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Acting and Reacting

CabaretTufts drama graduate student Virginia Anderson sees theatre as an important medium for studying the critical issues—such as the AIDS crisis—facing society today.


As director of this fall's undergraduate production of "Cabaret," Virginia Anderson helped bring together a musical that, while laden with romance and song, seriously addresses the tenuous sociopolitical climate of Berlin on the eve of Hitler's rise to power. For the Tufts drama Ph.D. student, that is a testament to her belief in theatre as social commentary.

"Theatre does not exist in a bubble, and often it is created to deal with the things that are going on in society," says Anderson. "To look at it in isolation, you're missing almost everything. You're just scratching the surface."

For Anderson, this is particularly relevant to the AIDS crisis. Her dissertation, "Beyond Angels: American Theatre of the AIDS Epidemic, 1981-2006," examines how the changes—medical, political and otherwise—that have transpired over past quarter-century since HIV first made headlines have been reflected on the stage. It's a pursuit that has been more than a decade in the making.

According to Anderson, seeing a performance of "Falsettos," a musical featuring a main character with AIDS, "opened my eyes in a way they needed to be opened." Though she was a teenager at the time and did not yet personally know anyone affected by the disease, she became aware of the seriousness of the issue. When she went to Carleton College in Minnesota, she dove into both the theatre program and AIDS awareness programs there, directing a production of "Falsettos" during her junior year.

"To me, [AIDS] is an issue of my lifetime, and it's one that's not over."

— Virginia Anderson

"To me, it's an issue of my lifetime, and it's one that's not over," says the 29-year-old Anderson. "People think, 'Well, we've got treatments that are so much more successful than they had been, so it's not a problem anymore.' It is a problem. It's a big problem."

Her research examines how key moments in the history of the disease have been reflected in the theatre. The debut of the Broadway blockbuster "Rent," for instance, coincided with the introduction of protease inhibitors within the so-called "cocktail" of AIDS drugs that has helped prolong and improve the lives of many with the disease.

"People were able to live with this disease, and it wasn't the death sentence that it had been for all those years before. The whole face of the epidemic changed," says Anderson. "'Rent' also introduced a kind of hopeful outlook that coincided with this medical advancement, so that was important."

Anderson sees the AIDS epidemic as a problem meriting interdisciplinary study—medicine, economics, politics, as well as the arts. To that end, she has taken a first-hand approach to immersing herself in the issue.

When she came to Boston, Anderson founded the Tufts Drama and Dance team for AIDS Walk Boston, which since has raised more than $10,000 to benefit the Massachusetts AIDS Action Committee. She also got more deeply involved with the organization as a fellow in the Larry Kessler Scholars Program, working in housing advocacy for people with HIV who were homeless or nearing that point. She still volunteers there one morning per week for their housing search group, maintaining an active connection to a community that is not only the focus of her research, but one about which she cares significantly.

Cabaret

"I have to believe that it's making a tremendous impact not only on my dissertation, but on me as a person, just to go in and keep myself grounded in the reality of living with HIV in 2007," she says.

Aside from her local advocacy work, she recently attended the 2007 HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta, and in 2006, she shared a Tisch College Active Citizenship Summer Fellowship with members of the Tufts HIV/AIDS Collaborative to attend the International AIDS Conference in Toronto, Ontario.

Anderson has also brought an international perspective to her research. In January 2007, she went to Cuba with nearly a dozen Tufts students from various schools, including The Fletcher School and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, on a trip organized by Ruben Stern at the Latino Center.

While there, she researched how the AIDS epidemic has affected the island nation and how theatre has been used to respond to it, meeting with people ranging from young communist leaders to an HIV-infected Cuban citizen. She calls the trip "one of the greatest Tufts experiences I've had."

In 2005, she went on a two-week trip to China with Assistant Professor Claire Conceison to study the use of theatre to address the AIDS epidemic there. Experiences like these, says Anderson, make her even more excited about her goal of teaching drama at a liberal arts college setting like that found at Tufts.

"I want to have a collaborative atmosphere where people are comfortable taking some risks and building on not only their own ideas but the ideas of others."

— Virginia Anderson

"It's about that kind of discussion, that kind of dialogue," she explains. "I want to create a collaborative atmosphere in which students are comfortable taking some risks and building on not only their own ideas but the ideas of others and arriving at conclusions and ways of looking at things that maybe they wouldn't otherwise."

Anderson sees both teaching and directing as powerful ways of sending messages, forging connections and bringing people together around important issues. Staging "Falsettos," for her, was a way of recreating the transformative experience she had when she saw it for the first time. And with the run of "Cabaret" overlapping with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the cast distributed red ribbons and condoms while collecting donations for the AIDS Action Committee. She hopes the musical encouraged participants and audience members to reflect on the relationship between the personal and the political.

"I think about what I want theatre to be, the kind of experience that I want to have as well as that which I want to create, and this is the kind of show that I want to do," says Anderson. "I want other people to come together to have a collective experience, and to need to talk about it."

Even laugh about it, she adds. "Sometimes being able to laugh at something empowers oneself, even if it's something that is crippling the world around you. Through laughter, even if only for a moment, a person can experience a feeling of control over the most desperate of situations."

Theatre, she says, has a unique capacity to reach people in an intimate fashion. It's a powerful medium she is excited to utilize for both entertainment and enlightenment.

"I truly believe that there's something that transpires across the footlights, so to speak," she explains. ""There's something about that kind of genuine communication between the people onstage and the people in the audience. It is a unique –- and invaluable -- experience."


Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos by Melody Ko, University Photographer

This story originally ran on Dec. 10, 2007.