"Hello, my name is Geoff, and I have AIDS."
"Hi, I'm Tony, and I have AIDS."The introductions mark the beginning of an uplifting and unnerving theater experience called "AIDS Alive," a revue performed by men branded these days by three letters. Each is a PWA: Person with AIDS or AIDS-related complex.
They are all members of the PWA Theater Workshop, and "AIDS Alive" is their story. They've told it in high schools, universities, theaters, social centers, nightclubs, hospitals, just about anywhere people will listen.
There have been plays about AIDS before, primarily "As Is" and "The Normal Heart," both of which had successful runs in New York and in regional theaters. But in "AIDS Alive," the performers aren't just acting. They celebrate their own lives while facing death.
The workshop was born in 1987, the inspiration of an actor named Nick Pippin and a producer named Sylvia Stein.
"I was diagnosed a long time ago, ages ago," recalls the boyish 34-year-old Pippin who has had AIDS since 1985. "Back then, we just left our jobs and sat around waiting to die. But I knew that if I didn't start doing something, I was going to die."
He helped create the workshop and set in motion plans for "AIDS Alive," a series of loosely constructed vignettes that tell how people with AIDS do more than just survive.
The show grew out of taped interviews conducted with PWAs. The conversations were fashioned into nearly an hour's worth of theater by playwright Lanie Robertson, best-known as the author of the Billie Holiday musical "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill."
There are short sketches and monologues. Actors don't necessarily tell their own stories, although all the incidents in "AIDS Alive" are true.
Some of the material is devastating. The stories are of the separation of father and son, driven apart by the disease, or of sick workers fired by their employers.
But much of it is humorous in a black, "Catch-22" sort of way. A mother tells her son she will be serving Thanksgiving dinner on paper plates. One man is harassed by a creditor who, when told the customer has AIDS, snarls, "So, you're going to take the easy way out."
"Humor was a very important thing for all of us," says Geoff Edholm, a workshop member. "We all have had very bizarre experiences in the hospital with procedures and treatments."
The actors, now numbering about a dozen, are all volunteers. Usually, there are five men in each performance.
"Most of us found out about the group by word-of-mouth," says Edholm, one of the few workshop members who also is a professional actor. Tom Lutz joined the group after his mother met Pippin's mother at a support group meeting.
"I had no theater experience at all and volunteered with the idea of doing stage managing - or being wardrobe mistress," Lutz laughs.
Audience reaction changes during the course of an evening, beginning with silence, then smiles, laughter, even a few tears and then cheers.
"In the very beginning, they don't know they can laugh," Edholm says. "AIDS is not supposed to be funny. But in a few minutes, they get the idea that we're having fun, and we're laughing."
For most of the company, appearing in "AIDS Alive," is their only steady job, and they don't get paid - just a $50-a-month stipend from the workshop. Many had to leave their full-time jobs because they were too ill to work or because they couldn't qualify for Medicaid if they made too much money.
"And our medications are very expensive," says workshop member Nico Angelo. "Most of us are averaging some $3,000 a month in bills."
"AIDS Alive" originally was written for nine performers, but the roles were reduced to five.
"We'd like to increase that to six or seven permanent roles with two or three understudies," says Carter Inskeep who directed the show. "We are trying to find people to be backups, swing people, to learn several different roles in case someone gets sick."
"It's still very difficult to get people involved," Pippin says. "There's that element of disclosure about AIDS. It's still a big issue for some people."
One of the newer members of the troupe is Buddy Smith, who joined the show when another performer got sick. Smith was given a new role with new lines and wasn't simply an understudy for the absent actor.
"It's a living theater piece," Pippin says. "It will never remain the same. As people are added or leave the group, the show changes."
Now Pippin and Inskeep would like to expand the circle of performers, adding women and drug users who have contracted AIDS, but it has been hard to recruit members outside the gay community.
Those in the troupe say their hard work and difficult decision to go public with their disease has been worth it.
"I can only guess how awful things would have been for me without this show," says Tony Torres. "So many things that happen to each one of us individually now can happen to somebody else tomorrow. I have learned so much about what will happen to me later on, so that it will easier for me to cope with it when it does happen.
"The show gets me through," he adds. "Before we opened, I was supposed to be in the hospital. But I said, `No, I've got a show to do."'