AIDS and Los Angeles Theatre

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by Julio Martinez

The AIDS virus was not readily apparent to the Los Angele theater community in the early 1980s. On June 5, 1981, UCLA-based immunologist Dr. Michael Gottlieb published a report put out by the Centers for Disease Control, noting the unusual cases of five men who had contracted a form of pneumonia normally found only in those with severely weakened immune systems. The report was the first official notice of what is now recognized as HIV/AIDS (Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency) and it was generally ignored. Gottlieb (who became Rock Hudson’s doctor in 1985) first identified AIDS with the late Dr. Joel Weisman of Sherman Oaks in 1982. Later, in a June 4, 2016 Press-Enterprise article written by Laurie Lucas and Susan Abram, Gottlieb confided, “Back then, it was a mystery. We knew very little about the virus. In fact, at the very beginning, we had no certainty it was a virus.”

When AIDS began infecting members of the Los Angeles theater community, many became alarmed but were completely at a loss as to what they were dealing with. Actor/writer/director/socio-political activist and journalist Michael Kearns, like many others at the time, mistakenly believed they just might be dealing with a homosexual plague. “An early name for AIDS was GRID—Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” he recalled.

The first play about AIDS that was done in L.A., produced in May 1985, was Robert Chesley’s Night Sweat at the Fifth Estate Theatre, a 40-seat venue located at 1707 N. Kenmore Avenue in Hollywood. The play had been produced previously in New York and in San Francisco. In a May 20, 1985 review of the play, L.A. Times Theater Critic Dan Sulivan wrote, “Plays written in answer to an immediate public crisis don’t have to be written for the ages. It’s enough that they help the viewer to acknowledge the crisis and to see the need for a personal response to it. If Robert Chesley’s Night Sweat at the Fifth Estate Theatre helps its audiences to do that in regard to the AIDS crisis, it’s welcome…. Playwright Chesley does have guts.”

Chesley very specifically wanted to create theater that would celebrate the gay community. By writing a piece of theater that acknowledged the role of sex within the gay lifestyle, he made no apologies for it, but he also cast no aspersions on straight society’s aversion to homosexuality and the AIDS crisis.

This was also true of the more successful Warren, written by Rebecca Ranson, a playwright and arts administrator in Atlanta, who produced the play at Atlanta’s 7 Stages Theatre in 1984. One of the first plays concerning AIDS to be produced nationally,Warren made its West Coast debut at Celebration Theater in 1985. Ranson, who died in 2016, wrote over 30 plays, many of them dealing with social issues. Warren was written after Ranson’s friend, Warren Johnston, died of AIDS in April 1984. After a successful run at the Celebration, it transferred to Fifth Estate. “Moving plays from Celebration to Fifth Estate became a kind of pattern,” said Kearns. “Celebration had a planned season, so if a play in that season became successful and needed to extend, we would move it to the Fifth Estate.”

Probably the most successful play to deal with the AIDS crisis without indulging in any indictment to society’s reaction to it, was International City Theatre’s A Quiet End, a 1985 play written by Robin Swados that explored the lives of three gay men with HIV/AIDS, living together in a Manhattan apartment. As 1985 was nearing its conclusion, Shashin Desai, a professor of theater and film and Chair of the Theatre Arts Department at Long Beach City College since 1976, was intent on opening a 99-seat “black box” playhouse on the campus, allowing professional actors to be part of LBCC programs. Desai’s only problem was obtaining the kind of original plays that would warrant this move to create a professional theater program on campus.

Desai recalled, “I was talking about this to a friend of mine, Jules Aaron, who was head of the MFA Theater Directing program at Cal Arts. He told me he knew of a wonderful play, but he wasn’t sure it was the correct one to open the new theater—it was so controversial. When I read A Quiet End, I cried. I had no idea what was going on in that world, but I knew I wanted to do it. When I told Jules, he said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yes, and I want you to direct it’.”

A Quiet End debuted on January 17th, 1986. This inaugural production of the International City Theatre under the leadership of Desai set the precedent for the company’s continuing reputation of premiering new shows. It “was a major hit as far as the critics were concerned,” said Desai. Productions of A Quiet End were mounted in the U.S. and internationally.

“A Quiet End” at International City Theatre. (Photo by Shashin Desai)

But for all its success, A Quiet End, like the earlier AIDS-themed plays produced in Los Angeles, addressed neither the politics surrounding the epidemic at the time nor the lack of government funding to address it. The terms “HIV” and “AIDS” didn’t even appear in the script. On January 30, 1986, LA Times Theater writer Don Shirley concluded, “International City Theatre, a new Equity-Waiver space on the campus of Long Beach City College, has opened with a play that’s topical (the topic: AIDS) without being controversial. Within the restrictions of its genre, A Quiet End is thoughtfully written by Robin Swados, and Jules Aaron’s staging is a promising harbinger for the new theater. Yet, ultimately A Quiet End is too quiet for its own good.”

