Rows of empty music stands stood underneath dim lighting in the Playwright’s Lab inside the Theatre Building last Friday as audience members waited in their seats.
The cast of Larry Kramer’s Tony Award-winning “The Normal Heart” slowly walked down an aisle of the room to sit or stand in front of the audience, thin binders in hand and red ribbons visibly pinned on their clothing. The one-night reading of the play helped raise HIV/AIDS awareness and benefited the organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Paul Anthony, a Texas State theatre senior who played Ben Weeks, a heterosexual lawyer, remembered receiving a text message over winter break from Kristopher Alvarado, director of the play and Texas State senior, encouraging him to participate in the reading.
“(‘The Normal Heart’) is more raw than other plays,” Anthony said of the script’s subject matter.
“The Normal Heart,” set in New York City in 1981, explores the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its impact on the gay community.
Jewish-American writer Ned Weeks, played by director Alvarado, struggles to raise funds and awareness for the disease as his friends and boyfriend become diagnosed and eventually die.
In the context of the beginning of the play, the Centers for Disease Control refers to the illness as “the 4H disease,” because it only seemed to affect Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs and heroin users, or the media’s use of the acronym GRID—gay-related immune deficiency. By 1982, the term AIDS was introduced by the CDC after research showed the disease was not restricted to gay men.
One of the more emotional scenes in “The Normal Heart” is when a character’s boyfriend dies in the hospital from the unidentified disease and the doctor refuses to list a cause of death, which means the body cannot legally be sent to a funeral home.
“I feel it’s such an important message (because) it’s our history in terms of LGBTQIA, and not a lot of people in our generation know about it at all or have a clear sense of it really,” Alvarado said.
A one-week rehearsal time dictated the production’s style. Alvarado said he initially wanted to produce a staged performance of “The Normal Heart” instead of a reading.
Anthony said a reading is more difficult than a staged performance because the lines are not memorized, the actors have minimal movement, and the audience is their main concern.
“The concern of the reading became making sure the message and the story were as clear as possible,” Alvarado said.
Alvarado said he became familiar with “The Normal Heart” when he chose to perform a scene for a theatre festival about a year ago. In preparation for that performance, Alvarado said he spoke with some faculty and staff in the Texas State Department of Theatre and Dance about their experiences with HIV/AIDS.
Although it was “horrendous” and “awful” to hear about, Alvarado said their experiences helped bring him closer to his character in the play and to his mother’s cousin who died from AIDS.
“This is bigger than all of us,” Alvarado said.
The idea to perform a reading of “The Normal Heart” occurred to Alvarado as he was completing graduate school applications and questioned if his professional work aligned with his personal beliefs. He said he wanted to be a catalyst for positive change and to inspire others to take action.
Alvarado said academic and professional theatres tend to cater to “heteronormative actors” and are limited to a “binary gender system,” which is work his production company would like to transcend.
The Texas State student cast read the largely autobiographical account of Kramer’s experiences in early 1980s New York City detailed in a dramaturgical flier at the end of Friday’s event. Some of the people the original play’s characters are based on have since died.
“These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died, and are presented here as best I could,” Kramer wrote in the play’s dramaturgical flier.
Friday’s reading raised more than $211 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Alvarado said.