old Globe has designated receipts from one night of this summer’s “A Comedy of Errors” to AIDS causes.

Although the money is welcome by the three major AIDS assistance organizations in San Diego--the San Diego AIDS Project, the AIDS Assistance Fund and the Center for Social Services--the goal, all agree, is not simply to raise funds.

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Equally important is the effect the performances may have on raising community awareness of what AIDS victims and their families and friends endure physically, emotionally and socially.

“This has been the most emotionally draining experience I’ve been involved in,” said Nicole Ramirez Murray, who founded the AIDS Assistance Fund five years ago. “There’s so much fear. We’ve had people diagnosed with AIDS who have found their clothes put out on the street by their roommates. The AIDS Assistance Fund had to pick up an abandoned body of a person whose family would not pick it up. We provided the cremation.”

It was public fear that prompted the Center for Social Services to drop the words “gay” and “lesbian” from its title. Supporters were afraid to write the organization checks because they thought they might be victims of discrimination.

Michael Kearns, who will perform in “Jerker,” sees shows about AIDS as potentially “exhilarating” because of the difference they can make in fighting discrimination and building compassion.

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“It’s like going to church for a spiritual, emotional experience,” he said. “People need to cry, they really do. And sometimes you can’t respond in real life, but when you get into a darkened theater, the theater can be the catalyst that allows the tears to come.”

At the same time, the cost of the catharsis is often pain.

Scott, reflecting on the loss of his lover, said: “It hurts for me to go and watch AIDS plays now, but I still think it’s important. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know people who are suffering.”


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