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We Were There

A verbatim theatre project

WE RESPECTIVELY ACKNOWLEDGE THE WOMEN AND MEN TAKEN BY HIV & AIDS IN AUSTRALIA AND AROUND THE WORLD.

TO THE WOMEN WHO WERE THERE, WHO ARE HERE TODAY... YOU ARE PIONEERS... YOU ARE LIVING MONUMENTS.

THESE ARE YOUR STORIES, MAY THEY NEVER BE FORGOTTEN.

CAST - Leah Baulch

CAST - Leah Baulch

LIGHTS - Jason Bovaird

LIGHTS - Jason Bovaird

CAST - Perri Cummings

CAST - Perri Cummings

DESIGN - Alexandra Hiller

DESIGN - Alexandra Hiller

WRITER/DIRECTOR - Dirk Hoult

WRITER/DIRECTOR - Dirk Hoult

CAST - Jodie Le Vesconte

CAST - Jodie Le Vesconte

CAST - Olivia Monticciolo

CAST - Olivia Monticciolo

PRODUCTION - Tonie-Rayne Steele

PRODUCTION - Tonie-Rayne Steele

CO-DEVISOR - Gavin Roach

CO-DEVISOR - Gavin Roach

SOUND - Connor Ross

SOUND - Connor Ross

WRITER | DIRECTOR: Dirk Hoult

CAST: Leah Baulch, Perri Cummings, Jodie Levesconte, Olivia Monticciolo

PRODUCTION TEAM: Jason Bovaird, Alexandra Hiller, Tonie-Rayne Steele, Connor Ross.

PHOTOS: Poster Image: Amelia Dowd / Production Stills: Daniel Burke

PRODUCTION MENTOR: Dr Alyson Campbell

PUBLICITY: Eleanor Howlett (Sassy Red PR)

DEVELOPMENT TEAM: Perri Cummings, Dirk Hoult, Olivia Monticciolo, Geraldine Quinn, Gavin Roach, Naomi Rukavina.

PARTICIPANTS: (not pictured) Sally Bourne, Felicity Burke, Liz Crock, Margaret Davis, Judy Frecker, Yvonne Gardner, Bev Greet, Tammy Hall, Jenny Hoy, Sharon Lewin, Belinda White, and others who have requested anonymity.

SPECIAL THANKS: Tyson Wakely, Anita Posterino, Aaron Rowlands, Rachel Fothergill, Cate Crowley, Ibrahim Mustafa, and The Chapel Off Chapel team, Mama Alto, Daniel Brace, Michael Daly, Kaarin Fairfax, Penny Harpham, Emily Tomlins, Danae Stewart, Evan Drill, Francesca LiDonni, Yvonne Gardner, Teddy Transcends, Tracy Gardner & the staff @ Mothers' Milk, Friends & Family, and all those who supported the development and creation of this new verbatim text.

WE WERE THERE was made possible by the support of the City of Stonnington and Chapel Off Chapel, GLOBE Melbourne, Living Positive Victoria, and the numerous supporters of our Australian Cultural Fund.

REVIEW: Timeout Magazine | Tim Byrne  ★★★★ 

The stories of Australian women touched by the HIV/AIDS crisis are told in this new play​. While HIV remains a serious chronic illness in Australia, it’s easy to forget just how horrific and deadly it was in that first decade. Most of the community’s focus has been on the men, particularly gay men, who were dying of the disease; the experience of women who were suffering from the infection, as well as those who cared for sufferers, has largely gone unspoken. We Were There, a piece of verbatim theatre that finally puts these female perspectives on stage, seems long overdue. Collating an enormous amount of material from disparate sources, writer and director Dirk Hoult has fashioned a compelling alternative vision of the coming of AIDS in this country. With a cast of four (Leah Baulch, Perri Cummings, Jodie Levesconte, Olivia Monticciolo) he manages to include nurses, doctors, scientists and patients in a narrative that often feels like it belongs in a horror film. An unknown illness that was referred to as GRID, or Gay-related immune deficiency, it hit the medical profession as hard as it did the gay community. One professional believes that most people were suffering from PTSD as a result of their work in the field. It’s not hard to understand why: with the sheer number of people dying; modern medicine’s utter lack of preparedness in fighting, or even treating, the disease; and the awful nature of the deaths involved, those early years must have felt like living in a war zone. Hoult intersplices testimonies to create a palpable sense of the hopelessness and confusion that existed in those early years. It has the added effect of widening the scope as if the entire country’s experience were embedded in these women’s responses. Verbatim theatre always has to face a central problem: human speech is rarely inherently dramatic. When we speak in real life, even in interviews, we tend to muffle our words, stop sentences midway and backtrack on our thoughts. Hoult has decided to include every pause, every stutter and correction his interviewees made, which is a challenge for his actors. Levesconte and Baulch handle this best, effortlessly folding the quirks of speech into their characters. Cummings struggles with this most, coming across as stilted and hesitant. It’s the meticulous weaving of voices, however, that really binds the piece together and represents a remarkable feat of adaptation. The work stylises movement, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Actors move chairs around a lot, which seems like a concession to the dramatic limitations of verbatim theatre, but does serve to highlight each actor’s contribution. More successful is the group work, with medical staff tilting the black chairs forward in waves as if shuffling off their patients into death. Alexandra Hiller’s design is dominated by a huge billowing white inflatable shape that may or may not represent a white blood cell or the disease itself. It shifts and moves about but isn’t as effective as it might have been.  A female perspective on Australia’s AIDS crisis could easily sound like the sort of community project that is more important to the participants than to an audience, but in practice, it is a compelling and sobering experience. There is little to no judgment in these testimonies, and while the bewildering horror of that early onset is powerfully conveyed, the ultimate effect is one of acceptance and empowerment. These truly were and are amazing women, and it’s a joy to hear their words honoured. Published Wednesday 31st January 2018

