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The Drama of AIDS

Jimmy Shaw secured DT Espacio Escenico, a black box theatre in Chueca ("the Greenwich Village of Madrid") that he described as "bohemia at its essence, very Spanish in the Almovodorian sense." As part of their Festival Version Original, we would have very limited time to rehearse.

"It was claustrophobic," Jimmy remembers. "Airless and black and oppressive. All we had to circulate the air was a big electric fan that was placed in the middle of the stage."

While everyone knew that the play would be performed in English for a largely bilingual audience, we didn't foresee the unnerving tech rehearsal that required I have an English-to-Spanish translator in order to set the lights and sound.

When I would say things like, "I want to soften up the lights in that downstage area and give more texture to the sound levels," the translation was utterly incomprehensible to the Spanish-speaking techies, who looked at me with dumbfounded expressions on their swarthy faces.

Jimmy has since said to me that he was awed by my degree of trust. My trust -- that things will happen as they are meant to -- comes from all those years of putting it out there; it's an unwavering belief in the theatre as a higher power.

I'm not suggesting that every experience is foolproof because of my belief system, but at some point in the process, I know; I know that the work will take flight. Maybe it happens subtly, like when I'm ravaging through the backstage area, which Jimmy said was "like setting a kid loose in his eccentric aunt's attic." I was, literally, seeing red: a red ladder, a red piece of fabric to throw purposefully over the couch -- red to match the color of the phone; a Pickett decision from day one so it was no accident.

"Red -- the color of passion, the color of blood, the color that agitates bulls in the bullring," Jimmy recalls, all aglow with memory. "Unapologetic red -- the color of an emergency, the color of a revolution." With trust, we had our design in place.

I nearly drove Giles insane with tasks. Not only was he running sound for the show (at least twenty randomly placed cues), at one point I had him running from the backstage tech area to a specific electrical outlet, located inches from the audience, in order to blink the "red neon light" from the Mobil Oil Station that Christopher references. Then the poor darling had to tear backstage to Jimmy's entrance/exit to assimilate the sound of Christopher taking a piss by pouring water into a container.

During the final dress rehearsal that took place minutes before the audience would be let in, the onstage television caught on fire. There was a light inside that created an eerie glow but at some point, it began smoking.

"The television is on fire," I shouted, forgetting that no one within earshot spoke English. "Television, fire," I repeated. Jimmy, ever the trouper, continued acting his heart out. "Fire!" I shouted, louder this time.

The only word I knew in Spanish that could vaguely be associated with fire was the word for red.

"Roja! Roja," I began yelling, like a madman. "Roja!" Giles appeared and began translating to the crew, many of whom appeared to be waking up from their afternoon siesta. Certainly Jimmy must have stopped at some point. The fire was doused and the show went on.

Those Madrid performances during the first week of July were a mess, a divine mess, but anyone in that sweaty audience would attest to the fact that we made magic. Jimmy fumbled and stumbled and halted and hesitated, but by the end of the night, he held the audience enraptured by his mystical connection to the material; his connection to Pickett; our connection to each other, the three of us; our red brotherhood on fire.

July 4 was the eleventh anniversary of Pickett's death. On July 5, the streets of Madrid were packed with tens of thousands of people, rejoicing in Spain's new law legalizing same-sex marriage. The palpable spiritual energy on the street attested to what an astounding step this was for a country steeped in Catholicism. Everything was connected.

Reprinted by permission from The Drama of AIDS: My Lasting Connections with Two Plays That Survived the Plague by Michael Kearns. Copyright (c) 2009 by Michael Kearns. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. All rights reserved.

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