Tag Archives: ACT UP

Fight of Passion and Fury Not Over for ‘The Normal Heart’ Actor Tim Cummings and Director Simon Levy

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in "The Normal Heart"

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in “The Normal Heart”

by Dale Reynolds

The HIV/AIDS crisis has slipped from the consciousness of the American public in the last decade or so, as fewer and fewer white folk die from it (or are newly infected) and as GLBT acceptance has become more mainstream.  But back in the mid-1980s, when panic over the disease was the norm (Where’d it come from?  Who’s responsible?  How do you catch it???), the conservative government of Ronald Reagan was accused of insufficiently helping the thousands of (mostly) gay men, blacks, intravenous drug users, and hemophiliacs who were infected, grew seriously ill, and subsequently died.

Verton R. Banks, Stephen O'Mahoney and Fred Koehler in "The Normal Heart." Photo by Ed Krieger.

Verton R. Banks, Stephen O’Mahoney and Fred Koehler

There was so much fury in the left-leaning communities, including the most-affected ones — sexually-active gay and bisexual men — that groups such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) with its “Silence=Death” slogan and Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) were formed. They protested government policies and anti-gay religious leaders, along with a general apathy from the confused public.

Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer

To Oscar-nominated screenwriter Larry Kramer (Women in Love), a gay man who is himself HIV+, this was unacceptable, so he helped form the clamorous and aggressive ACT UP and wrote a definitive play on the crisis, The Normal Heart  (1985), which is now having its first revival in Los Angeles since 1997 at the feisty 99-seat Fountain Theatre.

Kramer, an angry and difficult man who still doesn’t mind excoriating the conservatives who wouldn’t help at the beginning of the crisis, was recently quoted in Parade magazine:  “I’ve always felt that our government has allowed [AIDS victims] to die, literally, and…Dachau was where the [Nazi] government was doing just that … [with] Jews and gays and gypsies, a lot earlier than anyone knew.”

The Normal Heart is being directed by Simon Levy, a heterosexual who lived in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, and stars Tim Cummings, a gay man, as Ned Weeks, a surrogate for the playwright.  Cummings came of age after the hysteria had largely disappeared.  But both men were in a decidedly militant mood when interviewed for this article.

For Levy, the crisis is still with us, in the USA especially among African Americans (44% of all new infections in 2009), as well as concentrations of the disease in Africa and Southeast Asia, but it’s become buried in the collective unconsciousness.  “Thirty million people, world-wide, have died from HIV/AIDS in the last 30+ years, and 1.7 million currently die from it each year [as of 2011], with 2.5 million new infections, [so] I picked [this script] because it’s a great American play, a seminal gay and AIDS play, and a great political/love story.  Its agitprop message blends nicely with its real characters.”  And his continued activism?  “Well, I grew up in San Francisco and had a lot of gay friends, from college and around the area, so when the HIV/AIDS crisis hit San Francisco, it took a lot of these friends.”

Tim Cummings and Simon Levy

Tim Cummings and Simon Levy

According to Levy, “This play helps us understand the origins of the crisis when the Reagan Administration wouldn’t acknowledge it or put money into slowing it down.  They were evil.  Larry Kramer is a fighter and a leader in this army of resistance.  He still fights for better health care and more dignity for underserved communities.”

For Cummings, “I knew about the AIDS crisis first hand, studying at Tisch [School of the Arts/New York University] during the early 1990s.  We learned early about the value of condoms [as] ACT UP’s “Silence = Death” campaign was everywhere. There was extraordinary fear about having sex with other men, and even though it was under control at the time, there was a lot of caution and worry in the air.”

Believing that “great art reflects the universal, not just the particular,” Levy wanted to direct Normal Heart since a year ago, when he had seen “this fantastic production of it at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and I knew that I had to do it here. It took seven months of negotiations with Larry Kramer’s and producer Daryl Roth’s people to get the rights for LA, but Kramer’s angry voice was important in 1985 and remains so.  The crisis is not over.”

Cummings learned of the project early.  “I already knew the play, and when I heard about it on the grapevine, and saw it on Breakdown Services, I wrote to Raul Staggs [the casting director] asking for an audition.  I had a couple of other play auditions out of town, and was on hold for some job offers, but I turned them down in order to play Ned — it was that important to me.”

