Six years ago, theatre director Ben Buratta started an unusual collective called Outbox Theatre. Consisting solely of LGBTQ performers, they hold workshops with youth groups across the UK, and improvise performances based on interviews with LGBTQ people – a kind of oral history project on the stage. Their newest play is called Affection and is an examination of what it's like to live with HIV today – a prescient topic, given that rates of infection are at an all-time high.
Unlike a lot of theatre and art surrounding HIV, Affection aims to eschew the traditional grand narrative of "you catch HIV, you get AIDS, you die", explains Ben. Instead, it's made up of many small, fragmented stories – snapshots of the intimacy and interactions as experienced when you're positive. This format – along with a bit of contemporary dance; a clubby, electronic soundtrack; and big, blown-up video projections of the body – makes for a very modern look at an epidemic that is sometimes, mistakenly, thought of as a thing of the past.
To find out more about Affection, we talked to Ben during its run at London gay pub The Glory, ahead of performances later this month in Birmingham. He explained why fighting HIV and its stigma is so important right now, how Outbox seeks to paint an accurate picture of living with the virus, and what he hopes Affection's eclectic set of stories can show people.
VICE: Hi Ben. Where did the idea for Affection come from?
Ben Buratta: I'd been interviewing LGBT people for a long time, and when I spoke to gay men, stories of HIV would always come up. I was nervous about doing a play on HIV because I didn't want it to fall into clichés, do something that's been done before or be gloomy. But I heard a lot of interesting, funny and sexy stories, and thought, 'Actually, there is something really theatrical about this.' There's also a lot in the press at the moment about HIV. With rates on the rise, now seemed like the right time to make a really contemporary piece about it. There's still a lot of stigma around the virus, so the aim of the play was to share stories and start an open conversation.
How did you begin?
I started by collecting specific interviews. Then, going into rehearsals, it was about listening to those interviews, reading out excerpts, responding to them and building scenarios around them. A leading HIV and sexual health clinic in Soho, 56 Dean Street, came to talk to us so we had a really good understanding of what was going on, as did an HIV charity called Positive East.
Often when you see theatre, you follow one character, usually a straight white man. We wanted to mess that up.
Why did you decide to tell lots of small stories, as opposed to one central narrative?
We didn't want to have one narrative for a few reasons. The first was that we wanted to explore a diverse range of people's experiences of living with HIV. If there was only one protagonist, we wouldn't get that diversity. Secondly, we wanted something with a queer form. Often when you see theatre, there's a heteronormative narrative with a beginning, middle and end, and you follow one character, usually a straight white man. We wanted to mess that up and have many stories told from different perspectives.
The play alludes to a lack of education around HIV – is that a big problem?
I think the major thing about HIV contraction is a lack of education; we don't learn about this stuff in schools. The young people I talked to didn't understand what the risks were because no one had told them. There's a danger in making a play like Affection too didactic, like a public health broadcast, so we just wanted to play with the idea that people don't know the risks they're encountering.
There's one scene where an older guy tries and fails to explain to a one-night stand that he's undetectable. It's a term not many people are familiar with...
Yes, that was something that came up a lot when we were talking to Positive East and 56 Dean Street. Someone positive is "undetectable" when their viral load is low due to medication, meaning they're at much less risk of passing the virus on. I thought it presented an interesting moral dilemma for the audience: on one hand, people would say you have a moral obligation to tell people you're sleeping with; on the other hand, if you know you're safe... I thought it was fascinating to let the audience come to their own decision.
There's a heartbreaking scene at the end, when a guy is speaking to a sort of ghost of his ex who died when AIDS first began to spread. Was that dialogue based on a specific story?
It wasn't a specific story – it was a few different people's stories, based on that time during the 1980s when so many people died. So many of the people we spoke to, their friends were just gone within a few years, and we couldn't forget that, just as they couldn't. Often, they'd talk about survivor guilt, or talk about it like a battleground, like the First World War, where people were there one minute and gone the next.
I suppose your cast was always going to be diverse if you use LGBTQ actors from across the UK, but were there any conscious decisions around casting?
It was quite difficult, because with every other play Outbox has done, I've made an effort to make sure the cast represented men, women and non-binary people. But the stories we were looking at here centred around the gay male experience; it made sense to have more men than women this time. However, I did want to represent women, as during the AIDS crisis women were so important to the community, and we included a trans guy in the cast because it's something we don't hear about much, even though rates within the trans community are really high. And then, of course, we included people of different ages and ethnicities too.
After leaving the show, the most resounding thing about Affection was how uplifting some of it was. From your experience interviewing people, directing the play and talking to audiences, can anything good come out of a HIV diagnosis?
Absolutely. We can't pretend that it's a good thing to be diagnosed with HIV, but from speaking to people, they say their quality of relationships have improved, things become less superficial and – it sounds clichéd – but you become really grateful for your body and your life, and you look after yourself better. Generally, you have to disclose your status to partners, so if someone accepts that and is still around then you know it's for real and you can trust them. And a lot of people I spoke to found a real sense of community they may not have otherwise had. I hope that comes across – that it's not all doom and gloom; that there's a light there.
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