Would you die for love? Christopher Isaacs, artistic director, playwright and actor for Ottawa’s newly formed Out There Theatre, used to think he would. He even thought it was his lot in life. Now, after living with HIV for 17 years, he’s not so sure.
Isaacs puts the ultimate question to the test with his latest play, Testing “Positive”: Would Romeo and Juliet Practice Safe Sex Today? The work-in-progress was chosen from among hundreds of applicants to close the cultural programming at next month’s XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto.
The premise of Testing “Positive” is simple, though the issues are complex. Four actors are rehearsing Romeo and Juliet, but in between scenes they ask and answer questions about life, love, sex and death. When they’re not playing Romeo, Juliet, Friar Laurence and Nurse, the actors actually play themselves, giving their own answers to the intimate questions. It’s a very personal play with an emotional punch.
“What I’m trying to do is get different perspectives,” says Isaacs. “The idea came from having my perspective in there, but also having a younger bi-male’s perspective, a straight female’s perspective, and an older female’s perspective. It opens up a whole bunch of discussion and that’s what’s exciting about it.”
Of course, HIV/AIDS is at the centre of the play. That’s why the focus is squarely on sexual practices. Isaacs believes that too many people avoid asking themselves the really hard questions about sex, especially when they’re in love.
“I’m asking a lot of questions,” he says, “like, ‘Do you practice safe sex? How important is safe sex to you? If you really love somebody, if they’re your soulmate, do you care if you have safe sex?’ I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, I’m in love with him, so if he gives me herpes, then we’ll have herpes together.'”
Isaacs grew up in Ottawa, but headed to Toronto at age 20. In his last year of university, he met his first lover, Gordon Anderson, whom he describes as a teacher, writer, architect and all-round amazing man. Anderson died of AIDS in 1992. That’s when Isaacs found out he had the virus too. Testing “Positive” is in part an homage to his former lover. Before he died, Anderson finished a novel, a gay love story called The Toronto We Are Leaving, which was recently published by his mother, Marlene Anderson. In Testing “Positive,” the actors read excerpts from the novel.
“We’re sort of meeting again on stage,” explains Isaacs. “And really he was my Romeo, and he died, and so for a long time I felt like Juliet. You know, I felt like I had to die because he was my love, but I didn’t.”
Romeo and Juliet provides a powerful intertext for Isaacs and company. Shakespeare takes on love, marriage, morality, fear, banishment and stigma, all issues that profoundly affect many people living with HIV. Isaacs hopes the universality of Shakespeare’s themes and the personal stories of the actors will help bridge the cultural gaps among diverse participants at the international conference.
“The best that I can do is tell my story, tell our story,” says Isaacs. “And I think our story will reach everybody on an emotional level and that’s the goal. Even though delivering medication in African countries is difficult, those Africans still have to live within a family, they still have to talk about it, they still have to live with it on a socio-cultural level, so I’m hoping that they’ll get something about the human condition.”
Theatre has helped Isaacs come to terms with his own HIV status. In 1995, he came back to Ottawa to be closer to his family and, he thought, to die. He admits that at the time he was very self-destructive. It was jumping into the theatre world full time and working with people like Eleanor Crowder at Ottawa’s Salamander Theatre and Marti Maraden at the NAC that helped him get to where he is today, emotionally and professionally.
“I’m very passionate about theatre,” says Isaacs. “I live for it … I was going to say ‘live and die’ for it, but I don’t die for it, I just live for it. There was a time when I would live and die for it. But that’s the whole point of this play: Would you die for something you love?”
Asked how he would answer that question today, Isaacs immediately replies with an adamant “no.” For him, it’s what Testing “Positive” is essentially about.
“I think it’s about love and how much power love has and what love means today, and that you don’t have to die for love. Having a soulmate or loving someone means having safe sex with them. You can love someone safely.”
The performance at the International AIDS Conference is only the beginning for Testing “Positive.” Isaacs hopes to mount a production in Ottawa and take it on tour, but his ultimate aim is to get it into the schools.
“Part of my goal in my life and my legacy is to say, ‘Yeah, I contracted this disease, but what can I do to make sure you don’t.’ So there’s a real passion for education for me. I find it empowering to be able to stand up and be open about my HIV status. It makes me reflect on the times I was ashamed to be HIV positive, and today I don’t have to be ashamed about it and that feels really good.”