In 1986, however, the activism among theater professionals in Los Angeles became much more assertive in dealing with the AIDS crisis. “As a result of the L.A. production of Night Sweat,” Kearns said, “Chelsey gave me Jerker, starring David Stebbins and Joe Fraser, which I directed at Celebration in October 1986. That became a big deal because Jerker was performed all over the country and then in Europe. Of course, there was all this controversy over Jerker because of the problem that developed when excerpts of the Celebration performance of the play were aired on KPFK Pacific Radio here in Los Angeles.” When the excerpts aired on Aug 31, 1986, a complaint was filed with the Federal Communications Commission by a Christian minister, who stated that Jerker “did violence to him and his family.” Chesley objected, but the FCC sanctioned the station and began enforcing stricter broadcast indecency guidelines.

“There is quite another story to Jerker,” said Kearns. “The two actors in the play, Stebbins and Fraser, became partners. They moved in together, became infected with AIDS and they both died. At that time, It was one of the most painful experiences for me. Earlier, when we were rehearsing the play, we bought a blanket that came to signify the death of one of the two men in the play. When he died, the blanket was all that was left of him. Later, when Joe was ailing, I went to visit them. I went into his room and the first thing I saw was the blanket, the same blanket from the play. It completely devastated me. I lost all sense of reality. At one time you are on stage pretending to die and then you’re in real life, actually dying. And you have the same blanket. And this reality of knowing people one day and having them die very quickly became rampant during this time. And it became very real to me that something needed to be done to combat this.”

The first play to deal with the social and political struggle to get society to acknowledge and do something about this crisis was AIDS activist Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. It debuted in the spring of 1985 at New York’s Public Theatre. In December of that same year, a production of the play opened at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood, produced by Josh Schiowitz. In a Los Angeles Magazine article, published on May 26, 2014, writer Craig Byrd recalled: “The cast included Kathy Bates, Bruce Davison, and, in the lead role of Ned Weeks, a young Richard Dreyfuss, who at that point was probably best known for starring in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Set in the early 1980s, The Normal Heart depicted the first years of the AIDS crisis. Ned and several colleagues form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in an effort to help men who are dying from the ‘gay cancer.’ Weeks’ activism inflames government officials and alienates his friends, but desperate times demand desperate solutions.”

Top left (L to R): Ben Murphy, David Spielberg. Middle row (L to R): William De Acutis, Christopher Bradley, Vincent Caristi and Kenneth Kimmins. Bottom row: Kathy Bates, Richard Dreyfuss, Bruce Davison Davison and Dreyfuss. (Photo by Ed Krieger)

In the same magazine article, Dreyfuss said, “The Normal Heart essentially depicted Kramer’s experiences during that era. Every night Bruce and I kissed, some guy in the audience would slam his program down and say ‘Goddamnit, I’m getting out of here.’ That’s when we knew we were doing something right.”

The Normal Heart finally reached Broadway in 2011. At certain performances, Kramer could be found outside the John Golden Theatre handing out flyers to remind the audience that HIV/AIDS hadn’t gone away and that more needed to be done.

In Los Angeles, the political activism to get the public to confront AIDS became a dominating goal in the lives of Michael Kearns and David Galligan. In the early 1980s, they were both serving as journalists for the now-defunct Drama-Logue magazine. As the specter of the HIV crisis escalated in the LA community, Kearns and playwright James Carroll Pickett co-founded Artists Confronting AIDS (1984). That same year, they met with Galligan about directing a benefit show to help gay men afflicted with the disease.

Galligan, a journalist making the transition to theater director, took over the project, and enlisted producer Susan Obrow. The group produced what is now S.T.A.G.E., the Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event, eventually billed as the world’s longest-running musical theater AIDS benefit. That first show celebrated the music of Leonard Bernstein. “We had no money,” Galligan recalled, so members of the theatrical community helped out. Milt Larsen, the creator of the Magic Castle, provided use of the Variety Arts Theatre in downtown L.A. Robert Fryer, then artistic director of the Ahmanson, “gave us a water-stained backdrop.” Because most of the performers were working in L.A. theater, the event took place on a Monday evening. Audiences brought groceries to help those in need.

Over the last three decades-plus, these annual benefits have raised over $7 million for HIV and AIDS organizations, according to S.T.A.G.E. This year’s beneficiary is AIDS Project Los Angeles, one of the largest nonprofit AIDS service organizations in the U.S., which runs food pantries, a dental clinic, counseling, and HIV testing. Galligan has directed every one of those benefits.

