I seem to have a habit of reviewing shows at the end of their run, which means you can’t always get to see them. But I’m also in the habit of connecting the dots between what’s on stage and our lives outside the four walls of a theatre. In this capacity, Floating brought to us from Wales by World Stage, delivers dots in spades.
Let me first tell you about the show. Like many I’ve seen lately, it’s decidedly odd. It’s also accessible, funny and engaging, qualities not always found in fringe theatre. The plot is almost irrelevant, as the power of the show is in its telling, but I’ll talk plot for a second anyway. It’s about the island of Anglesey breaking off from North Wales and floating around the Atlantic for a while before returning to its original place. Or so it seems. But there is much more than that going on here.
What actually happens on stage, amid a raggle-taggle assortment of props, is an exploration of connection and by extension, of community. The actors – the very endearing Hugh Hughes and his accomplice Sioned Rowlands - address the audience directly throughout, a convention used rather sparingly in theatre generally, unless we look at Pantomime, perhaps, And heaven help latecomers, btw; they are teased mercilessly, asked to explain their tardines and even invited to apologize. Hughes and partner work the audience tirelessly throughout, in fact, even passing around props for people to look at nd handle, such as old wrestling magazines and a working viewmaster.
All this, it becomes clear, is an artful construct to define and create community. Hughes mission is to make a CONNECTION with his audience – he refers to this goal often, in fact. He even draws diagrams on a flip chart for the audience’s benefit to define the community the four walls of the theatre have created, and then goes racing around the theatre to slap on those four walls to drive home the point.
If this sounds complete daffy so far, you’re on the right track.
Hughes and his companion come across as lovable eccentrics throughout, unfamiliar with theatre but determined to put on a show of epic proportions, explaining everything they do so that we get it. And we do get it – the sense of community that is. Theatre audiences are traditionally more than a bit reserved, so it takes time, but before too long, the audience is in on the game and – surprise, surprise - does I think see themselves as an entity, one sharing a common experience like they have probably never done before inside a theatre. It is, in fact, an object lesson in creating connections in ninety-five minutes flat. It’s quite a trip.
All of this leaves me positively euphoric, but also drawing parallels with how we HIVers and those who love and support us feel about own connections. It’s true we often talk about the HIV community, but is there really such a thing? Or are we just a collection of bodies whose only thing in common is the virus? Are we just travellers on the same bus, strangers following the same route, but not knowing each other, not communicating, not connecting with each other?
It’s hard to say.
Community is hard to define – try it and you’ll see. Doesn’t help that it’s something you sometimes feel rather than measure directly.
Not that we don’t bandy the concept around. HIV prevention programs , for instance, sometimes play with the construct that taking care of your community is as important as taking care of yourself. We also have some organizations, like the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS) for example, which facilitate HIVers gatherings annually. That helps. But in large part due to financial constraints, these efforts involve a minute percentage of the 60,000 or so people living with HIV in Canada. Most of the rest are not connected, not hooked in to an AIDS Service Organization, not I suspect feeling much kinship with others with trials similar to their own. And, unlike in the States, we have no national organization for people living with HIV which might fill that gap.
What this means is that for the great majority of HIVers, sharing a space with even a dozen other people living with HIV is uncharted territory, an alien experience. The concept of community likely means little to them. That in turn breeds isolation and a host of other consequences that are not good.
So, given the scenario of a mass of unconnected people, how does one create community?
Inevitably, in 2011 making community happen - making connections - involves social media in a big way. Not all of our number realize that yet, even fewer are good at it. People like Robert Breining of POZIAM and Brian Finch of PositiveLite stand out as two HIVers who both know what community is and are working actively to build it.
Like Hugh Hughes, they understand that community doesn’t just happen. It has to be planted, grown and nurtured. That takes patience, perseverance and hard work, not to mention experiential skills that, frankly not all of us possess. But the rewards are there. We must learn them.
Thank you Hugh, and thank you again, World Stage, for not only giving me one hell of an evening of good theatre, but also for making me think about concepts important to me and mine.