BY Sam Moore in Interviews , Opinion | 08 SEP 23

Alastair Curtis on Rediscovering Plays by Writers Lost to AIDS

The AIDS Plays Project re-stages theatrical works by playwrights such as Charles Ludlam and Robert Chesley

BY Sam Moore in Interviews , Opinion | 08 SEP 23

The AIDS Plays Project, spearheaded by playwright Alastair Curtis, seeks to restage theatrical works created by writers lost to HIV/AIDS. In partnership with London Performance Studios, an initiative based in Bermondsey, Curtis launches the project with Charles Ludlam’s Camille (1973), performed by a cast of established actors and drag/nightlife performers. Here, Sam Moore catches up with him in rehearsals.

AIDS Plays Project
Poster for Camille by Charles Ludlam designed by Tom Joyes, 2023. Courtesy: The AIDS Plays Project and London Performance Studios

Sam Moore Could you talk a little bit about the genesis of The AIDS Plays Project? When did you realize this was something that you had to do?

Alastair Curtis To tell the truth, it was a collection of moments, none of which were related to the theatre, strangely. It came about largely through the work of two photographers, Robert Giard and Peter Hujar. Giard’s ‘Particular Voices’ [1985–1998], is a series of over 600 black and white photographs of major gay and lesbian writers in North America, including Edward Albee, Sarah Schulman and Dennis Cooper.

Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart [1985] spurred Giard to start recording this literary culture before its members potentially disappeared. Certain names kept popping up – people like Robert Chesley, James Carroll Pickett, Assotto Saint and the New York-based Black gay writers’ collective Other Countries. That alerted me to a very loose network of playwrights who knew of each other and whose careers overlapped, even if they weren’t necessarily working together. 

Hujar’s work exposed me to another wave of performance artists and playwrights in the downtown New York scene. As a playwright, I’m always on the lookout for queer writers from our theatrical history. Currently, we’re in this moment of revival of interest in art that was produced in and around the early years of the AIDS crisis; I was struck by the idea that we haven’t had a similar movement in theatre history.

SM It’s interesting that you mentioned some of these bigger names, like Kramer. Was it important to you to focus this work on other voices?

AC We see it as our mission in the project to highlight the careers of talented but lesser-known playwrights whose lives were cut short. We want to pay tribute to what they achieved in their lifetime, the plays they put out and communities that they were part of, as well as the ostracism and homophobia they endured. And writers who maybe were on the brink of fame that didn’t quite have the time or the attention to develop into the artist they could have been.

Alastair Curtis, 2023. Courtesy and photograph: Davide Meneghello
Alastair Curtis, 2023. Courtesy and photograph: Davide Meneghello 

SM What was your process for choosing the writers that you did? 

AC We had to work with the writers that could be more easily uncovered and brought back to the stage. In the case of many of the writers we’re working with here, there is no archive. The passage of live performance into history is already precarious – in the absence of film or photographs, it depends upon the collection of oral histories. I also wanted to focus on different performance scenes. We’ve got people from the New York downtown scene (Charles Ludlam) alongside playwrights who were perhaps more successful in a commercial sense (Harry Kondoleon). Also, playwrights like Robert Chesley or James Carroll Pickett, who achieved fame in the gay theatres of places like Los Angeles, and Phillip Blackwell, a playwright that Assotto Saint and Essex Hemphill knew and worked with as a mentor.

SM Do you think of this work of reconstruction partly as activism?

AC Definitely. You articulate it well in your book All My Teachers Died of AIDS [2020]. I’m going to paraphrase you here, Sam. Sorry.

Alastair Curtis
Sue Gives a Fuck costume fitting with Max Allen and Elliot Jack Adcock, 2023. Courtesy: The AIDS Plays Project and London Performance Studios; photograph: George Henry Longly 

SM That’s okay. 

AC There are lessons to learn there and too few people to teach. But I think of it as a poetic restitution. And that’s where the activism of it lies. Ludlam’s partner, Everett Quinton, who starred in many of his plays, passed away in January this year. That’s one of the reasons there's an urgency to what we're doing.

I would also say that too often these plays live in the rarefied, stultifying grip of academics and critics. Access to these writers and their work should not be the preserve of those with an education. That’s certainly not what these writers intended. Many of them never went to university but were educated in the theatre, through the work they made.

