As the editor of Business NH Magazine, Matthew Mowry doesn’t have a lot of directors beating down his door urging him to be part of a performance. And Mowry doesn’t have a theater background. But the Acting Loft’s newest show, Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, is about more than theater. It is about educating the public. And so Mowry and a long list of other non-actors couldn’t wait to take part.
The show tackles the difficult subject of AIDS. It will open on Friday, Dec. 2. World AIDS Day is Dec. 1. This timing is not a coincidence; Acting Loft artistic director Chris Courage wanted to perform the show to educate the public on a problem that many incorrectly think belongs in the history books.
“It is a way to honor those we have lost and educate a new generation on the legacy of the AIDS epidemic and the challenges of finding a cure,” Courage said in a previous interview.
The inspiration for the show was the unveiling of the Names Project Quilt, which happened in the Washington Mall in 1987. Poet Bill Russell (not the legendary Celtics basketball player) was so moved by the quilt that he began writing poems from the vantage point of people who suffered or died from AIDS, according to Courage. Panels from the quilt will be in Manchester during the show. Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens combines a dozen songs with 30 monologues, many of which are poems.
Courage has cast a talented group of actors to perform the songs, but the power of the show is truly reflected in the people he has secured for the monologues. Many of them are not actors at all. They include David Preece, president of the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission, Mowry and Joe Ianelli, an executive at Mass General Hospital.
“I am very honored to be part of this production,” Mowry said. “This is a different than what usually comes to New Hampshire. It is more than a show. It raises awareness and brings back into focus an issue that needs to be addressed.”
“It is an ambitious project,” said Ianelli, whose goddaughter often performs with the Acting Loft, which is how he met Courage. “It’s a wonderful historic piece that addresses an issue…. The epidemic is not over.”
In fact, the numbers of AIDS diagnoses are increasing in the United States, according for the Centers for Disease Control. Courage understands the importance of education, which is why the Acting Loft will be partnering with the Southern New Hampshire AIDS Task Force.
“They will be here to hold a discussion group after each production as well as distributing educational information to audience members,” Courage said.
Preece said the show does a wonderful job of spotlighting the breadth of people AIDS affects. It has impacted the lives of people in Africa and your own backyard.
“It’s really across the board,” Preece said, “and involves a cross-section of people who have died from AIDS. The author captures these people brilliantly.”
Preece said he was reluctant to get involved at first, only because of his own busy schedule. But he always tries to support AIDS charities and when he found out proceeds from the show’s profits would go to them, he was in. He plays a caregiver. He said his part is about families.
A show that deals with AIDS seems like it might be a very heavy night of theater. But Mowry said good theater is able to reveal truth about the human experience and that is what this play does. He said it will touch the audience and make connections. Ianelli said there were a number of poignant moments interspersed with more light-hearted music.
It will certainly be powerful to see so many performers standing on stage. Ianelli said there is a range of people with a variety of comfort levels of performing. He said this would add authenticity to the performance and make it a community event.
But how will some of these new actors prepare for their moment in the spotlight?
Ianelli isn’t too concerned. Before he got into health care, he dabbled in theater a bit. Plus, in his work he does a lot of public speaking and so he isn’t prone to stage fright.
He said he has a great monologue. He plays someone who has died from AIDS and is very angry that, looking at his panel on the Names Project Quilt, he doesn’t have enough glitter. He is able to bring some comedy to the role.
This is not so much the case with Mowry. He plays Walter, who is dying of AIDS but still goes back to his small hometown for a reunion. When he gets home, he receives threatening phone calls telling him not to attend the reunion. But he does anyway and actually receives a warm welcome.
“It’s a great story of acceptance,” Mowry said. He was intimidated at first, as his role involves so much emotion. He talked with Courage about how to portray the character and Courage told him to let the words, which are written as a poem, speak for themselves. Mowry admitted he couldn’t relate to exactly what Walter went through, but he did say we’ve all had moments of being the outsider. He tapped into those memories.
Each actor received a monologue and practiced on his own until it all came together in a major dress rehearsal a few days before the show’s opening. Mowry said he had never heard of the show prior to his involvement and has since learned a lot about it. He has liked what he found and wants people to check out the show.
“It is an opportunity to come and hear compelling stories,” Mowry said. “They are lives you might not be as familiar with but when you walk away you’ll feel you have known them. It is an emotional piece to be a part of.”
“Anyone who goes will never be the same again,” Preece said. “They will be personally affected.”