'We Were There' is a verbatim work initially intended for a live audience. However, in 2020 all social gatherings were outlawed, live events cancelled, and our Melbourne theatres closed. ViiV Healthcare commissioned excerpts of the work to be presented as a short film, hoping it might be used as an educational resource. It was received by a global audience on the 17th of October, delivered to the participants of ViiV's annual 'The Art of ART' conference, an online gathering of the world's top HIV specialists and advocates. This exciting new film adaptation highlights a series of excerpts from the original play, which is contemporised by introducing a new voice to the ensemble; our host Michele Delaforce. 'We Were There'; is a collection of verbatim testimonies that weaves an intricate tapestry of intersecting perspectives. This catalogue of memories re-plays firsthand accounts volunteered by women across Australia; sisters, mothers and wives, friends, volunteers, and medical professionals who cared for those living with HIV&AIDS in the 80s and 90s. 'We Were There' shares the experiences of those living and working with the virus today AND stories left in our care by those no longer with us - it's an Australian first.
Themes of isolation and marginalisation are not uncommon among narratives of HIV. However, what continued to surprise us were stories of women newly diagnosed being expelled by their families as recently as last year. Socially and politically, positive women have remained and indeed remain invisible. "Women don't get it - it's a gay disease!" - an opinion that somehow still survives today. In addition, HIV-themed works tend not to mention the personal and professional costs incurred by those women working in AIDS wards or infectious disease hospitals; our nurses, specialists, and medical professionals. Many of whom were shunned by their peers on other wards/departments. It's hard to believe, but it's true.
Joined by a team of emerging and established female artists, we cobbled these testimonies together on the rehearsal-room floor with coloured markers, reams of butcher's paper, and an unmentionable amount of Post-it notes and sticky tape. The ensemble sought ways of activating these women's words by offering variations of the source material in music and song, poetry, abstracted text, and stylised movement. In addition, we regularly welcomed our verbatim participants into the space for updates on our progress. Who, in turn, shared their firsthand experiences of working and living with HIV&AIDS with the cast, simultaneously feeding into the creative loop. Those who attended our development readings responded to their words re-spoken and made as many changes or assertions as they felt necessary. Here, at the heart of our investigation, we felt we must, if nothing else, bear witness to the resilience of these women, to their fighting spirit and the fortitude they maintained in the face of profound adversity. Were it not for the existence of this project, many of these stories would have remained unheard, and worse yet, forgotten altogether.
Thanks to the generous support of ViiV Healthcare, these women's stories are now immortalised in film. Their accounts will now, and forever, be counted amongst the canon of Australian HIV themed works. But leave your tissues at home. The re-telling of this Australian narrative cracks with the respectfully-irreverent delivery our participants shared their stories with, grateful for the emotional distance afforded by the passing of time, humbled by their hindsight. So we stand in solidarity with our "Host, Michele Delaforce, beaming in live from the Tropical-Tip-Top!" our only non-performer in the cast; her testimony is indeed her own. We Were There celebrates our uniquely Australian way of life and, of course, some incredible scientific achievements. But, more than that, it is a celebration of funny, powerful, perceptive, honest, and kind Australian women, and all of them warriors!
The astounding result is a film that artfully navigates educational discourse with heart-rendering storytelling, staying true to the intention of the original work while maintaining my promise to each of our verbatim participants. 'We Were There 2.0' honours these women's achievements, acknowledges their feelings of neglect and loss, and reflects upon their sacrifices made in the service of HIV&AIDS. Every word re-presented here belongs to its contributors; Australian women living with HIV in their hearts and veins. These are their words. The real story exists between the lines. Suppose by seeing this film, one person finds the confidence to speak their truth, without fear of prejudice, or perhaps makes an appointment for their first sexual health test. In this instance, we will have achieved something positive indeed.