REVIEW: Theatre People | Cera Maree Brown ★★★★

We Were There holds an audience with humour and warmth, asking one to approach it, and the world, with humanity and empathy. We Were There is a verbatim theatre piece comprised of interviews with 15 women living with or who have worked with people living with HIV and AIDS. It is a rare privilege to listen to the knowledge, struggles, emotions and opinions shared by the interviewees. Stories from nurses working in Fairfield hospital when people were first being diagnosed with HIV, from the first woman (at least in Victoria) to be diagnosed, from scientists, from volunteers, from many others diagnosed with or involved in the care of people with HIV and AIDS, are stories I have not heard before. These stories enrich and enlarge an understanding of the history of stigma around and treatment of HIV in the 80s and 90s and of current ideas and community attitudes. They stand as a testament to the bravery of those who were there, to the many who lost their lives and to the continuing work done in improving treatment, prevention, and community perception. Tilted Projects’ skilful piecing together of the variety of opinions, facts and anecdotes taken from the interviews presents a complex picture of pain, humour, confusion, community and loss. The text leans into a clear focus on dramatic moments or confessions before deftly maneuvering into different emotional and intellectual fields. This handling of the different anecdotes holds the audience suspended between laughter and tears, shifting the spotlight on different facets of a complex constellation of knowledge and experience while keeping a constant awareness of the largeness of the picture they are drawing from. However, the multitude of voices explored is confusing at times, especially when character differentiation isn’t consistently handled and the focus on different voices is inconsistent. This confusion does though have moments of payoff, where stories that at first seem unclear and muddled are revisited later with greater clarity, as is the case with the story of a particular patient at Fairfield, thus resulting in heightened moments of suspense and satisfaction. The performances by Leah Baulch, Perri Cummings, Olivia Monticciolo and Jodie Le Vesconte are, for the most part, consistently engaging and moving, with the performers being most absorbing when they are given space to simply and matter-of-factly perform the words. In particular, Le Vesconte is transfixing in the work and portrays the voices with gripping energy and genuine warmth. The stylised physicality and stagecraft at times take away from the text without enhancing it. Emotionally complex anecdotes are accompanied by slow synchronized movements that while at times can be a visually interesting complement to what is being said, more often distract from the beautiful simplicity and rawness of the words. The choreographed nature of these sequences seems at odds with the freshness of the verbatim text and their symbolic function in the work feels simplistic when paired with the complexity and nuance of the stories told. Physical theatre and stylised movement within textual works can hugely enhance and add complex physical layers to what is being discussed, and these movement sequences do add an embodied element to the work. In particular, synchronized torch-work and gestures used to create an unnerving and alienating atmosphere do really enhance text focusing on medical perspectives. However, in general, the movement often feels abstract and impersonal which is jarring when paired with the personal and specific text. The set and costumes are visually exciting and functional, though at times obvious symbolism in these elements also feels jarring. We Were There is a space for learning, listening and sharing. It is a heartfelt and honest piecing together of a complex picture of facts, experiences, and emotions surrounding HIV and AIDS. Despite it at times involving uncomfortable movement or stagecraft moments, an audience is always impressed by the rare gift that is this work. Presented with humour and warmth, We Were There is a genuine act of sharing and a testament to the bravery and strength of the women interviewed. Published 28 January 2018

