For the second time in 2 years, North Texas’ performing arts community unites in a cause with ‘A Gathering’
The first thing Charles Santos wants to impress upon everyone he meets is this: HIV/AIDS is still a serious problem. We may have leaped the hurdle of the pandemic of the 1980s and early ’90s, when AIDS victims fell like flies; we may have developed a cocktail that helps keep people alive but which does not cure the disease; we may have gotten allies as unlikely as George W. Bush to become defenders of AIDS research and treatment. But we still have a long way to go. And HIV is as much a health concern now as it ever was — even if a lot of people don’t seem to realize.
Santos, the executive director of TITAS, pounded that drumbeat two years ago, during the yearlong 30th anniversary commemoration of the AIDS crisis, when he first staged A Gathering at the Winspear Opera House. At the time, Santos attempted a feat of a scope rarely witnessed in the local performing arts community: He marshaled together nearly a dozen groups, from the Turtle Creek Chorale to the Dallas Theater Center to the Texas Ballet Theater, to perform a benefit for four major HIV treatment nonprofits across North Texas.
Santos “hadn’t really planned on doing a second one,” but it wasn’t long after A Gathering ended that he realized it would not — could not — be the first and the last such benefit. Earlier this year, he decided it was “time to do another.”
Perhaps without even realizing it, in the interim Santos has been compiling in his mind “a catalogue of music that I wanted to build a show around.” Sometimes it was a song; sometimes a singer; sometimes a dance set to a specific piece of music.
“I reached a point where I thought, ‘There’s a show here,’” he says.
This summer, Santos sent out an open invitation to nearly a hundred arts leaders to what he called “A Gathering gathering” at his home: a brainstorming session to see if they could pull it off again, and if so, how they could make the event different.
It wasn’t hard to generate excitement for A Gathering, part 2. “Everybody wanted to do it,” he says. “Everybody said, ‘Count us in.’”
The Gathering gathering itself ended up being a major element in structuring the show. Santos invited all in attendance to share their own histories and experiences coping with HIV/AIDS: As a survivor, a caregiver, an observer. They recorded those sessions and, without attributing them to individuals, Chris Heinbaugh with AT&T Performing Arts Center and Joel Ferrell with the Dallas Theater Center set about turning those stories into a script. (It’s a similar process the creators of A Chorus Line used to construct their stories in the lives of dancers.)
“There were artists, performers and service providers; a wide range of ages — those who had lived through the plague and those who knew little about it,” says Heinbaugh about the session. “We started talking and sharing, and it just kind of unfolded from that.”
The script (which is still a work in progress) includes spoken-word segments built around three themes: faith, generations and family.
“These themes kept coming up: People would say, ‘Back in the day’ or ‘Back then’ and we saw a generational theme: Heinbaugh says. “There were themes on family — parents in particular, finding out their son or daughter had AIDS, or would even learn both that they were gay and had AIDS for the first time.”
Another theme was what role faith played in both people’s understanding of the disease as a spiritual crisis and how to deal with it practically.
“You heard the type of reaction from the Jerry Falwells, but there were also churches opening the door for people and responding with compassion,” Heinbaugh says. “For me and Joel, putting these together was about using those stories for the foundations of what we wrought.”
A lot of discussion was about the worst period, when friends “were dropping left and right,” Heinbaugh says. One of his colleagues, a 23-year-old man who attended the meeting, told Heinbaugh the next day that he “had no idea — didn’t have a clue of what went on. ‘I felt so stupid,’ he said.”
But A Gathering isn’t meant to be chastising and sad. On a basic level, it is also a celebration of hope and life when confronted with great personal trauma. Toward that end, the music plays a significant role: Numbers being performed include compositions as diverse as Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E minor to “I’ll Cover You” from Rent (a number Santos insists will bring the house down) to Aretha Franklin to songs from the TV show Smash.
Putting together community benefits, especially for AIDS causes, is nothing new to Santos. When he was in Austin, he produced such a benefit, concentrating on dance, which is Santos’ own background before he entered arts administration.
“We recited factoids, both positive and negative, about HIV/AIDS,” he says — such as rates among demographic groups and the cost on human lives. It was, he concedes, occasionally dour.
As the 30th year of AIDS neared in 2011, Santos and Heinbaugh were discussing what they might do to address the anniversary. They came up with the idea of a “book show — one not as random as simply factoids,” he says.
Within three months, the show — also called A Gathering — was mounted, drawing together 11 local arts groups and 175 performers.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the proudest I have ever been,” Santos says.
A Gathering 2013 has grown. It’s added another group (the Dallas Symphony Orchestra) and the headcount will grow to about 200–225 artists, including around 135 members of the Turtle Creek Chorale, who will participate in the massive event, which will get a full rehearsal only once before taking to the stage of the Winspear.
“The stage will be set up like a musical performed in concert,” Santos explains. “The chorale will be there on risers the entire time.”
All of the collaborators are local artists or Dallas natives — which was also true of the last Gathering. Gary Lynn Floyd serves as musical director, and among the soloists will be Patty Breckenridge, M. Denise Lee, Mel Arizpe and Liz Mikel.
“This is an opportunity to give these talents a chance to perform on the stage of the opera house,” Santos says. (It is not just actors and singers — or even gay people — who will be participating. Members of the community at large have been tapped to give readings.)
The most impressive thing, however, for both Santos and Heinbaugh, was not just “tell[ing] a really unique story of survival, or grief, of loss; but of having on one stage a dozen of the best performing arts organizations and 200 of the best artists at one time,” Heinbaugh says. “This is collaboration. Everyone checks their egos at the door. When you are working with the level of professionals we have, from Booker T. to the DSO and DTC, they come wanting to do their best. And when you have Liz [Mikel] and Denise [Lee] in the room, and you have a sing-off? Well, I’m surprised the windows didn’t blow out of the Wyly.”
Still, it was important that the performance not be a retread of the last one, nor a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. “It’s not about topping what you’ve done,” Santos says. Instead, he’s tried to keep his eye on the goal: Reminding people that, despite all the progress we have made in the treatment of HIV and survival rates among PWA, there’s still a long way to go.
“We don’t need to preach to the converted,” he says. “The event is meant to inspire people to continue to talk about [HIV/AIDS] in a public way.”
Groups participating in A Gathering 2013 include: AT&T Performing Arts Center, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing & Visual Arts, Bruce Wood Dance Project, CharlieUniformTango, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, the Dallas Opera, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Theater Center, SMU Meadows School of the Arts, Texas Ballet Theater, TITAS and the Turtle Creek Chorale. Everyone involved has volunteered their time and services.
All proceeds from the event will benefit AIDS Arms, AIDS Interfaith Network, AIDS Services of Dallas and Resource Center.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 4, 2013.