by Joe Norton · August 4, 2014
Joe Norton is Director of Education & Outreach at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. He will be part of the FringeU panel "Bringing Indie Theater to the Classroom" on Tuesday, August 19 at 1pm.
One of the joys of my job is to work with high school and college theatre students across the country, through groups like the International Thespian Society and the New York State Theatre Education Association, and others like Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. I love to engage them in discussions and workshops about theatre as a social voice. Here, more than in any other workshops I teach about the craft of creating theatre – playwriting, producing, acting, etc. -- young artists and enthusiasts come alive and engage each other, often passionately, about how theatre applies to other aspects of their lives.
There is a new appreciation and interest among young theatre artists to create and explore independent theatre as a means of expressing their views and opinions about the issues which are important to them: the sexuality spectrum, violence, bullying, racism, the value of the arts in education, the uses and abuses of social media, drugs, justice, politics, censorship; the list goes on and on. This, to me, is so very important to the current and future state of theatre. The conversation goes beyond how popular shows on Broadway relate to society at large, and into the awareness that young artists can use theatre to express themselves about anything that matters to them.
This is due in large part to the amazing teachers who push the proverbial envelope – and sometimes cross lines for – their students. Luckily, organizations like those mentioned here are working to give the arts prominence in education. There are conferences now, like Stage the Change, through which teachers and students can show how theatre, while still entertaining, can raise social consciousness. This is valuable stuff, and it makes for really great kids who want to contribute to society.
Recently, I worked with a group of college students from Millersville, PA, to devise a play about HIV stigma, called Despite These Marks. Because I am openly HIV-positive, the writers contacted me to ask if I would tell my story to be used in the form of a character in the play. Of course, I would. The ensemble has experienced some push back from the school community while performing and refining the show, and even some vocal opposition to the topic, which, of course, they have now included in the play. Brilliant.
My own play, The Truing, which premieres at FringeNYC, is inspired by some people I met while working for the AIDS Rides, the first job I took after my own diagnosis (in 1992), when I realized that I needed to be a part of the fight in order to stay healthy. There is some really funny and moving stuff in there. I think it speaks to where we are in the AIDS fight today – still at it, right in the middle, tired, still inspired, still riding, thankfully, and just trying to finish the day.
It’s a very personal story for me, but I think it has a lot of social value. And a lot of humor, too – which is so necessary in anybody’s struggle, especially mine. I can’t fight without laughing.