Bob Leahy: You've written a play - a musical - called Living with Henry. I know it's about living with HIV today. I don't think many people are telling that story. Tell me why you wanted to tackle that subject in 2011?
Christopher Wilson: This piece importantly frames HIV as a chronic illness, rather than a death sentence - following the AIDS epidemic in the 80's and 90's. It however explores the very real challenges inherent in living with HIV - including disclosure issues, fear, family dynamics, medication management and interpersonal relationships, as affected by the virus. These very important and hard-hitting issues continue to confront both our gay community and the community at large.
BL: I agree. So give our readers an outline of the story you're telling.
CW: The story revolves around it's central character, Michael - a gay man working hard to figure his shit out! The plot includes disclosure challenges with a BF, intense family dynamics, fear with a lesbian best friend, a near-death experience - and a marriage that ultimately breaks down and dissolves.
BL: I like it. How would you describe the tone of the piece? Sad, funny, reflective, optimistic?
CW: All of the above! The piece is quite an intense emotional ride - but it's filled with honesty, authenticity, humour, sexuality - and introspective reflection. I won't give away all the juicy details, but when you're talking about HIV/AIDS as it affects the human condition - it's all gotta be there, baby!
BL: True. Now you've said your main character Michael comes to realize "the pain of the dis-ease". What do you mean by that?
CW: "Dis-ease: refers to a state of imbalance, a lack of grounded-ness and a potential spiraling out of control. The principal character Michael, lives with HIV - but his life choices and resulting emotional state contribute adversely to his personal health and well being, in context of the story.
BL: I see. And the music? Where does that fit in? Is it easy to take a serious subject like HIV/AIDS and write songs around it?
CW: I 'm a professional musician - so music is my soul language. Though I have never formally composed prior to this venture, the piece is in many ways autobiographical - so the music evolved and developed very organically. It's further been workshopped and shifted in the rehearsal hall - but the music serves the piece as a dramatic device and comes out of the intention of the scenes. When it can't be simply said - it has to be sung!
BL: Talking of singers, you've assembled a great cast. Tell me about them.
CW: Man, they fucking rock... all of them! People often ask me if they have to audition to be my friend (LOL). My nearest and dearest are some of the most extraordinary musical theatre artists in Toronto! Instead of paying a hundred bucks to see them at a theatre, I have them over for a dinner party. I want to particularly mention our lead - Ryan Kelly. He's an incredible queer artist that has contributed significantly to the queer theatre scene here in the city. And he's kicking ass with "Living With Henry"!
BL: I think I can count on the fingers of one hand musicals that have tackled AIDS. I can think of Rent and I can think of Zero Patience. Have you seen those and how do you think they fared?
CW: I've seen both pieces on stage and in film - and I think both works gave an incredibly beautiful, heartfelt and authentic account of the epidemic at the time they were written and presented. These works have unquestionably inspired my work!
BL: I'm looking forward to it. But do you think people want to see a show about HIV in 2011? And has that been a barrier to getting this show staged here in Toronto?
CW: HIV is still such a real issue, though it's face has changed dramatically since it emerged thirty years ago. I feel people have become somewhat complacent about the issue in many ways, and yet - it is still so fucking hard for so many to negotiate! The Fringe was a lottery so we were fortunate to get the spot to share our work this July.
BL: I see The Normal Heart revival, the AIDS-era show by Larry Kramer, is doing really well on Broadway right now. I think Buddies also has it in their 2011-12 line-up. I'm surprised, but as a person living with HIV myself, I'm also kind of delighted. How do you feel about it?
CW: Very cool, indeed! A friend of mine recently saw the show in NY and Larry himself was handing out a personal letter to patrons as they exited the theatre. I read this missive - which spoke to the reality of all those men who died of AIDS in the last thirty years. Each man had a name, a family, dreams and aspirations - and none of us should ever forget how their loss has abundantly informed the medical advancements that now allow individuals such as me - to live long, healthy and abundant lives.
BL: Yes, so why do you think that particular play - it's a period piece specific to the early days of the epidemic - is clicking with audiences now?
CW: It's a human story about loss and overcoming adversity as best as we all can. We all deal with this shit, day in and day out. It's the human condition and it's fucking messy at times - but also beautiful! As an aside, our very own Ryan Kelly will also be appearing in the fall in the Buddies/Studio 180 production of "The Normal Heart". Can't wait to see it!
BL: Me too. I should add that I'm equally delighted that you're tackling the topic of HIV in 2011. Good for you! What emotions do you think this piece will stir up for people living with HIV?
CW: This is a tricky question to field. I think many positive individuals will feel a deep commonality and resonance with the piece. I think others will say, "Fuck you! I hate AIDS theatre - and that's not MY story!" It's true, it's not their story - it's mine for the sharing. I can't dictate or speculate how others will be affected by the work - it would be presumptuous and inappropriate. I only hope that myself and my entire ensemble can stay true to telling the most honest and authentic dramatic story that we can together.
BL: You're a gay man, right? And every gay man relates in some way to the epidemic. But it often depends on how old they are. Were you around in the early days of the epidemic? (I guess I'm asking how old you are, in a roundabout way, LOL.) What's your relationship to the virus? Have you had friends die?
CW: I'm a 37 year old gay man. HIV/AIDS was a hot topic when I became sexually active in the 90's and has been a part of my culture since adolescence. I'm also an HIV positive man, having lived with "Henry" for ten years. Having lost friends and colleagues to the virus along my journey, their loss has spurred on my passion to express this deeply personal story as best I can.
BL: That's good to hear. I think this is the first show you've written, right? Tell me what it means to you to have it performed here in Toronto.
CW: This piece began with my personal HIV diagnosis - and grew as a means to cope with something that was initially very frightening - to shift it into something more humanized and emotionally manageable. So many people in my cherished community that have supported me through the toughest times, live here in Toronto. So it's an honour to pay homage to them through this work.
BL: So what is the take-home message of this show? What do you want to achieve?
CW: Everyone has a potential Henry. Though Henry is a specific analogy for HIV in this piece - Henry also represents a seemingly insurmountable challenge in someone's life that is overcome through love, compassion, community and a hell of a lot of hard work! Henry could represent depression, diabetes, mental illness, cancer... anything that gets up in your fucking face, in the way and takes up space! Our bigger goal is to relate universally - and encourage individuals to find the means to "get good" with their own personal Henry.
BL: Good. Now how can people find out more about it?
CW: Info on the show is available on our production website: www.livingwithhenry.com .It can also be found through the Toronto Fringe Festival website: www.fringetoronto.com Or by calling the Fringe Box Office at (416) 966-1062 - but do it before our opening on July 7th !!!
Beyond Boundaries with The Toronto Fringe Festival presents
Living with Henry
Written and composed by Christopher Wilson
Opens July 7 and runs to July 17
At The George Ignatieff Theatre- 15 Devonshire Place, Toronto
Tickets $11 in advance, $10 at the door
Available by phoning the Fringe Box Office at (416) 966 1062 or at www.fringetoronto.com