By: Shawn Macdonald, Director & Dramaturge
A project as ambitious and important as in My Day presents a number of challenges to its creative team. It’s a daunting task to distill something so large and weighty into a theatrical context and to fashion it into performance. Two immediate questions spring to the minds of those behind a project of this magnitude:
It wasn’t that difficult to offer answers to the “why?” The COVID pandemic has re-focused our attention onto communicable disease, with many people reacting in the early stage of COVID as though this was the first time we’d experienced anything like this, despite the death toll globally from AIDS, despite the speed at which HIV/AIDS spread, despite everything we thought we’d learned from the AIDS epidemic. It seemed crucial to remind the world about what happened, and transmit knowledge in a time when memory seems to be increasingly short-term. This play chronicles a history. It serves as a memorial. As we dove into the development process and engaged with actors and explored the material, the need for this knowledge sharing became crystal clear. Our younger actors confessed to knowing little about the experience of many of their theatre ancestors, and the answer to the “why?” became even clearer.
There are other “whys.”
This piece is a celebration. It celebrates desires for and practices of liberation in queer communities prior to the scourge of AIDS. It celebrates support and love. More than anything, this play is about care. It’s about the ways that queer communities cared for one another, it’s about the challenges that arose as the virus came to affect other marginalized groups, whose care needs were left unmet by emergent efforts designed for and by white gay men, who were some of the first to experience the ravages of AIDS in North America. It’s about their resilience, strength and courage. It’s about how power structures determine who gets help and how community forms to ensure care is delivered.
But what about how? HOW do we do this?
How do we represent over 100 interviews and stories with 10 actors? It was clear from the start that we couldn’t accurately recreate these people through “character” in the conventional theatrical sense. There seemed to be little value in aiming for any kind of naturalism or direct representation of the interview subject. If we wanted to do that, we’d make a documentary, I suppose. So… how?
As a Queer man, I found that exploring the early drafts of this piece caused me to reflect a great deal on my own experience when I was in my early 20’s and news of the Gay Plague began to break. AIDS ignited my Catholic shame and sent me into a deeply fearful place. I watched many colleagues and role models in the theatre community get sick and die. I recalled how the gay community embraced activism, changed their behaviour, and helped each other stay alive. Despite the care I witnessed, and the heroism, I struggled for many years with being open, and being proud.
I have the great fortune of leading a playwriting program that puts me in contact with young writers, many of whom are members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community. It has been through my work mentoring these young artists that I’ve been able to move into a truer sense of ownership of my queerness, and a more celebratory relationship with my identity. When I got to the point of selecting a cast for this piece, it was this new perspective, so beautifully revealed to me through my work with young people, that helped me address the “how?”
I began the process of casting this piece gazing through my lens as a Queer man. Many of the voices in the text were queer voices, so my early attempts at coming up with a cast were focussed on that. But through discussions with the leader of our CARE (Committee for Anti-Racism and Equity) Team, JP Catungal, I realized that I had to expand my lens in order to approach this material with the truth it required. AIDS certainly deeply affected the gay community but it also impacted and devastated other marginalized communities. It is about power and care: how power determines how care is delivered, and how care itself is deeply powerful.
Still, it made some sense to me that we populate the stage with a beautiful group of contemporary queer bodies. For me, it’s like the baton is being passed: from those who defined the gay community as sexual liberation exploded in the 70’s to those that define queer communities today. The casting holds space for all Queer folks, for the old and young, for men and women, for Trans people, for Indigenous folks, for Black people, and People of Colour. It holds space for straight allies who cared, supported, and grieved losses. AIDS affected everyone. It still does today.
Like time itself, like the contemporary world, this piece is in constant motion. For me, the stories shared by the interview subjects in this piece represent the heart of the play. I think of these stories as being transmitted across time from when they happened into the now. I think of the cast as receivers, tuning into a frequency of knowledge-sharing and care, and speaking truths inherited by the brave ones that came before them.