HIV stigma vs facts: Why my play ‘Positive’ exists

In a couple of weeks’ time, my play Positive begins a three-week run at the Waterloo East Theatre in London. It’s been a long and stressful journey to get it to this point, but I want to talk about why exactly I’m doing it.


POSITIVE script For a couple of days in December 2012, the rail network between King’s Cross and Cambridge was completely buggered because the overhead wires at a major junction had just decided to conk out. So, in order to get to and from work, I had driven to Luton (VERY OUT OF THE WAY, FYI) so I could get a train in to St Pancras on another line. Bear with me, I’m just setting the scene.

The journey really wasn’t that much different in length to the one I usually took, but it still felt like some big extravagant adventure that would require everything from snacks and drinks to a new playlist and a massive bulk of reading material. I was fairly new to the world of the iPhone at that point and had decided to try out the digital magazine scene – specifically a certain popular title oriented towards The Gays.

I remember I had to stand for the entire journey (bad news for the assorted cornucopia of sweets I’d picked up from WHSmith); awkwardly trying to read giant pages on a small phone screen while being wary of people around me seeing a stray nipple or buttock. Eventually, I got to this column written by an anonymous guy in his 20s living with HIV. I read so many of his other articles in the days that followed that I don’t specifically remember which one I saw first, but I believe it had something to do with disclosure… Maybe he was in the early days of dating someone and hadn’t yet told him about his HIV status, and the guy found out through gossip…? I can’t really remember, I could be completely wrong… but in any case, it was definitely focussed less on the medical ins and outs of the virus and more about the struggles of his day-to-day life, and I found it really interesting.

I imagined myself on a first date with someone and him telling me he’s HIV+. How would I have reacted? Back then, in December 2012, on my way back to the paradisaical oasis of Luton Airport Parkway, I have to admit I probably would have been overwhelmed and run a mile, because I’d had no experience of HIV before and I had sod-all idea of what it was all about. But I also knew that that was inherently wrong of me, and right then and there this character started building in my head; this character in the play I knew straight away that I was going to write.

From that night on, I was fascinated by the stories that so many HIV+ men and women were sharing online. There are SO MANY brilliant, inspiring and – above all – enlightening blogs out there; being written like journals by people who are going through the process of getting their heads around their diagnosis. But although the way that their HIV status had effected their various relationships (with friends, family, colleagues, strangers, potential partners) was far more interesting to me than the actual biology, I figured I should get myself completely clued-up on that as well. Cue more enlightenment.

I found out that around 100,000 people are thought to be living with HIV in the UK – of whom a massive 22,000 are undiagnosed. I found out that the number of people living with HIV in Britain is increasing. I also found out that the year that saw the highest ever number of new HIV diagnoses was not back in the 1980s, as I guess most people would assume, but as recently as 2005.

However, I learned that in 2012, less than 1% of people living with HIV had died, and I learned that people who are diagnosed today are given a completely normal life expectancy if caught early and given proper treatment.

Now, I look back at those facts and figures and find it really strange that it was all so alien to me before I began this project.

But the fact is that there are still SO many people who are completely oblivious to it all, and as long as those people remain out of the loop, inaccurate stigma will continue to roam free; stigma I’m really trying to kick in the balls with this play, Positive. Research from the National AIDS Trust earlier this month revealed that a quarter of people think it’s illegal to keep an HIV+ status from people like your beauty therapist, dentist, tattooist or employer. This is incorrect. Over a third of people think that HIV+ men and women cannot be nursery school teachers or chefs. This too is incorrect. People have a tendency to jump to bad conclusions about things they don’t understand (see also: homosexuality, foreign cultures, the hits of Miley Cyrus), meaning HIV+ people face a ginormous number of negative preconceptions that are both completely wrong and completely unnecessary.

I saw an expert say on Twitter recently that younger HIV+ people are far more likely to die from suicide as a result of depression than they are from the actual virus itself.  Fuck that. I’m not saying I can change the way our entire society feels with one small-scale play, but you can see my motivation for wanting to have a go.

As serious as all that is, I decided fairly quickly that I wanted the script to be relatively upbeat and, to an extent, comic. I wanted to tell stories that don’t focus primarily on the medical ins-and-outs, but more on the effects a positive HIV status can have on sex/social/love/family lives. By March 2013 I had stuck a rough draft in front of an intimate audience of friends and family as a rehearsed reading in a small but fabulous theatre above a pub in Camden. The feedback from it was great, and after additional work on the script and a lot of admin-related aggravation, it went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that summer.

POSITIVE edinburgh

I was fucking terrified. Of course anyone creative (anyone full-stop, in fact) wants their work to be praised and appreciated, but my biggest fear was that HIV+ audience members would be offended, frustrated or completely disengaged with it. I had been in contact with a few HIV+ bloggers throughout the writing process, including the lovely guy whose column I read on that train journey, but none had actually seen the play on its feet before we went up to the festival. That was scary.

Fortunately, it seemed to go well. We got strong reviews across the board, but the feedback that mattered the most to us – to me, anyway – was from those who are HIV+. A former chairman of the Terrence Higgins Trust came along and had very kind words to say, and we were stopped out and about in the city by others who had come along, wanting to tell us how much they appreciated the message of the piece and the tone it took. I have one particular email saved from a very kind man who signed off his message with: “Just know that this play is SO IMPORTANT. And I thank you all deeply.” That meant a lot. After that, we put the play on at London’s Waterloo East Theatre on World AIDS Day as a charity fundraiser, and it sold out.

(That was a braggy paragraph. Apologies.)

Now, as I write, we are two weeks away from starting a three-week run back at the Waterloo East. The script has gone through a bit of an overhaul thanks to workshopping and redrafting, but I hope that its tone and (I hate using this word to describe my own work) “charm” are still firmly in tact. Again, I wasn’t trying to create an intense medical drama or a preachy sexy-ed lecture, like those terrible videos you used to have to watch in Year 9 PSHE. I was trying to create an accessible comic drama that can be enjoyed as any other comic drama would, regardless of its plot or subject matter. A lot of money is on the line and, as with any self-produced Fringe show, new stressful glitches are popping up on a daily basis – but myself and the amazing cast and crew are trying to obliterate the stigma around HIV in a way that is – pardon the pun – as Positive as possible. I hope you’ll be able to swing by and see it.

Positive runs from May 13 to June 1 at the Waterloo East Theatre on Brad Street, a couple of minutes from Waterloo station. Book tickets here or call 020 7928 0060.

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2 thoughts on “HIV stigma vs facts: Why my play ‘Positive’ exists

  1. Shaun, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Positive during the Edinburgh run and I am sure your workshopping will not have lessened the impact of the piece. Good luck with the new run, and thanks for sharing the background.

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