Many were also activists themselves. Chesley is one example. He was a teacher at private school before he came out, left his wife, and moved to New York where he became part of post-Stonewall movement. He wrote plays that were bluntly sexual and matter of fact about it, and insisted on something more than the sexless characterization of gay men as self-loathing and shameful, which you get in plays like Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band [1968].

The central gesture of the project is forging a connection between these writers and a contemporary community. Maybe these plays can teach us a lot about these writers and their times by putting them into the hands of people like Sue Gives a Fuck, who is a consummate drag performer. What does that do? Can we learn something from that? 

SM It would be great to know a little more both about Camille and about Ludlam’s role in this project and the space you see him and his legacy occupying.

AC Ludlam is the lodestar of queer theatre in the 20th century. He certainly inspired Tony Kushner, and many queer playwrights. Ludlam founded something called the Ridiculous Theatre Company in 1967 in the West Village. It started out as a roving company that didn’t have a permanent location, but then eventually found a place on Sheridan Square which it occupied for, I think, around 20 years. 

The team identified with Ludlam’s aesthetic and values quite strongly. I’m working with Helen Noir, a composer and sound designer, who, like Ludlam, is quite agnostic about high and low culture and smashing them together. Noir’s working with the music on our first show, which varies wildly from Marianne Faithfull to Chopin. It’s exactly as Ludlam intended, a hodgepodge of camp references which blindside the audience in every direction. Similarly, the costume designers Max Allen and Elliott Adcock pulp references together in their designs. 

Camille felt to us like the most obvious choice to begin with. It’s based largely on an Alexandre Dumas novel, mixed in with a bit of French New Wave cinema, mixed in with La Traviata [1853], mixed in with the film version with Greta Garbo.

Alastair Curtis
Max Allen and Elliot Jack Adcock, 2023. Courtesy and photograph: Tyler Kelly 

SM Is everything based out of one space? What’s on the horizon for the project alongside and after Camille?

AC Good question. We’re an associate company at London Performance Studios. In December, we are staging Harry Kondoleon’s Christmas on Mars [1983]. He wrote 17 plays and two novels, many of which were absolutely barnstorming. He has a propensity for plays that start in a very naturalistic situation – maybe a kitchen or a living room or an apartment – but slowly grow into something surreal and dream-like.

In January next year, we’ll be staging Chesley’s version of Jerker [1986], which is a one-act play he wrote in 1986 and premiered in Los Angeles. 

It is an epistolary play based around answering phone messages and conversations between two men engaging in phone sex. Ultimately it’s a meditation on death and loneliness, and the effect of AIDS on sexual relationships, really. We came to Chesley through these photographs by Mark Chester, one of his ex-partners, who photographed Chesley in a BDSM context, wearing a spandex Superman suit, with his dick out.

Chester took other photos of Chesley showing kaposi sarcoma covering his chest. Chesley thought very damningly of people like Nicholas Nixon and the ways that men with HIV/AIDS were depicted in the media; his brazen nudity in those photographs is very much the tone and feel of that play, and of many of his works, which take a first-person perspective on kink and fetish play during the height of the epidemic.

After that, we’ll spotlight many of the playwrights that we’re in the middle of uncovering. Someone like James Carroll Pickett is a good example. We’re also looking at Phillip Blackwell, Scott McPherson and many others that are not well known. 

Alastair Curtis
Poster for Camille by Charles Ludlam designed by Tom Joyes, 2023. Courtesy: The AIDS Plays Project and London Performance Studios

During Autumn and Winter 2023/24,The AIDS Plays Project host performances of three largely forgotten plays by some trailblazing queer playwrights and activists of the 20th century: 

Camille by Charles Ludlam

09 September 2023 

Christmas on Mars by Harry Kondoleon

09 December 2023 

Jerker by Robert Chesley

09 March 2024

Main image: Poster (detail) for Camille by Charles Ludlam designed by Tom Joyes, 2023. Courtesy: The AIDS Plays Project and London Performance Studios


Sam Moore is a writer and editor. They are one of the co-curators of TISSUE, a trans reading series based in London.