Matthew R. Kerns on Gay Fantasia, his late-night theater immersion project
Brooke C Graczyk
For Gay Fantasia, opening this weekend at Naropa University's Nalanda Campus, the audience has a chance to be direct participants in the production. The piece -- which binds the last days of Harvey Milk together with the beginning of the HIV and AIDS crisis through a personal story -- is presented in an immersive, interactive theater style.
In advance of performances this Friday and Saturday, April 12 and 13, we talked with Gay Fantasia "inventor" Matthew R. Kerms about the involved play, and where he found inspiration when creating it.
Westword: What is Gay Fantasia?
Matthew R. Kerns: Gay Fantasia is a late-night immersion piece of theater that spans the last days of Harvey Milk through the first era of the HIV/AIDS crisis. It's late-night theater, à la Charles Busch meets theater of the absurd meets a nightclub. It is absolutely interactive -- there are two kinds of seating. There's the kind of seating where you're going to be immersed in the play and be a part of the show, and there's the kind of seating where (you may say) no, I'm not cool with that and I'm going to sit in the stands and just watch the other people play.
Think of it like "Sleep No More" -- the interactive piece where you walk around the hotel in New York. It's like that -- not exactly like that, but the same flavor and style of theater. I'm trying to play with this new style of theater that says you don't have to sit in a seat for two hours anymore; you can get up and play with the cast and be a part of the event.
It's nice that you give the option to participate -- the audience can definitely be in different camps when it comes to being involved in a piece.
Totally. [Laughs.] Some people will not attend if they feel like they have to be put on the spot like that. There is a total choice for you -- you can decide which kind of seat you want, if you want to be an observer.
Why are you choosing to start this piece at eleven o'clock at night?
This is important for people to know, actually: I'm doing it at eleven o'clock in the evening because it's an immersion theater piece, and I want people to know what it feels like to have to creep around in the middle of the night to be yourself.
Is there a timeline for Gay Fantasia? Does it follow a narrative?
It's not a narrative per se, but there is a story -- it's all woven around the friendship of a woman and man who died of AIDS during the crisis, before they found combination therapy. The first part really focuses on establishing the vocabulary of the gay community, as far as terms and letting people start to play with those terms and figure them out.
Then it moves into the era of the last days of Harvey Milk -- when Harvey was shot. It references his death and the trial of Dan White, who got off with manslaughter on what they called "The Twinkie Defense," as the media had dubbed it. "The Twinkie Defense" said that he had diminished capacity, so he knew what he was doing but he couldn't control himself, because of a combination of depression and too much junk food.
So he killed George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, that day. Then he went downstairs and killed Harvey Milk -- and he thought about killing three other people, including Diane Feinstein.
Surprisingly, through all of this -- though it sounds so tragic -- [Gay Fantasia] is a journey. It's got its sour moments, there's no doubt that. But it's a journey of joy and sadness and angels that come out through all of these vents, and the demons that made these events happen.
Then it turns into the '80s, (the time that) the gay community thought was going to help us flourish and thrive and had no idea what was happening -- which was that we were about to be the people who were infected with the worst plague of our lifetime. The first fifteen years before they found combination therapy and that whole era of time before Ronald Reagan would even admit HIV existed, and gay men were just dying in scores.
I saw How to Survive a Plague when it was released last year, and witnessing our government's complete ignorance around the AIDS crisis blew my mind.
That's interesting, because that's where the story originated from -- I was in Denver last summer having some beers with a buddy of mine who is 23 years old. We were solving the world's problems, as you do over beers, and it came up and he said, whatever. You get AIDS, you take some pills. I was like, no. No, you don't. Yes, you can live with it -- but you don't need to have unprotected sex. And he was like who cares? It feels better.
I stewed about it for days, because the truth of the matter is, I am just slightly below the age of an entire generation (affected by the crisis.) If I had been three or four years older, I would probably be dead. And I don't want the community to forget about these people that I've been spending so much time with now as I've been developing this piece, that I consider warriors.
They got the world thinking about it to try to get a cure. And here we are, years later, with reports of functional cures, and now reports of equality and us being fully realized citizens in a community that really understands what the gay community did, globally, to try to solve the AIDS crisis and still continues to do.
Understanding that it took a group like ACT UP pushing the CDC and essentially, the government, to do something, anything, about the AIDS crisis is still insane to me.
