One in four Americans who test positive for HIV at present is 20 years old or younger.
Among Kansas City’s most visible prevention efforts is the Dramatic Health Education Project, which is celebrating twenty years of delivering messages about sexual responsibility to area youth.
As the Coterie Theatre is a partner in the project, it is marking the anniversary with the rock musical Spring Awakening, based on a controversial German play from the late 1800’s about what happens when sex education goes awry.
When the KU School of Nursing and UMKC Schools of Medicine and Pharmacy first partnered with the Coterie Theatre in 1992 to design what was called the Dramatic AIDS Education Project, HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, was still a subject spoken of in hushed tones. The group saw increasing numbers of youth being impacted by the disease and asked local playwright Lisa Cordes to write a script with a strong HIV prevention message that schools might host in classrooms or assemblies.
"I remember having this matrix I worked from in terms of the specific information to get out," Cordes recalls. "Plus we had to design it so that we had two different messages: one, an abstinence message and one, a prevention, safe sex message.
"It was really interesting operating within this tight matrix. So much information had to be given out but it had to be done in a really interesting way."
Though HIV statistics and treatments have changed dramatically over the decades, the format for the project's 30-minute presentations has remained consistent. A male and a female stand before a slide show and talk about their characters’ feelings about and mistakes regarding sex and sexuality. One of the performers is always an actor, and one a medical student.
Julie Banderas, Professor of Medicine at UMKC, is one of the project’s co-directors and responsible for recruiting the med students. She says some of them are initially nervous about performing beside a trained actor (though Cordes calls the scripts "actor-proof") yet they have found the experience meaningful.
"They say, ‘I can’t do this because I’m not an actor,'" Banderas says. "But I can say, ‘You don’t have to be an actor. You’re just telling a story'.
"This project speaks to them because they’re interested in reaching out to adolescents and telling them things they wish they’d known. They all talk about how it’s changed their lives."
The Bigger Picture
Cordes believes the importance of the project isn’t necessarily found in the medical details about such factors as transmission rates and risk behaviors. She sees its value through a wider lens, one that focuses on the nature of human sexuality itself.
"Sexuality for kids – like for adults too – is so much about identity, so much about loneliness, about trying to fit in, trying to find their place in the world. So those parts of the story live there separate from the information," she says.
"It’s about escape, about dreaming, about being bored – it’s just there. It’s just what it is."
The Damage Done
It is that very philosophy that informs Frank Wedekind’s play Spring Awakening, which he published in 1891 yet only lived to see a few productions. But it got a huge boost in recognition with the hit musical adaptation of the 2006 Broadway season that won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Seen through the eyes of a group of post-pubescent kids in a small town, it is at heart about the irreparable damage adults can do to young people when matters of sex and sexuality are kept hidden or wildly distorted.
Coterie Artistic Director Jeff Church says linking the anniversary of their education outreach projects and the play makes perfect sense
"It’s such a unique piece that continues to obsess everyone who reads it," he said on a break from a recent rehearsal. "When they made this rock musical version with Duncan Sheik’s music inside of that, that also shocked people, that the source material, the text inside the musical - which is not altered at all - is pretty faithful.
"Not all the teenagers end up in a mess. Some do. Many do. But some of them kind of find coping ways. The themes of the two are the very same."
Because of the show’s mature themes, the Coterie will be staging Spring Awakening only in the evenings for ages 13 and up, while the day schedule features a play for younger audiences, Dear America: Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie.
Spring Awakening, September 6-30, at The Coterie Theatre at Crown Center, 2450 Grand, Kansas City, MO, 816-474-6552 (Box Office). This production is part of the Coterie At Night Series, for ages 13 and up.