Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Andrew Keates: As Is

By | Published on Thursday 25 June 2015


Following a stint at the Finborough in 2013, director Andrew Keates next week brings his production of William M Hoffman’s critically acclaimed eighties AIDS play ‘As Is’ to Trafalgar Studios for a month long run, accompanied by a series of associated events.

Keen to discover more about the play, the activity and activism surrounding it, and his reasons for staging it now, I sent some questions over to Andrew, ahead of the upcoming performances.

CM: What happens in the play? What themes does it explore?
AK: Rich (Steven Webb) a young writer who is beginning to find success, is breaking up with his long-time lover, Saul (David Poynor), a professional photographer. However, Rich’s idyll with his new lover is short-lived when he learns that he has contracted the terrifying new disease AIDS and he returns to Saul for sanctuary as he awaits its slow and awful progress. In a mosaic of brilliantly conceived short scenes, blending humour, poignancy and dazzling theatricality, ‘As Is’ captures the pathos of Rich’s relationship with friends and family, the cold impersonality of the doctors and nurses who care for him and the widely diverse aspects of New York’s gay community. This is a heartbreaking and unsparing examination of a deeply felt human relationship shattered by a mindless, destructive disease. Ultimately it’s a story of unconditional love using humour and deeply moving scenes to examine the impossible times for those blighted with HIV.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the history and significance of it?
AK: ‘As Is’ was the first commercially produced AIDS play. It is an authentic, immediate response to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s by the remarkable playwright William M. Hoffman. However, what makes it special, and the reason it is my favourite AIDS play, is because it isn’t preachy. It isn’t heavy. It doesn’t beat you round the head and tell you to fight. When you hear the phrase ‘AIDS play’ you could be guilty of thinking that it would be a turgid drama, but this play isn’t! It’s deeply funny, moving and uplifting. The play is a human response rather than an intellectual one, and the message it tries to convey is to love and accept others ‘As Is’. A hospice worker in the play says “we tell a lot of jokes in my line of work” and it is that attitude that enables audiences to open their hearts through laughter and their minds through tears. I also gives a great deal for the actors to play too.

I first mounted a revival of this vibrant play in 2013 at the brilliant Finborough Theatre (possibly my very favourite theatre in the world due to the impressive programming by its artistic director Neil McPherson). I was shocked by the statistics of the ever rising HIV infection rate in this country. Only today I tweeted the statistic that on average five gay men a day are diagnosed as HIV+ in London. By the time the run was over we had received rave reviews, standing ovations and sell-out audiences. However, most importantly, we had inspired others to get tested, and they had discovered their HIV status as positive. Myself included. Thanks to that little show in a little room above a pub we have changed peoples lives. We hope to do that again on a much larger scale in a wonderful venue in the heart of London’s West End.

CM: What made you want to stage a new production of the play? Is the timing significant?
AK: From the moment the Finborough production closed I wanted to bring it back. The play is just that good and that effective. It’s also wonderful that it’s actually the 30th Anniversary year of the play too. However the big difference now is when I first directed it I believed that I was HIV negative. Since discovering my status, I have been involved in a number of high profile events and campaigns to inspire others to get tested and find out about the truth of HIV.

Many still don’t realise that it’s not HIV+ people on effective medication who are passing the virus on; it’s those that don’t know their status who are at their most infectious. Since speaking on behalf of the Make a Different Trust in the West End’s Dominion Theatre and essentially ‘coming out as HIV+’ to my entire industry and meeting hundreds of people who are terrified to be HIV+, I’ve taken part in various online campaigns with the Terrence Higgins Trust and Act Up London. I know that my best skill is to tell stories, and of all of my shows, this is the one that can make a significant different to people’s lives.

CM: There are a number of other activities happening around the production, aren’t there? Can you tell us about them?
AK: We are offering rapid HIV testing after every Friday evening performance of ‘As Is’ at Trafalgar Studios in association with 56 Dean St / Dean St Express.

We also have a number of eminent speakers: Paul Gambaccini (broadcaster, DJ and close friend of Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett), Martin Sherman (playwright and author of ‘Bent’, ‘Mrs. Henderson Presents’ and ‘When She Danced’), Jonathan Blake (diagnosed with HIV in 1982 and the inspiration for the Dominic West character in the film ‘Pride’), Dan Glass and members of Act Up, Lisa Power MBE (the first person to speak on behalf of gay rights at the United Nations), Tony Calvert (one of the founders of the Terrence Higgins Trust), Joe Phillips, members of the 56 Dean St Sexual Health Clinic, and Dr. Emily Garside, who has a PHD in AIDS plays and how they affect our communities.

