Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Brian Mullin: Live To Tell

By | Published on Friday 31 March 2023

Beginning a run at Camden People’s Theatre this week is an intriguing show with a rather long in-full title: ‘Live To Tell: (A Proposal For) The Madonna Jukebox Musical’. It is not, in fact, a musical; rather it is a play that tells the personal story of a Madonna superfan who is living with HIV. 

It’s by US-born creative Brian Mullin – who has been living and working in the UK for over a decade – who also performs in the show. I spoke to him to find out more about the play and the playwright. 

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘Live To Tell’ is all about? What story does it tell? 
BM: ‘Live To Tell’ is the story of queer writer and Madonna superfan Brian, who is trying to pitch to the Queen Of Pop herself as the author of her jukebox musical.

But Brian is also living with HIV – as I am in real life. Although he’s on medication to keep the virus undetectable in his body – and appears to be doing ‘well’ – there are side effects, as well as emotional issues bubbling up under the surface.

Brian would love to reinvent himself by writing a camp, pop narrative of jukebox triumph, but he can’t complete his pitch until he faces the reality of what it means to survive day to day with HIV.

CM: What themes does the show explore? 
BM: The show is full of camp in-jokes and references to Madonna’s iconic forty-year career. But, really, it’s not so much about her as about what she stands for: Reinvention.

She’s survived for four decades by continually changing and adapting herself. Like many people living with HIV, Brian wishes he could just start over – but in his life it’s not so simple.

I hope the show speaks to anyone who’s lived with a long-term health condition, mental or physical, and knows the daily ups and downs that come with it.

CM: What made you decide to create a show about this? What was the inspiration for it?
BM: Well, first of all, there really ought to be an actual Madonna jukebox musical! I mean, they’ve created two ‘Mamma Mia!’ movies from Abba, so it’s way past time for her to do one. But my show is not that. It’s not even a musical at all. It’s an attempt to tell a new kind of story about HIV.

Madonna got her start in the 1980s when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was first emerging and she’s always been an outspoken activist and ally on the subject. Most of the AIDS stories people know – from ‘Angels In America’ to ‘It’s A Sin’ – are also set in the 80s. I wanted to bring the story up to date and centre it not around death but the messier, more complicated emotions of surviving day to day.

When you live with HIV, or many other health conditions, there’s an unspoken pressure to be a role model, to show how strong and healthy you are. But actually the real emotions can be a lot messier than that. Starting medication is not the end of the story.

CM: Is this based on your own experiences? To what extent? 
BM: Yes, it’s inspired by my real history of living with HIV, especially during a tough time I had a few years ago which led to me having to change my medication.

On the outside I seemed to be doing well, I was open about my status, I got my meds freely available from the NHS. But pills alone don’t provide you with wellbeing, especially when it comes to a stigmatised condition like HIV, which brings emotional challenges with it. 

My amazing doctor at the Bloomsbury Clinic recognised that the particular meds I was on were having negative side effects and affecting my emotional state. He suggested I change to new ones, but I resisted that.

In retrospect, I think I was so wedded to the narrative that I was strong and healthy, to prove that I’d ‘succeeded’ with HIV, that I wasn’t really acknowledging how I was feeling. 

There are key parts featuring my doctor, my boyfriend and other people in my life – all played by the amazing Dan de la Motte – that really did happen. But because it’s a show, we can make the experience wilder, more surreal and trippy, taking the audience inside my head.

The core of it is based in authentic emotion but it goes in a lot of unexpected directions, worthy of a Madonna concert tour!

CM: Who do you aim to reach with the show? What message do you want to convey? 
BM: I hope anyone can come to the show and be drawn in by the camp humour of it. Whether or not you like Madonna, you’ll be laughing a lot! 

But as it goes on, I think audiences will get a very personal insight into what it feels like to live with a chronic and stigmatised condition. So many of us have been conscious of viruses since COVID, and we’ve faced challenges to our mental health, which I think gives the show a lot more resonance.

Of course, if you are living with HIV or connected to someone who is, I hope the show represents aspects of your experience that are rarely shown onstage. 

We’ve been doing some amazing workshops partnering with the charity Positive East – about thirty people living with HIV, women and men from all backgrounds, have participated and created their own pieces of writing giving glimpses of their experience.

Those pieces are on display in posters and booklets around Camden People’s Theatre in an exhibition called ‘Expressing Ourselves: People With HIV In Our Own Words’. Anyone who comes to see us will hopefully experience empathy and understanding of what HIV feels like.

CM: Can we talk about you now? How did you come to be pursuing a career in the arts?
BM: I loved putting on shows since I was young, organising other kids in the neighbourhood to do shows that I directed! After studying theatre in university I worked first in New York but now I’ve been in London for over a decade. 

Mostly I work as a playwright, as well as a writing teacher and facilitator with community groups. It’s been sooooooo long since I’ve appeared onstage though! Performing ‘Live To Tell’ has been a big leap. I love the connection with audiences but it’s also exhausting. I don’t know how actors do it.

CM: How did you end up working in the UK? 
BM: I came over here to do my MA in Playwriting at Goldsmiths University and I found the UK theatre scene so dynamic that I was determined to stay.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far? 
BM: Working on this show has been probably the most personal and demanding thing I’ve ever done, and I’m very proud of it. But I put a lot of myself into everything I create.

There’s something of me in the character of Sister Bernie, the pot-smoking activist nun in my play ‘We Wait In Joyful Hope’ which premiered at Theatre503, or even in the queer longing of Leonardo Da Vinci, in the opera libretto I wrote for composer Alex Mills which we produced at the V&A Museum.

I love telling unexpected stories in different modes and imbuing them with themes of care and solidarity.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
BM: I hope ‘Live To Tell’ can be seen by many more people. Now that it’s up and running, some of the most exciting possibilities are ways to expand our workshop and engagement package for other people living with HIV.

I’d love to help facilitate them telling their stories, especially from perspectives that are even less known. Why hasn’t there been a major play focused on a woman’s experience of HIV? I’d love to support that getting a major audience.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
BM: I’ve got other projects in my mind: some for theatre and some for film, fiction and even documentary. This has taken up every bit of my energy for several years now!

I can’t predict exactly which project will take off next, but I think that following ‘Live To Tell’ I will always bring more of my own emotions and vulnerability to every project.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll perform in the next thing too! After a bit of rest, though.

‘Live To Tell – (A Proposal For) The Madonna Jukebox Musical’ is on at Camden People’s Theatre from 4-15 Apr. See the venue website here for more information and to book your tickets.

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