Review: We Were There5 February 2018
I spent my weekend debating whether I should shave my legs and obsessing over a woman at work who’s twice my age. I can’t do anything about the latter of these two except write shitty poetry about her and annoy my friends with constant updates until the infatuation comes to its end within a fortnight or so. As for my legs, it was hot outside and I wanted to wear my new embroidered skirt, so it was time for me to decide whether I was going to succumb to patriarchal pressure or stick to my feminist instincts.
I thought, fuck it, I’m going to Midsumma, so and the hair remained.
The first thing you see when sitting down to watch Tilted Projects’ We Were There is a huge, floating white thing—is it a cloud? A hospital bed? To me it looked like an oversized sanitary pad, but somehow I don’t think that’s what they were trying to achieve. Four actresses (Leah Baulch, Perri Cummings, Olivia Monticciolo and Jodie Le Vesconte) walk onstage and dive into their narratives—sometimes interrupting or talking over each other, but always attentive and giving each other space to share their stories.
We Were There is a project that is produced from a series of interviews with women who experienced the HIV/AIDS crisis within the 1980s and 90s, either as mothers, friends, nurses, or individuals still living with HIV today. The dialogue struck me as relatable and realistic. In some instances, it was overwhelmingly clear that the narratives were being performed verbatim from these interviews. Director Dirk Hoult spent over a year interviewing fifteen women and transcribing their narratives before producing the script with collaborator Gavin Roach. Each word spoken throughout the performance can be attributed to one of the interviewees, and knowing this just makes me appreciate the production even more. This isn’t an attempted portrayal of how these women may have felt during the AIDS crisis and how they feel now- these are their genuine experiences and truths.
The significance of this performance comes from its unique focus on women’s experiences, as HIV/AIDS narratives are mostly male-dominated, perhaps due to the perception that it is a ‘gay man’s disease’. I asked Hoult if this perception remains prevalent because these are the representations being consistently portrayed within art and society, to which he answered, “YES. … It’s not just a male disease, 50% of new diagnosed cases in Victoria are women.”
At one point in the performance as the women sat in a line before the audience, speaking into microphones as though they were at a panel, it was pointed out that throughout the 80’s and 90’s women were (and still are) rarely tested for HIV due to this preconceived stigma. Indeed, women who were diagnosed with HIV were often regarded as promiscuous or drug addicts. This isolation that HIV-positive women therefore faced at the time (and even now) only enhanced the difficulty to reach out and share their struggles, achievements, and experiences. I think the true essence of We Were There comes from the value of giving women the space to speak up, to let us know that they were there and that they still are here.
The dramaturgy is sometimes eerie, sometimes striking, much like the narratives themselves. One image that’s stuck with me is that of the women standing in line with their hands hovering over each other’s—close but not touching—while one recalls how a Buddhist elder called her HIV diagnosis “a wonderful gift”, because it was an opportunity to help others. At this, the women clasp hands. This was a beautiful way to articulate the initial fear and hesitation surrounding HIV and AIDS at the beginning of the 80s; the feeling of wanting to help but not wanting to get too close, before finally reaching a point of acceptance and solidarity.
Of course, this acceptance and solidarity was not universal. Some of the stories reflected on families rejecting their own and funerals that attributed a person’s death to cancer rather than AIDS. Even now, stigma surrounding the disease remains highly prevalent, and I wonder if the education we’re receiving on the issue is enough to fully understand the dynamics of such a complex issue. Personally, I’d say no. I’m sure it was mentioned at some point during high school sex ed., but my first real understanding of HIV and AIDS came from reading Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man.
Regarding present stigma, Hoult said, “People know now it’s not going to kill you, but the vernacular around it hasn’t changed … ‘How’d you get it?’ … ‘Are you clean?’ … we have to open our minds, wake up, get tested, and get over ourselves when it comes to fear of ‘the other’.”
People are never going to get over this fear of ‘the other’—at least, not everyone. Stigma is one of those unfortunate constants of humanity to which some people stubbornly cling. You can see it everywhere—from the smallest of actions to the loudest of silences. It’s why, as a woman, I deliberated over whether to bust out the razor or not, and above all, it’s the reason why so many stories of those affected by HIV and AIDS are left unheard. We Were There unearths forgotten experiences to give voice to Australian women not only so audiences can learn and accept them, but so that other women dealing with HIV and AIDS know they’re not alone, and that ‘the other’ is a myth we can dismantle through broader social discussion and more diverse representation within the arts.