REVIEW: The Age | Cameron Woodhead ★★★½ 

Stories about people living with HIV tend to be male-dominated. This striking piece of verbatim theatre, culled from interviews with a wide variety of women who experienced the HIV/AIDS crisis in the '80s and '90s, redresses a significant imbalance. Performed by a talented, four-strong ensemble (Jodie Le Vesconte, Olivia Monticciolo, Perri Cummings, Leah Baulch), We Were There threads together accounts, anecdotes and musings from HIV-positive women, doctors, nurses and medical researchers, relatives and friends, activists and volunteers. Verbatim theatre's strongest suit is always that it's composed from and for the voice. And that aspect of the performance is hard to fault. Between them the actors create a fluent, polyphonic, dramatically layered suite of interlocking stories. There are grim tales of the trauma and confusion; the stigma and the dying of the early years – when such stigma was rife and treatments were ineffective – are leavened by dashes of gallows humour, and by stories of compassion, action and resilience. Chief among the latter is a gritty and poignant portrayal from Le Vesconte of a woman diagnosed when the virus was a virtual death sentence and her continuing journey through life. Hers is an inspiring story – enduring her ex-partner dying, helping to found advocacy and support group Positive Women, surviving the advent of effective drugs, telling her son about her status when he was a teenager, falling in love again, becoming a grandmother – that embraces and personalises, in a way, the whole history of HIV including casual instances of the stigma that, regrettably, persist today. Le Vesconte's performance – tough, reflective, full of life and flensed of pretension – anchors the piece with authenticity and a sense of the music to be found in ordinary speech. Indeed, one of the few missteps in the script is the retention of occasional bouts of self-consciously poetic guff, more glaring because many stories spring from a documentary impulse – a desire to memorialise experiences at risk of being lost or forgotten. Director Dirk Hoult should probably have trimmed the script, but the ensemble's delivery is so alive to the tempo and modulation of spoken word that it sounds almost conducted. We Were There Review: The stories from AIDS sufferers we never heard ​Published 25th January 2018

REVIEW: Theatre Press | Lois Maskiell​

​A new piece of verbatim theatre presents an often unheard perspective of HIV and AIDS. When it comes to verbatim theatre truth is never far away as the script is constructed from the exact words of real individuals. Dirk Hoult and Gavin Roach of Tilted Projects have developed their latest production, We Were There, from interviews with 15 different women who were directly involved in the HIV/AIDS crisis during the ’80s and ’90s. Based on real accounts of sisters, mothers, wives, friends, volunteers and medical professionals who cared for those living with HIV/AIDS, this production transmits their often unheard, devastating and heart-warming experiences. Actors Perri Cummings, Olivia Monticciolo, Leah Baulch and Jodie Le Vesconte all play various women, at times HIV-positive women and at other times medical professionals involved in caring for people with this virus. Their characters are initially somewhat fluid, they don’t seem to have set names, and in the early stages of the performance, they interrupt each other, releasing fragmented experiences in a dynamic and fast rhythm. We meet a young woman who had unprotected sex while holidaying in Israel, a mother whose partner transmitted the virus to her without ever knowing he was positive himself as well as a nurse and a doctor. Director Dirk Hoult has put together a coherent, post-dramatic piece that despite resisting realistic characteristics of time and space, comes together in a clear narrative. Strong visual and physical cues assist in transitions between scenes and notify the audience when a speaker has changed – particularly important as performers don’t wear identifiable costumes. Jason Bovaird’s lighting features the clever use of darkness to create a rough and brooding atmosphere in the intimate Chapel Loft. In several instances, significant shifts in lighting allow a sudden change in tone, engulfing the space with warmth during happier moments – like the recounting of a wedding. Alexandra Hiller’s set design includes essential items such as chairs, as well as a large, ambiguous cloud-like structure that had meaning and significance I found difficult to discern. Nonetheless, it contributed to an eerie atmosphere that seemed neither of this world nor of another. This production’s brilliance lies within its ability to lay bare pertinent social issues. By deconstructing the stigma around HIV/AIDS and depicting real-life experiences, the vitality of its message is what stands out most. It's strong group of actresses was clearly moved by the accounts of the women they were bringing to life, which in turn was moving to watch. The dedicated nurse, the advocate who attended three funerals a week for years, the young woman who had her first relationship after being diagnosed – all of their stories of both celebration and despair are deeply affecting and worth sharing. ​Published 29 January 2018 // Read Online ​

