Four people silently stand shoulder-to-shoulder across the stage. They are a Quiet Little Circus of solemn faces with four stories to tell. In a formation similar to that of the opening scene of RENT, they represent the reality of the disease that affects us all-HIV/ AIDS.
But this isn't a musical. This is the real-life representation of four people who are currently living in Boston with HIV/AIDS. The Emerson BFA actors that cut across the gleaming floor of the stage are the embodiment of the four volunteers that senior marketing communication major Jason Knight, the director and producer of the show, asked to share their life stories for the Emerson Fights AIDS kick-off Concert Gala last Sunday night.
Each year, Emerson creates a week of unique fundraising activities put on by a conglomerate of Emerson's student organizations to not only provide entertainment, but to diffuse HIV/AIDS awareness into the campus. Since its inception, EFA has raised upwards of $25,000 through donations, auctions, raffles and performances.
Sixty percent of the funding for the entertainment comes from the Musical Theater Society's annual budget and the remaining 40 percent is covered by an appeal to the Student Government Association. Co-sponsors such as Rareworks and WECB also contribute to the initial costs.
Knight's Quiet Little Circus served to jumpstart the week-long event.
By contacting a local counseling center for people living with the disease, Knight was able to achieve an up-close-and-personal perspective for the audience.
For a month and a half, the actors Knight selected spent time getting to know the people they would later become.
"They went out to dinner with them," he said. "They went for coffee, they went on walks and they recorded all of their conversations."
He then asked his actors to write a journal entry as if they were the person they had become familiar with and he formulated a script with the information they collected.
EFA's message certainly struck more than musical chords for junior BFA acting major Melanie Thompson. In mid-show, she was reduced to unrestrainable sobs by the story it was her job to deliver.
"It affected me, even though I was supposed to be portraying her," Thompson said. "Even just sitting down and reading the script for the first time. That part would always be very emotional for me."
The specific moment in the script that tested Thompson's tear ducts involved the description of the loss of AIDS survivor Brenda's second daughter, Raquel, to the disease. Thompson said that in order to justly embody the life of Brenda, she would visualize the woman holding her sick baby in her arms and the moment at the hospital when the doctors told her of her daughter's death allowed Thompson to connect personally with the story.
"Whenever I would get up to perform that part," she said, "I would just really try to get specific and really focus and imagine what she must have been going through right at that moment."
After three meetings between Thompson and Brenda and countless rehearsals leading up to the show, Thompson described the questions that infiltrated her thoughts during the Gala.
"I thought, how is Brenda being affected by this?" she said. "At that moment, it was difficult because I knew that she was right there. It was such an incredible moment in her life, a life-changing-, rock-bottom-type moment. For her to be right there, I just got this incredible energy."
Although BA theatre studies acting and directing major Mark Cramer felt a similar pressure in performing in front of his character, he described the ease with which the acting came for him.
"The honesty was there, but then how that translates and resonates with you is something completely different," he said. "I'd heard the story before I said it, so the honesty may have been easier, but emotionally, it was more difficult than any acting I have ever done."
Dispersed among each actor's segment were the soulful sounds of six selected singers from all sides of the stage as each tale unfolded before the eyes of the audience.
Prior to the event, Knight described the nature of the performance.
"It's kind of like this hodge-podge of different elements and there's no fluid storyline," he said. "It's not like your cookie-cutter musical sound or look, you know? It's very different."
These combined voices in the student-run, student-produced performance worked together to bring the issue closer to home. Knight described the message behind his vision on the eve of the Concert Gala.
"I wanted to put the issue of AIDS and HIV into a very close perspective to people in Boston," he said. "People kind of view it from a perch far away and don't think of the disease as in their neighborhood or in their city. This performance shows that it's right here, these people are living here in Boston."
Each story is told as if it were a casual conversation with the audience, generating a personal connection to each person in the room. As each piece came together, a montage of musical selections and slam poetry was dispersed strategically between segments to thematically highlight the commonality that these four very different people share with each other.
"These people are all coming from such different places," he said, "but I think the thread of similarity is that they have found hope in their lives."
Judging by the standing ovation following the last lyrics of "What a Wonderful World" released into the air with a hopeful grin by Noteworthy singer Rita O'Connell, Knight stayed true to his vision. He hoped to provide a different viewpoint on the AIDS epidemic-one that would allow people in the audience to be moved enough by the four true stories to change the way the world views the problem.
"A lot of people expect a cure for this disease to come from a lab, a scientist, from a pill, from medicine," he said. "What we found with getting to know these people and throughout this whole process is that the cure for this disease is not in that, it's more of a choice-it's more of a behavioral change."
In order for this change to occur, Cramer said, awareness needs to be brought to a local level.
"I think people see it as some cloud living in the distance-it's there over a mountain and you can see it but it never really affects you," he said. "If you know somebody, then it's not that looming cloud, it's on your doorstep."