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What's a nice girl like you doing in a PhD like this?

I frequently get asked 'what's your PhD actually on', usually I just reply 'Drama' or 'American drama in Britain.' if pushed, or if it looks like it'll elicit an amusing response I say simply 'AIDS in theatre' sometimes in fact I just say AIDS. Generally I do this if someone looks like they'll have an amusing reaction, or if they're being generally disparaging about the whole PhD endeavor.


For the record, the current title is Angels at the National and Bohemians in the West End: Transposing and Reviving American dramatic depictions of AIDS to the British stage in Angels in America and Rent and in it, I explore how both plays communicate AIDS to an audience in their content and the way this works with a British audience. I look at press responses, and how these plays fit into the wider context of theatre in Britain. Later I look at revivals, of these plays and consider how years later these plays continue to be relevant and impact on theatre in Britain. 

Why do I avoid this? because it's easier than then having to explain 'but why do you want to research AIDS?' people are happy with the answer 'drama' it's suitably broad and fluffy. It can also be dismissed with a 'oh that's nice' you say AIDS you don't get that response. If I were doing a PhD on cancer, whether scientific, social or cultural I know I'd get a nod and a 'oh that's so good of you, such a worthy cause.' Sadly, still my PhD doesn't elicit such a response. Generally the response is a resounding, if unspoken 'ugh'. There's also an unspoken 'but what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?' which perhaps should one day be the title of my autobiography, but I digress.

Why is it so odd I should be doing this? particularly when the very definition of a PhD is looking at something obscure that nobody else is particularly interested in. Why then, is looking at AIDS in drama something I hold back from telling? I did it this week, my friend sat next to me happily gave the full description of her work on Welsh choral music (which is really interesting incidentally) I muttered 'drama' and hoped I could shuffle away. I feel like I should be embarrassed, or defensive. I usually opt for the former, it being the easier path, also when I go down the other road I turn into Larry Kramer. Which is I realise a niche PhD related reference. Good. Google him.

I'll save my Kramer-esque rant about why what I do is important. The second question that follows, should I bother to explain is 'But why?' again unspoken, why do you, a "normal" looking woman (I lose all of that sentence loosely) want to do something like that? again if it were cancer, nobody would think twice. Because it's AIDS, I must have some deep dark reason, probably I'm guessing  a lot of them think I have HIV. And you know what if I did, I'd speak out. I'd say 'Yes I decided to do this because of how this has affected my life' that's not true though. It's the same with gay rights in general, to be vocal about gay rights makes certain assumptions about sexual preference.

Two things on  this, I'm a big animal rights activist. I'm not a llama. You see the absurdity? I'm not offended by people assuming I'm gay or have HIV, because why would I be offended to be considered either of those things? they aren't things that reflect poorly on someone's character, one is a sexual preference you are born with, one is a viral infection. I don't think badly of heterosexuals or people with the flu, therefore think I'm gay, think I have HIV if that helps.

But still, why this? why do any of us who pick our own PhD topics do it? The short version is, I loved the plays. Really for any literature/film/drama based PhD this is a must.

As with everything I do, it was the 'wrong' way to do it. I didn't have any great academic aspirations to consider the American Epic Theatre or any such thing.

The first performance I saw with AIDS in was out of the blue and unexpected, and I blame it for the seed that became this massive part of my life. I saw Hugh Jackman in 'The Boy from Oz' in December 2003. Mum and I were in New York, and at this point tickets were easy to get. It was Hugh Jackman, in a musical, why not? Neither of us knew who Peter Allen, the real life singer-songwriter he portrayed, was or that he died of AIDS related illness. I loved the musical. Love is perhaps too mild a term. I was obsessed. But that, is another blog entirely. The Boy From Oz hasn't made it to the PhD but in some convoluted series of events, it's the start point.

I discovered Angels in America during a grim cold winter in Montreal. Our TV didn't work so we relied on the video store around the corner (remember those kids? this was 2003, before Netflix. Hell it was before Facebook, we were one of the first Unis to get it, anyway I digress) My flatmate and I were scouring the shelves, trying to find an alternative to our one Family Guy box set. She pointed to Angels in America and said 'That's supposed to be good. It's about AIDS' (and so said every description of that play/series ever) I shrugged said ok let's watch it. And we did, and I loved it and bought it and it became one of my favourite series. It became perversely my cheer myself up DVD-having as I do the theory that sometimes watching people worse off than you cheers you up. I fell in love with the actors, and more in love with Emma Thompson.

Around the same time I stumbled across Rent. I'd recently begun to really get into musical theatre, see above, Hugh Jackman again is to blame. And I was also getting involved in a lot of online fandom related to theatre. You can't swing a cyber cat in musical theatre forums and fansites without coming across 'Rent' as a must-have-must-be-a-fan-of. So I found myself  trotting off to a Montreal record store (again remember them?) and buying the Rent cast recording. I tried to listen to it on the bus home, but the ride was too bumpy and my CD kept skipping (again, yup, remember those) I remember listing to 'What you Own' over and over on that bus ride though. I remember standing in our orange kitchen, when everyone was out, listening to 'Will I' over and over. Soon I knew every word of the whole thing. Except the phone numbers, I still can't remember those.

