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TBA Online: News & Features: October 2012

The Business of Show Biz: Acting with HIV

Thursday, October 25, 2012   (0 Comments)
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By Velina Brown


Q: What are the plusses and minuses of HIV+ actors coming out in the Bay Area theatre community about their serostatus? While we know the stigma is less than it used to be, there are many unknowns in belonging to a community of the nature of theatre. In more "bounded" work containers, an employee may only have to build relationships with five, 10, 15 people, and one overarching employer's stance, before determining whether to disclose or not. Our community is way more fluid and porous and gigs much more short-term and hence numerous. I'm very interested in your thoughts, and those of other people in the theatre community.

Actor and career consultant, Velina Brown. 

A: My initial response is that I see no reason for someone to make a general announcement about their HIV status to an entire community. If this is something they really want to do for some reason then they should do what feels right to them. But I don't think a person is under any obligation to make a general announcement. However, I realize that this isn't really answering your question. You've asked about "plusses and minuses" of disclosure. 

Disclosure plusses: 
It could be helpful to the creative process. For example, actor, director and former artistic director Erin Merritt suggests, "within a show that was related to HIV it might be useful to speak candidly about one's own experiences because it [could add] to the other cast members' understanding of the play and ability to portray its realities."
Disclosing could be an opportunity for education and help to destigmatize being HIV+.
It could help HIV+ individuals feel more at ease and like they are being completely themselves.

Disclosure minuses: 
Possible discrimination.
HIV+ status could become one's entire identity to some people.
Possibly triggering fear reaction. When people are afraid they tend to behave badly.

The triggering of fear is really the main minus from which all the other "minuses" flow. Let's address the fears. To do so, I spoke with Barbara Adler, LMFT, a psychotherapist and HIV testing manager at Alliance Health Project in SF, who explains, "EVERYONE should always be taking ‘universal precautions' if ever coming into contact with bodily fluids (gloves, etc.). Lots of folks have hepatitis too (and even more chances of exposure, really) and don't disclose." Note: "‘Universal precautions,' as defined by the Center for Disease Control, emphasize the routine use of blood and body substance precautions in every patient encounter, regardless of presumed infectious status." ( Translation: take the same precautions with everyone.

Common Questions:

What if there is an extensive kissing scene? 

Actor Valerie Weak wondered, "I know that HIV isn't passed through saliva, but [what] if two people had cuts in their mouths/lips? I do remember working on a project where I had to kiss an actor who got a cold sore on his mouth during the rehearsal process. He pulled me aside and let me know, and I kissed the other side of his face instead for those few rehearsals. It didn't reoccur in performance, so we didn't have to address that in performance. 

Adler responds, "People do NOT get HIV from kissing...cold sores [are] the thing to indeed worry about, NOT HIV." Therefore, Weak and her scene partner taking care that she avoid contact with his cold sore was exactly right.

What if there is fight choreography and two people accidentally cut themselves and bleed on each other? 

Adler explains, "People rarely get HIV from touching someone else's blood. If there are massive amounts of blood and others are coming into contact with it, that is something to think about for HIV as well as ANY other bloodborne pathogen (hepatitis, other STDs, etc.). Same with skin-to-skin contact (i.e., a cold sore); [there are] many, many other STDs that are easier to get than HIV from skin-to-skin."

Exactly how is HIV transmitted, again? 

Adler breaks it down, "The bottom line is: someone needs to have HIV, and their blood, semen, vaginal secretions or breast milk needs to get INTO someone else's bloodstream for there to possibly be transmission and infection."
So, if everyone is clear that HIV is not transmitted through casual contact, then disclosing one's HIV status should not be a negative experience. Of the 10 people I spoke with about this, some of whom were comfortable speaking on record and some not, they all supported your right to disclose or not disclose as you see fit. Adler shared that there are many actors who never disclose but of the ones who do their courage may be helping reduce fear and stigma. Personally, I still like the idea of taking it one situation at a time. Best wishes whatever you decide.


Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at