As there is not memorial in the UK to those we have lost to AIDS, the theatre’s auditorium will be functioning as a temporary memorial where we are inviting audience members to write the names and memories of those that we have lost in their honour. This isn’t just a show. It’s an event.

CM: When this play was first staged AIDS was a big topic for discussion, but it seems to me that it’s somewhat fallen off the news agenda in more recent years. But it’s still an important issue, and perhaps more so now it no longer dominates the headlines in the same way.
AK: Absolutely. Just because people aren’t talking about an issue doesn’t mean it isn’t a threat. Thousands of people are being diagnosed with HIV in Europe every year. Millions of people are now having more sex than ever before with the ease of meeting up and having unprotected sex thanks to dating/sex apps like Grindr and Scruff, substances and chemicals are now being used to aid sexual highs and mental health is suffering in over-populated cities. It’s no wonder that HIV is flowing faster through our veins than ever before. We have to stop pointing the finger towards people who know their status as HIV+ and warning others to steer clear of them and instead turn the finger on ourselves and ask the question, ‘Do I have HIV?’.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast you have assembled for this production?
AK: I didn’t hold auditions for this production. I didn’t need to. I hand-picked the best artists that I have ever worked with that were right for the roles and I knew could cope with such an eclectic piece. I have worked with Steven (Stevie) Webb on at least five different productions and I think he is an extraordinarily talented young actor. His ability to have audiences rolling in the aisles with laughter one moment and sobbing through their tears the next is a talent that you don’t get to work with every day. David Poynor played Saul in the original production at the Finborough Theatre and I had decided that unless David would reprise his role I would not go ahead with a remount until he could.

I’m working with Dino Fetscher for the first time after seeing his work in the brilliant LGBT TV series ‘Banana and Cucumber’, veteran film/TV and theatre actress Jane Lowe (fans of ‘Bad Girls’ will know just how brilliant she is) and a strikingly good actress called Natalie Burt, who many would have seen in the charming P.G Wodehouse ITV series ‘Blandings’. Many will have seen Giles Cooper in the film ‘Pride’, as well as a number of shows at Shakespeare’s Globe. Russell Morton played the lead in my first London production of ‘Bent’ by Martin Sherman, and Bevan Celestine recently appeared in the Armenian Genocide drama I Wish To Die Singing at the Finborough Theatre.

I’ve never been with a company of actors so able to see a production as so much more than ‘just a job’; as a cause that they are passionately behind. I couldn’t ask for a better company to serve this piece. I find myself walking just that little bit faster to get to rehearsals to see them all.

CM: The show has a month long run at Trafalgar Studios coming up. Are there any plans to tour the production at all?
AK: I would be delighted to take it to any theatre that was passionate to support educating audiences as to the history of AIDS in the 1980s/90s and helping us to combat the current epidemics and stigma. This issue is not going away. It’s getting bigger and it’s spreading across the globe. But, like all art and education, it comes at a cost and my production company is working to breaking point to reach out to any organisation that wants to support this production and get as many people as possible to attend whilst we are housed in the heart of London’s West End and the Soho LGBT community.

Statistically hundreds of people with HIV who do not know their status could be walking through our doors and this event could inspire them to get tested and finally receive the treatment they require and reduce the chances of infecting others. Surely that goal has to be something we can all get behind? It’s a lot easier to reach people through entertainment than it is through preachy campaigns.

CM: What’s next for you? Any new projects in the pipeline?
AK: I will forever be campaigning to end the stigma that surrounds HIV. It’s a regular event and personal duty to listen to those struggling with HIV or standing up and speaking to thousands about the importance of getting tested and to not be fearful of those of us with this wretched virus.

I’m only one person, but I know that if I keep going, I can make a difference. I’ve already been contacted by hundreds of people who have told me that they got tested because they’ve heard one of the many speeches or read a post I’ve put out on Twitter.

I am currently already in pre-production for two new musicals, one British and one American. I also regularly work with lots of different drama schools, which is odd as I was a horribly difficult, rebellious student when I was in training at similar institutions. But then, I think I’ll spend the rest of my life looking after those that don’t seem to quite fit into institutions or society. They’re always the most inspiring to be with, and nearly always ask the best possible questions.

‘As Is’ is on at Trafalgar Studios from 1 Jul until 1 Aug. For more info and tickets see this page here.

You can view Andrew’s speech about his HIV+ diagnosis, and the need for us all to get tested, at the MAD Trust’s West End Eurovision 2014 event here.