On Stage: images from an epidemic | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: images from an epidemic 

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In Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage (1935 edition), Emily Post recommends the use of a PPC card as a way to ease the process of leave-taking. A PPC card is simply a personal greeting card with the letters PPC written in the corner. PPC stands for the French phrase pour prendre conge--to take leave.

Emily Post might seem a strange source for a show about AIDS, but in Justin Hayford and Audrey Heller's upcoming performance piece, The Bride Who Is a Stranger, the PPC card is a central image--one of many signifying formalized but inadequate patterns of social behavior. Because its primary modes of transmission are considered deviant and controversial, and because of lingering uncertainty about the nature of the disease, AIDS has proved a troublesome disease for society to deal with honestly. Directors Heller, a free-lance director and lighting designer, and Hayford, a performance artist and occasional critic for the Reader and other newspapers, were interested in exploring not the condition of AIDS but rather its effect on the private and public consciousness.

"We don't ever want to speak for someone who has the disease," Hayford says. "I think the media has been irresponsible in speaking for those with AIDS and not letting them speak for themselves. The raw material behind this piece is our personal responses to the presence of the disease and also what we see going on in the political system, the social system, the media . . . it's the moments from the epidemic that arrest us."

"It's what we have been exposed to," adds Heller. "By no means is it an attempt to be a definitive statement on AIDS."

In choosing images to reflect their own personal reactions to the AIDS crisis, Hayford and Heller hope to stimulate equally personal responses in their audiences. The Bride Who Is a Stranger (the title comes from an Emily Post chapter heading) eschews literal dramatic encounters--such as those in plays and movies like The Normal Heart and An Early Frost--in favor of metaphorical stage imagery.

"We start with an abstract idea and then try to concretize and hyperliteralize it onstage," Hayford explains. "That makes the image very, very specific. That in turn allows an audience member to extrapolate personally from the image. What's important about the images is what associations they set off in our heads--how they mean is more important than what they mean."

Hayford and Heller decline to use the term "performance art" to describe their work, saying, instead that they borrow from drama, dance, and performance art equally. But there is a story to The Bride Who Is a Stranger. Heller notes: "Everything that happens happens onstage. That might sound simple, but in fact in most drama important things happen or have happened offstage."

The characters in the work include a scientist conducting absurd experiments on how human emotions "infect" people and a woman who arrives at an empty house for a bridal ritual. The sequences involving the scientist, relying on a deadpan humor almost in a Stan Laurel vein, should strike a chord among the many people who are wary of the behavior of the scientific establishment during the crisis--questionable research practices, the withholding of experimental drug treatments, and the standoffishness that many doctors exhibited in the first years of the epidemic toward a perceived "gay disease." The more mysterious and ritualized image of the bride, Heller explains, "is an image of waiting, of anticipation. The bride is a transitional figure. When you're a bride, you're in the process of going from being a single woman to being a wife."

If the imagery in The Bride who Is a Stranger is meditative and symbolic, the concern that prompted Hayford and Heller to create the work was very immediate. "The thing that drove us to do this piece was the fact that our colleagues and friends are dying or are going to be dying," says Hayford, who also donates time as a youth counselor for the gay and lesbian volunteer agency Horizons Social Services. The presence of continual dying--leave-taking--in a relatively youthful and close-knit population has had tremendous impact not only on sexual behavior and medical awareness but on the way people feel about mutual social responsibility, the definitions of family, and the very transitoriness of existence.

"Anybody who's cognizant of AIDS is in a sense married to the disease," Heller says. "It's part of our love life, our conjugal life, our religious life, our educational system, the way we talk about and present all sorts of issues. It's something we're inextricably bonded to."

The Bride Who Is a Stranger is the latest of several collaborations Hayford and Heller have undertaken under the auspices of their free-floating company, the Industrial Theater. The pair, both in their mid-20s, began working together as students in Northwestern University's master's program in performance studies. ("We were the class of '87--just the two of us," says Heller.) In 1987 they presented There Are Only Two Forms of Farewell (another title taken from Emily Post) at the Broadway Arts Center; earlier this year, they offered From This Moment On: A Tale of Love and Exhaustion at the Prism Gallery in Evanston as part of the Next Theatre's Next Generation Project. A portion of The Bride Who Is a Stranger was performed as a work in progress by the Chicago Dance Medium in November 1988 at MoMing Dance & Arts Center; that performance paved the way for the upcoming presentation of the work as the centerpiece of a monthlong series of events at MoMing, all reflecting the theme of AIDS and its representation in the arts and the media. A gallery exhibit, "Arts Agency: Media Intervention by AIDS Therapists and Activists," opened September 15 and will be on display through October 15; the gallery is open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday and during evening hours on performance nights.

In addition, two Saturday afternoon public forums are scheduled for September 23 and 30. The Bride Who Is a Stranger will be Thursday through Sunday, September 21-24, and Thursday through Saturday, September 28-30; 7 PM Thursday, 8 PM Friday and Saturday, and 3 PM Sunday. Admission is $10 except opening night, when admission is $25, which also includes a postshow reception catered by the Pump Room. The proceeds from all performances will benefit Open Hand Chicago, a meals-on-wheels program for people with AIDS. MoMing Dance & Arts Center is located at 1034 W. Barry; for reservations and information, call 472-9894.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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