BRATTLEBORO—In recognition of the 35th year of the AIDS pandemic, and to honor the work of the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont, Susan MacNeil and the Latchis Theatre will present “A Weekend to Remember & Celebrate ... Life, Loss, Love,” on Oct. 15 and 16.
The event includes a viewing of portions of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and the opportunity to create and submit panels; a dance performance by Jody Sperling, founder of the New York dance company, Time Lapse Dance; a reception and award ceremony honoring Shirley Squires; a special screening of the 1955 Rock Hudson film, “All That Heaven Allows”; and a performance of “Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens,” the first play written about the AIDS pandemic.
Composer Richard W. Smith, vocal instructor at the Vermont Academy and music director of “Elegies,” will premiere a piece he wrote for the occasion.
Net proceeds from the weekend’s festivities will benefit the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont. The organization, founded in 1988, currently provides services to individuals and their families in Bennington, Windham, and southern Windsor counties who are living with HIV/AIDS. These services include food programs, financial assistance for rent and utilities, and information and outreach to the general population.
Reasons for celebration
Although there still is no cure for HIV/AIDS, the AIDS Project has quite a few reasons to celebrate.
Because of innovations in prevention and treatment options such as perinatal education, pharmaceutical support for those with HIV and AIDS, and pre-exposure prophylaxes such as Truvada, transmission rates are down and those with the virus are staying healthier longer.
According to Karen Peterson, executive director of the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont, “88 percent of our clients are virally suppressed.”
“They still have HIV,” she said, but their viral load is so low, “it’s considered undetectable, so they’re highly unlikely to transmit the virus."
“We have a great rural clinic system,” Senior Case Manager Marguerite Monet said. “We’ve got a pretty good handle on HIV in Vermont."
Although Peterson and Monet said the community is very supportive of the AIDS Project, there is still a need for their services. They served 80 clients in the past year, and Monet said she still encounters people who don’t know the Project exists. “AIDS isn’t seen as sexy anymore. There’s no Elton John or Liz Taylor” raising awareness, Monet said.
Through their two big events each year — the Walk for Life and the World AIDS Day program — the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont continues to get the word out. And the upcoming weekend event will help.
“We hope the seats will be filled,” Peterson said.
Honoring Shirley Squires
Peterson and AIDS Project Board Chair Patrick Brown will honor Shirley Squires with a Lifetime Volunteer Achievement Award after the play during an informal reception on the stage of the main theater. All ticket holders are invited to attend, event organizers say.
Squires recently hit the $300,000 mark in money she has raised through the annual Walk for Life fundraiser. She is the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont’s single largest donor, and organization officials call her “a tireless advocate on behalf of persons living with HIV/AIDS.” Squires is the mother of the late state Rep. Ron Squires of Guilford, Vermont’s first openly gay legislator, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1993.
That year, Shirley Squires participated in her first Walk for Life. This year, she is preparing for her 25th Walk. “She’s already planning for next year and she’s 86 years old,” Peterson said.
“She’s amazing,” Monet said. “The thing I want you to know about Shirley: she’s been a buddy — someone who works with clients to walk their dog, sit with them, grocery shop for them, especially in the early days when people were very ill. She was on the [Project] Board. If we ask for something, she’s there. She’s an incredible person."
The big weekend
The benefit weekend begins Saturday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m. with the one-night-only performance of the 1989 musical “Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens.”
The show was developed in the late 1980s and originally entitled “The Quilt” to acknowledge the AIDS Memorial Quilt, founded in 1985 by AIDS activist, Cleve Jones.
In recognition of the commemorative nature of the quilt, muslin quilt squares may be purchased before or at the event to honor the lives of loved ones lost to AIDS, the work of AIDS activists, caregivers and medical professionals, or to share thoughts about the pandemic. They will be displayed in the main theatre during the show, sewn into finished 6-foot-by-6-foot panels and then submitted for inclusion in the AIDS Memorial Quilt, now the size of 30 football fields and weighing over 60 tons.
“Elegies,” a song cycle with music by Janet Hood and lyrics and additional text by lyricist Bill Russell, debuted in 1989 at the Ohio Theatre in Manhattan’s SoHo district before moving on to London. The monologues are written from the perspective of characters who have died from AIDS, and the songs represent the feelings of friends and family members dealing with the loss.
This performance of “Elegies” is directed by Sam Maskell, with musical direction by Richard W. Smith. The cast comprises singers and actors from Vermont and New Hampshire, including leads Allie McGahie, Zac Binney, Gregory Higgins, and Jeanie Levesque.
This is the first fundraising showing of an AIDS-related theatrical piece in the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont’s history.
On Sunday at 4 p.m., the Latchis Theatre is showing “All That Heaven Allows,” the 1955 film starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. Hudson was the first major Hollywood figure to publicly announce an AIDS diagnosis. The portion of the commemorative quilt honoring Hudson will be displayed at the film’s screening.
“In the play’s monologue, the Rock Hudson quilt panel is mentioned,” said Peterson, noting the Sunday event is a “great opportunity to see a classic film on the big screen with a cup of popcorn."
It takes a community
Peterson thanked Latchis Arts Executive Director Jon Potter and his staff for their generosity, noting Latchis Hotel Manager Jonathan Jensen designed the posters and flyers.
She noted The Samara Fund played a big part in making the weekend happen, too. The fund, a major sponsor of the event, is part of the Vermont Community Foundation, which helps “to create a vibrant Vermont LGBTQ community and ensure that LGBTQ Vermonters are connected, healthy, appreciated, safe, and empowered,” according to the fund’s website, www.vermontcf.org.
But Peterson and Monet agreed the weekend couldn’t have happened without Susan MacNeil, the recently-retired executive director of AIDS Services for the Monadnock Region. “It’s too large of a production” for the Southern Vermont organization’s small staff, Monet said.
MacNeil produced the weekend event, including making the program brochure.
“She put her heart and soul into this,” Peterson said. This is big. It’s a huge production. Susan has unbelievable amounts of energy and enthusiasm for this play. We’re excited to work with her.”