Levy acknowledges that he and producers Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs had a short list of actors they wanted to play the lead, including Cummings. “I called around and asked other directors for suggestions, and Tim was highly recommended.  I’d seen him at Rogue Machine Theatre in The New Electric Ballroom and its director, John Perrin Flynn, said that Tim Cummings was ‘one of the best actors in Los Angeles.’  I have well-honed instincts on acting and actors and I agreed.”

Lisa Pelikan and Tim Cummings

Lisa Pelikan and Tim Cummings

The play follows a gay activist, Ned Weeks, who has become enraged at the deliberate indifference of city, state and federal officials, as well as the blindness of some leaders in the gay community. He’s motivated to become an activist, with personal as well as political ramifications for him.  The play allows director and actors much anguish to feed upon for their characterizations.

While Cummings, son of an Irish fireman and built like one, is totally open about his sexuality (still somewhat problematical in Hollywood, if not New York), Levy never asked those auditioning about their sexual or emotional orientations, nor of their HIV status:  “They’re actors first in our eyes.  Besides, I like to create a ‘sacred circle’ for the cast, into which they can be themselves in order to create a full-bodied character.” As to his actors’ responses during the auditions, many knew this play and had wanted to do it — as it was relevant, on whatever level, to their own lives.

Cummings used Joseph Campbell’s idea of “the hero’s journey” for Ned’s progress — what Weeks goes through from beginning to end mirroring the mythology of any hero’s path.  “It was a ‘eureka’ kind of moment for me, demanding attention and change.  I love that the idea means there is something mythical and heroic about his journey, which elevates the play.”

In addition, Cummings thinks that the notion of Ned’s exploration mirrors the struggles the audience will have gone through themselves, or maybe have regretted not having gone through. “The play’s crisis is Weeks’ rite of passage.  In taking on a hostile — or at the very least, indifferent — government, Ned has to stand alone to be that clarion bell on the truth of the situation.  He will stand up, be counted, and walk away as an advocate for human rights.”

All this fits into the actor’s and director’s activist consciences, especially Levy’s:  “My job as an artist is to awaken — or reawaken — the public to important social and political issues.  My mission is to help people remember what’s right.”

Kramer’s screed of a play is what Levy describes as “a political thriller: ‘How did HIV/AIDS get is name?  and why was the government so hostile in helping those stricken?’  His play is a tornado, but Larry’s main message is about love.”

And hate, too. Kramer told Parade in the recent interview, “Life is very fragile. It’s very difficult for us, no matter how secure we think we are. Everybody who goes into a voting booth and votes against [gay people] hates us. We have been hated for so many centuries. You would think somewhere along the line we could’ve learned how to fight back.”

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup

The Fountain is well-known for its provocative and up-to-date productions on a wide variety of recent minority-themed topics:  Heart SongIn the Red and Brown Water, the deaf-specific version of Cyrano de BergeracOn the Spectrum (about characters with autism), as well as a series of American premieres of plays by South African writer Athol Fugard.  The leaders at the Fountain have reached out to ethnically-and–politically-diverse audiences who don’t normally attend relatively expensive theater.

“If we don’t learn these lessons of intolerance,” Levy says, “history will repeat itself.  So reaching this newer generation of young people about this subject is imperative.  We must never repeat these mistakes.”

Dale Reynolds writes for LA Stage Times.

The Normal Heart  Now to Nov 3  (323) 663-1525   MORE

Exclusive LA Revival of Larry Kramer’s ‘The Normal Heart’ Opens Sept 21 at the Fountain Theatre

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup.

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup at first rehearsal.

Fueled by love, anger, hope and pride, a circle of friends struggles to contain a mysterious disease ravaging New York’s gay community. Simon Levy directs the exclusive Los Angeles revival of Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking drama about public and private indifference to the onset of the AIDS crisis, and one man’s fight to awaken the world to its urgency. The Normal Heart opens Sept. 21 at the Fountain Theatre.

Not seen in L.A. for over 16 years, The Normal Heart remains one of the theater’s most powerful evenings ever. It was so ahead of its time that many of the core issues it addresses — including gay marriage, a broken healthcare system and, of course, AIDS — are just as relevant today as they were when it first premiered nearly 30 years ago.

“What’s wonderful about this play is that it’s a passionate reminder that we must always keep fighting for what we believe in, that we must never let injustice go unanswered,” says Levy.