In 1985, Kearns used his journalistic skills to tape interviews with a wide spectrum of Angelenos personally affected by the disease, including victims and satellites of victims. Kearns recalled, “I talked to anyone who was willing to discuss their lives during this frightening time, sometimes in their homes, often at the offices of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), which was pretty much the only advocate organization going at that time.”

At the beginning of 1986, with Pickett and writer Michael Katz serving as dramaturges, Kearns selected 13 individuals—a mixture of gay and straight men, women, and teens—who were willing to tell their stories on stage as an organized dramatic evening, helmed by Kearns. In May 1986, AIDS/US premiered at the Skylight Theatre in Hollywood, produced by Gary Grossman. The cast included actor Steve Tracy (a regular on Little House on the Prairie); AIDS volunteer Melrose Sprague, whose personal activism raised thousands of dollars for AIDS causes; Lyn Hilton, a young woman infected by her bisexual boyfriend; librarian Helenclare Cox and her adult son Andrew. Also in the cast: a widow of an AIDS victim and her teenage daughter, a formerly-in-the-closet attorney, a professional drag queen, a former male flight attendant, and others.

Because many of the cast members were in various stages of confronting the disease, Kearns recruited a cast of understudies from the LA acting community who would stand by in case performers were needed to substitute for any of the regular cast members who were too ill to go on, or, in the case of Hilton and Tracy, passed away. (Actress Dale Raoul performed Hilton’s words while various thesps stepped in for Tracy.) The production, performing on Sundays, ran throughout the year, attracting many sold-out houses—although Kearns recalled getting calls from individuals asking if they could be in danger of catching AIDS from being in the audience.

By January 1987, AIDS/US concluded its run at the Skylight. Ensemble members, however, continued to offer variations of the production at different venues to bring more community awareness to the ongoing calamity; one venue was the floor of the California State Legislature in Sacramento. In 1990, Kearns staged AIDS/US II. Cast members included Helenclare Cox, whose son Andrew had passed away, and actress Alison Arngrim, Steve Tracy’s best friend and another regular from Little House on the Prairie.

As a performer, Kearns also worked out many of his AIDS-related ideas in solo performances at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, which had become an outlet for many works dealing with this theme because writers were just exploding with things to say about it. (Over the years, Highways has established itself as an important alternative cultural center in Los Angeles.)

In the late 80s, Kearns created QueerWise, a Los Angeles based collective of LGBTQ writers and spoken word artists. The collective led Skylight’s 2017 season with more than a dozen theatrical works, some individually presented at Beyond Baroque, the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, Akbar Highways Performance Space, Spirit Studio, One Institute Art Gallery, Noho’s Lit Crawl, and the Silver Lake Library. Skylight kicked off the season with the world premiere of Shades Of Disclosure, created and performed by the voices of QueerWise, directed by Kearns.

Over the last 30 years, L.A. theatre has been a credible witness and activist in the fight against AIDS. Milwaukee-born Jeff Hagedorn provided his play, One—written in 1983 and the first publicly produced theatrical work concerning AIDS—to AIDS organizations across the country as a fundraiser. In the early years of the crisis, benefit performances of the play raised more than $50,000. Hagedorn moved to Los Angeles in 1988, continuing his community theater work through Celebration Theatre and his production company, SYZYGY. Hagedorn’s theatrical productions were performed in over 32 cities in the United States, and internationally in Edinburgh, Manchester, and Berlin; in addition, he produced and distributed gay-themed videos for a gay audience, including Jerker and Dream Man.

Such renowned national AIDS-themed shows as Rent (1995) and Angels in America (1991) have brought the AIDS crisis to worldwide mainstream awareness. But in Los Angeles, David Galligan has expressed concern that AIDS doesn’t generate the concern it did in the past. “We staged our 33rd and final S.T.A.G.E. benefit at the Saban Theatre in May 2017,” he said. “It was a wonderful show, but we sold about 450 seats in an 1800-seat space. That was dismal. AIDS has not disappeared. It still needs to be combated.”

According to a report published on April 11, 2018, by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, today there are more than 1.1 million people living with HIV, and more than 700,000 people with AIDS have died since the beginning of the epidemic in 1981. HIV continues to have a disproportionate impact on certain populations, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities and gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men. HIV testing is important for both treatment and prevention efforts, yet 14% of those infected with HIV are unaware they are infected and many people with HIV are not in care, or treatment, or have their virus under control.

“The people who are most in danger of contracting AIDS didn’t live during those turbulent times of the early 1980s,” said Kearns, who is HIV-positive. “But AIDS is still with us. And I think live theater is still the best way to spread the word that it is still life-threatening.”

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.