REVIEW: Farrago Magazine | Danielle Scrimshaw

I spent my weekend debating whether I should shave my legs and obsessing over a woman at work who’s twice my age. I can’t do anything about the latter of these two except write shitty poetry about her and annoy my friends with constant updates until the infatuation comes to its end within a fortnight or so.  As for my legs, it was hot outside and I wanted to wear my new embroidered skirt, so it was time for me to decide whether I was going to succumb to patriarchal pressure or stick to my feminist instincts. I thought, fuck it, I’m going to Midsumma, so and the hair remained. The first thing you see when sitting down to watch Tilted Projects’ We Were There is a huge, floating white thing—is it a cloud? A hospital bed? To me, it looked like an oversized sanitary pad, but somehow I don’t think that’s what they were trying to achieve. Four actresses (Leah Baulch, Perri Cummings, Olivia Monticciolo and Jodie Le Vesconte) walk onstage and dive into their narratives—sometimes interrupting or talking over each other, but always attentive and giving each other space to share their stories. We Were There is a project that is produced from a series of interviews with women who experienced the HIV/AIDS crisis within the 1980s and 90s, either as mothers, friends, nurses, or individuals still living with HIV today. The dialogue struck me as relatable and realistic. In some instances, it was overwhelmingly clear that the narratives were being performed verbatim from these interviews. Director Dirk Hoult spent over a year interviewing fifteen women and transcribing their narratives before producing the script with collaborator Gavin Roach. Each word spoken throughout the performance can be attributed to one of the interviewees and knowing this just makes me appreciate the production even more. This isn’t an attempted portrayal of how these women may have felt during the AIDS crisis and how they feel now- these are their genuine experiences and truths. The significance of this performance comes from its unique focus on women’s experiences, as HIV/AIDS narratives are mostly male-dominated, perhaps due to the perception that it is a ‘gay man’s disease’. I asked Hoult if this perception remains prevalent because these are the representations being consistently portrayed within art and society, to which he answered, “YES. … It’s not just a male disease, 50% of newly diagnosed cases in Victoria are women.” At one point in the performance as the women sat in a line before the audience, speaking into microphones as though they were at a panel, it was pointed out that throughout the ’80s and ’90s women were (and still are) rarely tested for HIV due to this preconceived stigma. Indeed, women who were diagnosed with HIV were often regarded as promiscuous or drug addicts. This isolation that HIV-positive women therefore faced at the time (and even now) only enhanced the difficulty to reach out and share their struggles, achievements, and experiences. I think the true essence of We Were There comes from the value of giving women the space to speak up, to let us know that they were there and that they still are here. The dramaturgy is sometimes eerie, sometimes striking, much like the narratives themselves. One image that’s stuck with me is that of the women standing in line with their hands hovering over each other’s—close but not touching—while one recalls how a Buddhist elder called her HIV diagnosis “a wonderful gift”, because it was an opportunity to help others. At this, the women clasp hands. This was a beautiful way to articulate the initial fear and hesitation surrounding HIV and AIDS at the beginning of the 80s; the feeling of wanting to help but not wanting to get too close, before finally reaching a point of acceptance and solidarity. Of course, this acceptance and solidarity were not universal. Some of the stories reflected on families rejecting their own and funerals that attributed a person’s death to cancer rather than AIDS. Even now, the stigma surrounding the disease remains highly prevalent, and I wonder if the education we’re receiving on the issue is enough to fully understand the dynamics of such a complex issue. Personally, I’d say no. I’m sure it was mentioned at some point during high school sex ed., but my first real understanding of HIV and AIDS came from reading Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man. Regarding present stigma, Hoult said, “People know now it’s not going to kill you, but the vernacular around it hasn’t changed … ‘How’d you get it?’ … ‘Are you clean?’ … we have to open our minds, wake up, get tested, and get over ourselves when it comes to fear of ‘the other’.” People are never going to get over this fear of ‘the other’—at least, not everyone. Stigma is one of those unfortunate constants of humanity to which some people stubbornly cling. You can see it everywhere—from the smallest of actions to the loudest of silences. It’s why, as a woman, I deliberated over whether to bust out the razor or not and above all, it’s the reason why so many stories of those affected by HIV and AIDS are left unheard. We Were There unearths forgotten experiences to give voice to Australian women not only so audiences can learn and accept them, but so that other women dealing with HIV and AIDS know they’re not alone, and that ‘the other’ is a myth we can dismantle through broader social discussion and more diverse representation within the arts. ​Published 5 February 2018

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