Associate Artistic Director and Theater Manager, David Stallings sat down with Playwright, Gina Femia of Retro Productions’ upcoming show WE ARE A MASTERPIECE which is running in the Theater at the 14th Street Y this April 7 – April 21.
David Stallings: Gina, I know that Retro Productions commissioned a piece from you–and they were specifically looking for it to examine a period in America’s History. What drew you to the 80’s and the AIDS Crisis? What was the inspiration for writing this play?
Gina Femina: Something I have long admired about Retro Theatre Productions has been their dedication to telling stories that aren’t contemporary – which are not the types of plays I normally write! I tend to describe my plays as being aggressively contemporary, meaning that they are very much products of our times. But Heather Cunningham and I have been long fans of one another and we decided we’d see how to make that happen. I was interested in exploring the AIDS crisis for very personal reasons, one of which was the main source of inspiration for this play; a person in my life lost someone to AIDS and I wrote this play in part to pay homage to him.
I was extremely unfamiliar with the crisis aside from what I had seen dramatized in plays or movies so I wound up jumping into research head on. I am a child of the 90s so I really went in not knowing much about the 80s and learned a lot.
DS: How did you make the leap from source material to fiction? What inspired some of themes and how is this different from the plays about the AIDS Crisis that came out at the time (Angels in America, Jeffrey, The Normal Heart)?
GF: Once I figured out the story I wanted to tell, making the leap from source material to fiction was SUPER easy. I was able to focus on the characters rather than the time; the characters were influenced by the time and not the other way around. It was a lot of fun looking up pop culture references of the time to sprinkle through the play, and to be restricted by the technology, or lack of technology of the time, was a great challenge.
While writing this play, I often said that it felt like every play about the AIDS crisis is the best play about the AIDS crisis so it was a bit daunting. I felt the weight of these giants looking over my shoulder, coupled with wanting to do justice to a tragedy that I wasn’t a part of. I often asked myself What could I add to this conversation, what story could I tell?
I think this play tells a story about the caretakers as much as the men who were impacted. It’s a story about how much bravery exists within all of us and that we all have the ability to be human, even in the face of tragedy. I wanted to be able to tell a story not only about the horror of the time, but also about the humanity and I think that’s something that makes this play unique.
DS: Tell us about your favorite character.
Joan is awesome! I had a blast writing her. She is a no-nonsense nurse who does her job and also makes these big decisions in the face of fear. She’s also deeply fallible and very human. Sometimes she says the wrong thing or her words come out rougher than she might mean, but at her core she’s going to do what she feels is right. She is also a survivor; much of her personal story is drawn from my own and I think that’s why it was so easy to write her.
DS: As a gay man who was a theater kid in the late 80’s early 90’s, I witnessed the deaths of many men who could have been my mentors. I remember one summer doing stock and a dancer passed out in rehearsal; the next week he was gone. As a gay young man, I felt that my sexuality was a death sentence. How did you as a writer approach capturing the devastation of HIV/AIDS at the time? Now it is manageable and preventable and we have a generation of young people who did not experience the almost war zone like trauma of the late 80’s. What lessons can they learn from this story?
I focused on the uncertainty, the fact that contracting this disease was this terrifying mystery that nobody had an answer to. I focused on the humans and the humanity; when we think about historical events, especially tragedies, it’s easy to see the statistics and get overwhelmed and even easier to accept them as flat numbers on a page; it’s much harder to see the individuals in the stats. And that was my challenge and what I felt was my obligation to the people who were affected, from those who passed away to those who watched their friends and family die and to those who continue to survive.
I’m not sure what lessons people will learn but I do think it’s vital to keep telling this story, especially from different angles; it’s so easy to forget, especially since AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was, but the stigmas still exist. I hope this story can continue the conversation into today and help us see the individuals in the tragedy.
DS: A Catholic priest is a character in your play. What questions are you hoping to raise with the inclusion of a religious leader in a play about the early years of the AIDS Crisis?
I’m a practicing Catholic so my struggle with my religion often creeps its way into my plays. As a bisexual woman, I’m at constant odds with my religion, parsing out my faith from its interpretation. Religion, especially Catholicism, doesn’t hold as many shades of gray as life does; I believe we should honor those shades of gray even as we practice our faith. It is not my intent for Father Jerome to be a villain, but to show what harm is done when the rigidity of a belief is held. I hope to raise some questions of what is right and what is wrong and whether or not we should blindly follow teachings when faced with a more complex reality.
DS: The East Village in particular was ravaged by this disease. What can our audiences expect from Retro’s production of We Are a Masterpiece and how do you hope it engages our community?
It’s so special to me that this play is receiving its world premiere here. I think and audience can expect a very humane story that takes place during the AIDS crisis, one that contains hope in the face of despair as well as humor in the midst of struggle. It is my hope that this play brings a remembering to the community and allows those who survived an emotional catharsis. My largest hope is that this play allows for the conversation about AIDS and its realities to continue; there are more stories to tell. So let’s tell them.
Tickets are available to WE ARE A MASTERPIECE here.