News and Features

The Second ‘Gathering’ Continues … to Gather

This is the second in a series of reports on the development of a second Gathering.
b and santos

In December 2011, more than 200 area artists were involved in staging and performing A Gathering: The Dallas Arts Community Reflects on 30 Years of AIDS, perhaps the largest, single, cross-cultural collaboration ever staged locally. The AIDS awareness benefit at the Winspear Opera House involved volunteer dancers, musicians, singers, actors, video artists and choreographers from a dozen local groups such as Bruce Wood Dance Project, the Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and the Dallas Opera. And the people who brought it all together for a single evening did it all — writing, coordinating, directing, rehearsing, re-writing — in less than four months.

Now they want to do it again this fall. But do it a little differently.

For starters, they don’t have the 30-year timeline of the pandemic as an organizing focus. Charles Santos, the director of TITAS, the music and dance presenting organization, conceived A Gathering as a “concert musical,” with songs and dances, no sets or staging. (That’s Santos, seated above, with Bruce Wood, watching an early rehearsal.) But the show did have a loose ‘emotional arc’ pushing things along from loss and grief  and anger to eventual hope and community action.

Chris Heinbaugh, AT&T Performing Arts Center’s external affairs vice president, wrote the first Gathering. For the second one, he and Santos have been meeting with music director Gary Floyd and Joel Ferrel, associate artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center. They’ve been choosing and winnowing song selections, matching those with appropriate performers.

But this time, Santos feels that ordinary, personal stories from local performers and gay-community organizers can fill in the necessary material that will ‘stitch’ together the songs and dances. Which is why Monday evening some two dozen people were at Santos’ home for dinner and wine and talk.  They included Don Maison, president of AIDS Services of Dallas; Gayle Halperin, president of Bruce Wood Dance Project; Jac Alder, founder-producer-director of Theatre 3;  Nycole Ray, director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre II; Veletta Lil, former head of Dallas Arts District; Travis Gasper, development director of AIDS Interfaith Network and Booker T. Washington dance teacher Lily Weiss.

Santos is taking a page from director-choreographer Michael Bennett. Bennett used recorded interviews about the real-life experiences of professional Broadway hoofers to populate and shape his landmark 1975 musical, A Chorus Line. But Bennett took more than a year collecting interviews and refining them with his bookwriters. Santos & Co. have only until October.

On first listen, it was also unclear to me, how Heinbaugh and Santos could use much of Monday night’s discussion. People did recall personal sorrows and inspirations, some very touching. But much of the talk wasn’t anecdotal or narrative, it was more observational and reflective. I could see it used for ‘data points’ more than a story arc. Obviously, this morning’s incredible events with the Supreme Court dismantling the Defense of Marriage Act could well provide some celebratory excitement. But while marriage equality is certainly a landmark point in the ‘normalization’ or widespread acceptance of gay men and lesbians, it doesn’t directly relate to the history of AIDS.

For example, in Monday’s discussion, the generational divide in the gay community was plain — between older folks who’d survived the original onslaught in the ’80s with the overwhelming stigma, the wholesale loss of friends and lovers and the lack of medical information (let alone treatment) vs. younger people who increasingly have absorbed the message that the disease is containable, is no longer a death sentence and therefore are more casual about it and have relatively little sense of urgency. Nor do they have much residual anger or feeling of successfully overcoming American culture’s resistance to their cause (or just  their very lives).

As a result, the AIDS activists in the room pointed to the rising rate of HIV infections (the CDC reports their latest data indicate ‘sharp increases’ among young people, disproportionately among blacks and Latinos). So the activists’ conclusion probably wouldn’t easily fit any uplift one might want to give such a show’s concluding moments. For them, the message is clear: Regardless of marriage equality, much of their work has to be done over again, and again, with each generation — the education, the changes in risky behavior, the push for awareness, individually and community-wide.

That was just one, sizable current in the free-flowing discussion. Another was the differing experience women have had with HIV (they’re primarily infected, according to the CDC, through heterosexual contact). Yet another was religion — as a demonizing force for stigmatizing sufferers (Jac Alder recalled going to an early AIDS funeral only to hear the minister denounce the deceased) but also as a cohesive, social network and spiritual bulwark that has helped many individuals.

Of course, all these topics can certainly be dramatized. But that’s going to require — still to come — some serious shaping work on the part of Heinbaugh et al.

I’m just saying.