A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Jan 14, 2013
‘Elegies’ Tells the Personal Stories of AIDS
The AIDS Memorial Quilt features more than 48,000 panels commemorating the life of a person who has died from the disease. It’s a staggering yet deeply personal reminder of the devastation AIDS has wrought.
MTM’s executive director Meghan Randolph offers insights into the powerful series of monologues.
How did you find out about Elegies and what made you want to produce it in Madison?
I first heard about the show when the book writer and lyricist Bill Russell visited the University of Michigan when I was a freshman. I was not familiar with the music, but sort of dismissed it as fluff and silliness, based on the title. Then, last year, I put a call out on Facebook for show suggestions for our 2013 season. Elegies came up, and someone posted a song. I decided to look at it a bit more closely and found a piece that is interesting but tricky to pull off.
There are thirty different monologues, each told by a distinct character, and the author states that although it is sometimes performed with actors doubling, he prefers each character to be played by a different actor. Plus, you have many different stories being told, so having doubling actors could potentially get confusing.
So, I thought it might be fun to get a huge group of Madison performers together and promote it through AIDS Network. Once I got the script in the mail and read the monologues, the deal was sealed. The monologues are stunning.
Tell me about the production.
Elegies was inspired by the AIDS quilt, which author Bill Russell first saw in 1987. He combined the idea of the quilt with the idea of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which features people stepping out from the grave to tell their stories. So Russell conceived a piece based on the idea of AIDS victims stepping out from their individual panels on the quilt and talking about their very personal experiences with the disease. He then took it one step further and integrated songs, which are sung by those who are still alive and have lost those close to them.
Though it sounds dark, the author strongly stresses that the actors should find the humor whenever possible. The stories are of people of varying personalities, many of whom were very fun and funny. So I can’t stress enough that the show is not just two hours of depressing AIDS talk. Yes, some are sad, but there are some truly thought-provoking, tender, and even hysterical monologues and songs.
What are the monologues and songs like?
The monologues, as I mentioned, are each spoken by a person who died from AIDS. My favorite thing about them is that they illustrate a broad spectrum of AIDS victims: gay men and women, a grandmother, straight men and women whose spouses or partners deceived them, men and women who received blood transfusions, drug addicts and even an eight-year-old girl. We see the variety of ways the disease affects them, how they react to it and how they got it.
The songs all have a bit of a jazzy edge to them. Several are very sweet solos expressing love and friendship for those that have died. Others are peppy and fun, like the song “Spend It While You Can,” a quartet in which the singers talk about going shopping, spending money and enjoying yourself while you’re still living. There’s also “Celebrate,” a duet with two women who sing about never taking life for granted.
I understand you’re featuring forty-five local performers. How did you bring so many people together?
That part was really fun, actually. I started by going through the script and seeing if there were local actors who jumped out at me for specific songs or monologues. I really had to go back through the last couple of years and think of all the shows I’d seen and track down people who I didn’t know personally (thank you, Facebook). But after I had gotten a hold of those people there were still roles to be filled. So I opened it up via Madison Casting Announcements on Facebook, and many people emailed me and I was like, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of this person?” In fact, I had more talented people than I could include, which is always great and a bummer at the same time.
In addition to it being a cool project, I think the nice thing for people was that it was a small time commitment with a great payoff. People had limited rehearsals but got to work with the director in a very personal, one-on-one situation, which is not always how these things go.
What do you hope audiences get from seeing Elegies?
A catchphrase I've come across when researching this project was “AIDS is not over.” It is so true. I remember in the ’90s it was very much a hot-button issue, but because there have been developments to help manage it, people assume it no longer needs our attention. It does. Prevention and education are key, as is destroying the stigma surrounding it. I know we are just one little company, but I hope that in some small way we can do our part to help support awareness at the local level.
Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens runs January 18–19 at the Bartell Theatre. For more information, visit mtmadison.com.
Photo of an Elegies rehearsal by Rob Matsushita.