Time: The Present
by Chael Needle
Writers never know where their words will end up—in the delete folder on their desktop, tucked away in a journal, published, or possibly beating a path to readers’ hearts. Canadian performer and first-time playwright Christopher Wilson never expected his HIV-themed musical, Living with Henry, to become a hit with Toronto audiences nor even an official selection of the prestigious New York Musical Theatre Festival’s 2012 Next Link Project, but the “musical epidemic,” as the semi-autobiographical play is subtitled, will make its Big Apple premiere this month after a journey that has been at least ten years in the making.
“I think Living with Henry chose me rather than me choosing it,” explains Wilson, who found himself unexpectedly taking the leap from performer to writer and composer.
“When I was diagnosed eleven years ago, I met with a fantastic counselor at the AIDS Committee of Toronto who challenged me, basically saying, ‘I think it’s important that you figure out what HIV looks like in your life and how that fits in your day-to-day living.’”
He journaled as part of his therapeutic process. “Being an actor, I’d always had roommates to pay the bills and I came up with an analogy—that I was living with a roommate. And we both know with roommates you don’t spend every waking minute with them, but you do share a common space—and, in this case, the space of my body—and you have to sort of figure out the living arrangements. I used HIV as an acronym and I named my roommate, ‘Henry Ignatius Vaillancourt,’ in line with the French precociousness of Canada,” he says, laughing.
Journaling turned into a journey. Even though he did not realize he was writing a musical as he set his thoughts down on paper, significant events in his life—a life-threatening HIV-related illness and a shift in his marriage—made him “understand what his story was” and a friend who had walked this journey with Wilson encouraged him to take what had been percolating and processing in his consciousness and give it form and substance.
Living with Henry follows Michael, who is learning to live with HIV as a chronic illness in our present day. He navigates issues such as stigma, disclosure and the perils of rejection, family relationships, the dating scene, partying and addiction, adherence, and mental health—all the contemporary “social and economic implications” of AIDS beyond treatment access, which is nowhere near the thorny problem in Canada that it is in the U.S.
“One aspect of this work that people have latched onto and really celebrate is that Henry is actually a character,” says Wilson. “He’s physicalized rather than being this ‘ism’ that’s talked about. He’s a physical presence that’s always sort of intertwining in all of the dramatic action that’s happening.”
Writing and sharing a story forged from personal experience caused Wilson to feel a “great deal of trepidation and vulnerability,” yet he was “quite shocked to understand that the piece resonated so deeply with so many people, both in the gay community, and in the HIV-positive community,” he notes. “It also became apparent that ‘Henry,’ even though it’s specific to HIV in the context of this show, can be any challenge that any person has going on in their life—cancer or mental illness or depression. It’s that big thing in our life that we have to negotiate, assimilate, and figure out how to live productively with.”
Like any journey, what you start off carrying may stay with you till the end. Or you may realize that you can do without some of the weightier items. As the journey takes its twists and turns, you may pick up new stores that are better suited to the climates you find yourself in.
One constant that Wilson has relied on to bring Living with Henry to life, and to strive for self-actualization, has been his love of music, his “soul language,” as well as the idioms of musical theater and the communicative power of music. At thirty-nine, Wilson has spent twenty years as a performer interpreting others’ works. His credits range from the salty (Carmen with the Royal Opera Canada) to the sweet (The Music Man on ABC). This well-honed knowledge allowed for the songs in Henry to evolve organically, emerging from the character or dramatic context.
Another constant has been a deep appreciation for who and what came before—recent documentaries that Wilson devoured such as We Were Here and How to Survive a Plague helped fill in the details of “what the epidemic looked like at its height, the fear, and the chaos” during the years when Wilson was a teen growing up in small-town Canada with limited access to in-depth accounts.
This appreciation has been heightened now that Wilson is bringing the musical to the New York community, whose members, along with others in epicenters such as San Francisco, lived through what was arguably the worst.
