Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

Notes de l'auteur

Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens is intended to reflect the broad spectrum of people AIDS has both infected and affected. A correlative objective is to provide a vehicle which can involve a large part of the community in a theatrical response to the AIDS crisis.
Having directed Elegies ... several times in various circumstances, I have a few thoughts I'd like to share with other directors. The structure of the piece is not linear in the traditional sense but what is presented here has been worked out over many productions in front of many audiences.
The rhythm, variety and flow of the running order have proven to be very effective and should not be altered.
Though it is possible for roles to be doubled (or more), I vastly prefer that the show be done with one actor in each role -- making for a cast of 36! The piece has been presented with that size ensemble at the King's Head Theatre in London on a stage measuring 10 feet by 22 feet, so I'm convinced it can be done anywhere. An all-star benefit in L.A. used more than the four singers indicated here, which required less rehearsal time per performer and brought the company to 41.
And a later benefit in New York utilized different singers for each of the quartets and quintet, bring the total number of performers to 51. Though at first glance working with a cast of this size may seem daunting, the piece can be put together with minimal rehearsal time (excepting the director). I've often scheduled one (or two if needed) individual rehearsal per actor (the singers might require more) and then a couple group put-togethers and run-throughs. Because Elegies … is often used as a fund or awareness-raising vehicle, participants (with the blessing of their respective unions) have frequently contributed their talents for little compensation.
Many of the characters are specific types, ages or ethnicities, but others could be played by wildly divergent types (some could even be either men or women). I've tried to give a sense of that in the following character descriptions. When casting this piece, I would encourage potential directors to reach beyond the talent pools with whom they normally work. If you have not worked with or don't know many older actors, children or members of different ethnic groups, here's a chance to broaden your contacts and make the production a true community experience.
I've found accumulation a most effective device for staging -- starting with an empty stage, each actor remaining once having done the monologue. Since the songs are voiced in present tense and therefore reflect those still living with loss and AIDS' other ramifications, it seems fitting that the singers come and go, though when using a lot of singers I’ve often kept them on stage as well.
A brisk pace is most beneficial. Eliminating lag time between monologues can help tremendously. Elegies ... is written in verse but that doesn't mean the actors should punch the rhymes. Better if they tell the stories as naturally as possible and let verse take care of itself. Ad libbing seems not only unnecessary, but detrimental. Rhythm is everything in this piece and when extra syllables, creative comments and lengthy pauses are added, the results are less than satisfying (especially to the ear).
Speaking of the ear -- a note about the music. This is not a typical musical-comedy score and the singers should be comfortable with pop styles. Janet and I lean toward hearing the songs performed on microphones, even in a small space. The style of the music lends itself to that, and the presentational nature of the piece does not make hand-held microphones seem out of place (though body mikes may make staging easier).
A word about the ending. I think it very important that the audience is briefly reminded of each character they've met. Giving each actor a moment to toss confetti in character and then to join in singing the final song allows for that and adds to the celebratory quality we'd like at the end.
My major advice, though, is to have fun with this, which is why I stress casting actors who can play comedy or find the humor in many of the monologues. Janet and I didn't intend for Elegies ... to be a dirge -- rather a celebration of some very important lives. Oddly enough, something which came from such sadness has given us our most enjoyable experiences in the theater. I always tell the cast that it's fairly easy to make an audience cry with this subject matter -- the challenge is to make them laugh. I also urge actors not to cry on stage -- it undercuts that possibility for the audience.
We hope performers and audiences will come together to laugh, reflect on an incredible amount of loss and move to the beat.

Bill Russell
March, 1996
(updated November, 2012)