Isn't it wild? It's so funny -- because we're gay people, we naturally have a sharp sense of humor. [Laughs.] Camp is part of our lives because we have to protect ourselves. So, even in those moments, when they're doing the most serious of things -- searching for pills, doing all of these things scientifically -- they called it "Science Club."
This piece, as it moves through the immersion -- before you get to the piece you'll go through a couple of exhibits and one of them is the AIDS Memorial Quilt -- there will be select panels. There's only one other place in Colorado that hosts the quilt annually. It took a lot of work and a lot of people and I still get choked up thinking that it's going to be here. It is the ultimate symbol of memorial and pride in our community. Memorializing a lot of these people whose families didn't even care that they had died.
Honestly, if those 23-year-olds look at that quilt, maybe they'll think twice about having sex without a condom.
This piece is so much about our history, because it doesn't get taught in schools -- Gay Fantasia is absolutely a historical perspective. It is a retrospective of our people and our history and it is also an awareness.
When you talk about gay history, I mean, I feel like people maybe only know about Stonewall. Maybe.
Yeah, and Harvey Milk. Because of the movie. These movies that are coming out --- there's another one called We Were Here -- it's gorgeous. And one of the things that I found in it -- because obviously, as a gay man I have a certain perspective -- but what I discovered was that the lesbian community came together to help these gay men when nobody else would. And it's not like (the gay and lesbian communities) were so tight at the time, to be perfectly honest. It wasn't like the gay boys were letting the ladies in -- but the women turned around and cared for these men. A lot of them, through their death.
One of the women in the movie -- I'm not sure if she was a lesbian -- but she was a nurse, and she said, "My mom asked, why are you doing this to me?" And she replied, "Mom, I didn't choose this; it chose me." I thought that was so beautiful -- and that's what I mean (when I say) there are so many angels in this experience that just surfaced. Not for money, not for greed and not for acclaim. But just because they cared about another human being.
Absolutely. It's so important to highlight that, because when we're talking about ACT UP and Harvey Milk, we're talking about drastic public action and activism. But when it comes down to it, so much of this is about human empathy.
Right: When ACT UP started, it was a powerhouse. It still is. They were angry and within that anger, there was a beautiful space for these people who were confused and scared to vent their frustration and feel heard. I grew up in Missouri -- I was ten in 1981. So I grew up watching the AIDS crisis unfold through television in small-town, conservative Missouri, and being terrified that I had AIDS before I even knew what it was. Like, I'm gay! I must have this. [Laughs.]
Yes! The hysteria around HIV and AIDS, the images of quarantine situations, Ryan White being the only discussed patient of this crisis -- and he was a child. That was until Pedro Zamora really opened it up in a way that reached me, anyway. And that was way after things had begun. That was the '90s.
To tell you the truth, the '90s were grim. Because all of the drugs they were fighting for in the '80s? They didn't work. But they didn't stop, and that was the key. They knew they had to keep going. I don't know if you know about this, but a couple of weeks ago, I heard this story that there is a functional cure being tested that won't get rid of it (AIDS/HIV) but will bury it in the body, like chicken pox. You'll have to get treatment once every ten years.
I also read a while back about a guy who had full-blown AIDS and leukemia at the same time -- they did a bone-marrow transplant and pulled all of his blood out of his body and he was cured. It makes me feel like those people who died didn't die in vain. They died so the study can keep happening and people can live because they were here and went through what they went through.
When you talk about younger people you know thinking that dealing with AIDS and HIV is just a series of pills, I think about how a diagnosis is still socially stigmatizing. Especially for younger people.
That's the crazy thing about it -- there's still a giant fear surrounding it. I guess that makes sense to an extent, because there is still a giant fear around cancer. I mean, these are life-changing moments in time. These are life-changing battles. It's part of who you are.
What do you hope the participants and viewers of Gay Fantasia get out of this experience?
First of all, I hope they laugh and I hope they cry. [Laughs.] I hope they go on an emotional journey that, at the end of it, they feel like they learned something. I learned something, and part of what I learned is that gay people are tough as nails and everywhere in our community. And that they are not sick and not gross and it's not against what the bible says. We're just people who are part of your world. Celebrate us. That's what I want people to learn.
I want them to celebrate the gay community as part of the community. Celebrate gay history not as gay history, but as a part of American history. That's what I hope.
Gay Fantasia starts at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 12 and 13, at the Nalanda Studio Theatre, 6287 Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder. Tickets are $7 general admission, free for seniors and Naropa University students and staff. Selected panels from the Names Project-AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on display at the theater through April 19. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 303-245-4798 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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