“I felt that I didn’t have the right to bring the subject matter, as I’m framing it, to New York unless I had a really clear context for where I was going. I know that there are going to be people who show up to the theater who are just generic musical theater fans, who will sort of accept the show at face value, but I’m hoping there will be people who are in their fifties and sixties that have walked through this journey and are probably going to come with curiosity, with trepidation, with judgment. You know, ‘What’s this show? What’s this about? Who’s this young punk who wrote this piece?!’
“I’ve always said very clearly that my job is not to represent the positive community. I told a story that was specific to me as an entry point. But, to bring a work, such as the one that we’re sharing, to New York, to a community that has so deeply, deeply been affected by this virus, I feel honored and I feel incredibly humbled by all the people who weren’t afforded the luxury of the medications that keep me alive.”
His sense of humanism and humility is mixed with excitement. “My God, having grown up as a musical theater whore to come to New York City…,” he jokes. “I didn’t expect my first chapter in New York to be as a writer. I always thought it would be as a high-kicking showgirl!”
One piece of baggage that Wilson was able to jettison during this journey was his fear of medication. A near-death experience in the play echoes one that Wilson endured. Like Michael, and many others who are HIV-positive, Wilson resisted treatment and the knotty questions that come with the decision to go on meds: What will this look like? Will the side effects be manageable? Will I be further stigmatized?
When his doctor informed him that his numbers had changed six years after his initial diagnosis, Wilson went into denial. He stopped seeing his doctor.
“At thirty-four years of age I was in a really toxic marriage and I had a daughter whom I was trying to raise, a foster daughter, and there was a lot of distraction and things shifted.…I had been a dancer and a singer and a performer and I, for whatever reason, just did not want to accept that, at that stage in my life, my mortality was contingent on medication. Within six months I had seven white blood cells left and I was in the hospital for two months with PCP, dying of pneumonia. And I am just lucky that I live at a time where the medical community could reverse my poor judgment and my inability to see reality for what it was.
“I was afraid of side effects. I was afraid of what this was going to impose upon what had been my ‘normal life’….I had a family—I had a husband, I was living my life, I had my daughter. It wasn’t a bed of roses, but I didn’t want this other variable to come into play.” Wilson is now on a regimen and, aside from a couple of “war wounds,” he is living a life that he likes—single, on the dating scene, confident in the emotional work he has done to move forward. It may sound hokey, he admits, but the journey is about “finding the positive in being positive.”
And he can be hokey all he wants—he’s walked the path. Along the journey, Wilson saw a new opportunity—and the need—to educate and empower. He has always been an arts educator, working in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom and currently on faculty with the Canadian Opera Company, the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts and the Toronto District School Board, but he realized that his personal journey could evolve into something more broadly resonant about living with HIV in the here and now. “[HIV] is still something that’s very important to discuss,” he says, citing knowledge gaps around seroconversion or the fact that an AIDS diagnosis is reversible. “There are young people who just don’t know the history of the virus because it hasn’t been thrown into the fore of their consciousness, especially nineteen, twenty-year-olds, because they haven’t been privy to the generation where people were dying as quickly as they were. [Yet] there are still people contracting the virus daily,” he says. “But it doesn’t make [HIV] any less complex; it doesn’t make it any less difficult. It’s fine until you’re bitch-slapped with it. And then when it’s right there in front of you you’re like, ‘Oh, hello Henry. Hmm….’”
“Ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s just ignorance,” he adds about the need to step up education. Like the play, AIDS is not about “doom and gloom,” offers Wilson about the need for an empowering approach, “[it’s about] informing yourself so you can move forward abundantly and boldly with an understanding of what it looks like rather than, ‘Oh my god, this is a foreboding non-negotiable thing.’ The reality is it is negotiable.”
After New York, the show’s journey ends. If a commercial producer wants to take Living with Henry to the next level, Wilson would be glad of the support because, he admits, he would need more help to scale that hill. For now, Wilson is satisfied if the musical could act as a resting place, a chance for viewers to look back at ground covered and note how we’ve made it to where we are now, and then—to forge ahead with a sense of belonging, a sense of being.
Living with Henry opens on July 23 and runs through July 29 at PTC Performance Space, 555 West 42nd Street, New York, New York. To purchase tickets, log on to www.nymf.org.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.