Bill Brochtrup

Bill Brochtrup

Loosely autobiographical, The Normal Heart takes place in New York City in 1981. Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and LA Weekly Award-winning actor Tim Cummings (Rogue Machine’s The New Electric Ballroom), stars as writer and activist Ned Weeks, whose doctor (LADCC award-winning Lisa Pelikan, The New Electric Ballroom) tells him he must convince everyone he knows to stop having sex or they’ll die. The play follows Ned and a core group of friends Verton R. Banks (NAACP Theater Award-winner for Butterflies of Uganda),Bill Brochtrup (ABC’s NYPD Blue, Showtime’sShameless), Matt Gottlieb (The Grapes of Wrath at A Noise Within),  Fred Koehler (CBS’s Kate & Allie, HBO’s Oz), Stephen O’Mahoney (Harvey at the Laguna Playhouse), Ray Paolantonio (Animal Farm, Wilhelm Reich in Hell at Son of Semele), Dan Shaked (On the Spectrum at the Fountain) and Jeff Witzke (Blank Theatre Co.’s Book Of Liz) — as they rail against a community that refuses to believe they are in danger, a bureaucracy that refuses to listen and a President who won’t even utter the word AIDS. Dismissed by politicians, frustrated by doctors and fighting with each other, their differences could tear them apart – or change the world. The title of the play comes from a poem by W. H. Auden, the last line of which is this simple truth: “We must love one another or die.”

 

Matt Gottlieb

Matt Gottlieb

When The Normal Heart premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 1985, Joseph Papp wrote, “In taking a burning social issue and holding it up to public and private scrutiny so that it reverberates with the social and personal implications of that issue, The Normal Heart reveals its origins in the theater of Sophocles, Euripides and Shakespeare. In his moralistic fervor, Larry Kramer is a first cousin to nineteenth century Ibsen and twentieth century Odets and other radical writers of the 1930s. Yet… the element that gives this powerful political play its essence, is love — love holding firm under fire, put to the ultimate test, facing and overcoming our greatest fear: death.”

In 2000, The Normal Heart was named “one of the 100 greatest plays of the 20th century” by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, and the 2011 Broadway revival earned Tony, Drama League, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Best Revival of a Play. A movie directed by Ryan Murphy and starring Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer and Julia Roberts is slated to premiere on HBO in 2014.

Larry Kramer recently told Playbill, “Now it’s considered a history play. Everything I said in the play has come true.”

Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer is an American playwright and LGBT-rights activist. He is a founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an AIDS service organization, and ACT UP, a direct action AIDS advocacy group. His most acclaimed plays include The Normal Heart (1985) and the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Destiny of Me (1992). His screenplay for Women in Love was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969. He is the author of the novel Faggots (1978), a confrontational portrayal of gay culture, and a critical essay about the AIDS crisis, “1,112 and Counting” (1983). Kramer has also written the plays Sissie’s Scrapbook, A Minor Dark Age and Just Say No, A Play about Farce. His other books are The Tragedy of Today’s Gays and Reports From the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist. He earned his B.A. in English from Yale University. In 2013, he was honored by the Tony Awards with the Isabelle Stevenson Award for significant contribution to humanitarian or charitable causes.

Simon Levy

Simon Levy

Simon Levy was honored with the 2011 Milton Katselas Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Directing credits at the Fountain include Cyrano (LADCC Awards for Direction and Production), A House Not Meantto Stand; Opus (LA Weekly Awards, Best Director); Photograph 51;The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (Backstage Garland Award, Best Direction); The Gimmick with Dael Orlandersmith (Ovation Award-Solo Performance); Master Class (Ovation Award-Best Production); Daisy in theDreamtime (Backstage Garland Awards, Best Production and Direction); Going to St. Ives; The Night of theIguana; Summer & Smoke (Ovation Award-Best Production); The LastTycoon, which he wrote and directed, (5 Back Stage awards, including Best Adaptation and Direction); and Orpheus Descending (6 Drama-Logue awards, including Best Production and Direction). What I Heard About Iraq, which he wrote and directed, was produced worldwide including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Fringe First Award) and the Adelaide Fringe Festival (Fringe Award), was produced by BBC Radio, and received a 30-city UK tour culminating in London. He has written the official stage adaptations of The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Last Tycoon for the Fitzgerald Estate, all published by Dramatists Play Service. 

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Set design for The Normal Heart is by Jeff McLaughlin; lighting design is by R. Christopher Stokes; sound design is by Peter Bayne; video design is by Adam Flemming; costume design is by Naila Aladdin Sanders; prop design is by Misty Carlisle; the production stage manager is Corey Womack and the assistant stage manager is Terri Roberts.

The Normal Heart  Sept 21 – Nov 3  (323) 663-1525  MORE