Later that year, I saw Rent, finally, on Broadway. It's a cliche but it was at that point the most moving evening in the theatre I'd ever had. Still over 10 (gulp) years later I can count on one hand the number of performances that match it for emotional impact. It's hard to explain, particularly to those who don't like musical theatre. But it felt like being hit by a truck, in a good way. Midway through I just felt a wave of emotion that told me, yes this is something, yes this is going to last. There is something about Rent, if it's a musical for you that just grabs a hold of you and refuses to let go. Even now, though I see it's flaws, though I see it inside out and back to front, it still has an emotional hold. For Rent it's also about finding it at the right moment. I found it when I was a bit lost, living in a foreign country, old enough at 19 to get it, not so old to be cynical about it. And over the years it's been a part of me. It's part of the reason I got more into musical theatre, that I engaged online about musical theatre. Rent became a big part of my theatre education. Rent, its cliche, to say became a part of my growing up, because that year was really important for me.

I always say, in describing these plays, both personally and professionally, that Angels is the head and Rent is the heart. Angels is an engaging artistic political declaration of so many things. It's intellectual, it's critical, it's artistic. There is still so much heart in it, but it gets to your heart through the mind. Rent on the other hand is raw, visceral, it hits straight to the heart. It's still got so many things to say, to teach, and Larson was oh so clver too. Just a different clever. Angels will cause you to start a political revolution and quietly tug at your heart while you do so. Rent will rip out your heart and put it back together and let you go thinking about revolution. Angels is poetry, and a well structured argument and delicate beautiful words. Rent is rough around the edges, a hard musical beat and a mash up of conflicting styles.  I cannot separate them or judge which one is 'better' because they serve the same aims in such different ways. And both have become a part of my personal, artistic and intellectual identity. I speak their lines without noticing, I hear character inflections in my mind, and I adopt their philosophies.

Both plays became influential. I'm a fangirl at heart and when I fall I fall hard. So I followed various cast member's careers. Devoured everything I could on the writers, directors, anyone associated with it. I bought albums and films and books. These plays became part of my world, and they spun out into other plays, musicals, films and books. And so on, as is the fannish life. I used Rent in my Undergrad dissertation, in the impeccably titled 'The Serious Side of the American Musical' original, really original. Then as luck would have it Angels in America was revived in London as I did my Masters, so I wrote my dissertation on that. Both had been cemented into my life. When it came to proposing a PhD it was always the natural progression, I never considered doing anything else. I cannot honestly say why, other than I loved the plays still, and it was an area I was passionate about.

Why so passionate about AIDS? again, disappointingly perhaps, I have no deep dark story about why. I don't know anyone personally who has AIDS, never have. The best I can do is this: I grew up in the 1980s (I was born in 1984) I have never known a world without AIDS and when I was a child it was one of the most terrifying things in the adult world I could think of. The tombstone adverts on television voiced by John Hurt made it seem like AIDS was about to leap out of an alleyway and kill you. I didn't really know what it was, but I knew I was supposed to be scared, so I was. The time and place I grew up in was also rife with homophobia, if you weren't being a 'bellend' (an insult I'm actually all for, it makes me weirdly nostalgic) then you were 'so gay'. In a rough British Comprehensive school in the 1990s being 'gay' and the added 'you've got AIDS' were commonplace. Being gay wasn't a thing we talked about, and AIDS was this scary thing lurking in the darkness.

That's partly why I think I have become so passionate about the cause. Because I still see areas of society where that's still the case. For every fluffy drama loving, liberal friend I have, there's hundreds of people out there still throwing out those insults I heard as a kid. It's easy to forget sometimes, once you grow up and surround yourself with people who have the same values, what a harsh world it is out there. The reality being that AIDS is still a threat, and being gay is still a threat in itself for those in hostile environments. AIDS charities struggle to raise funds where others wouldn't simply because the stigma still remains. People still fear the condition, people still hold prejudice. There's still not enough research, comparatively for the amount of people diagnosed. And, as we get further from the original epidemic panic, people become complacent and infection rates rise.  Just because AIDS is no longer a death sentence, doesn't mean it's not a threat. And it still needs to be on the agenda for discussion. And that's why these plays are still important, and that's why this PhD feels important. Keeping the discussion going.

That's perhaps why, I wasn't ready for the discussion to be over after two dissertations, so I carried it on. And I believe that these plays still have a lot to say. They might be over twenty years old now, their content may now be historical work, but it is still important, and will carry on being so. Theatre allows for an ongoing updated dialogue in the way that film or literature doesn't in quite the same way. So this PhD is just my bit of the conversation.

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