I first became aware of Dan Glass through some climate activist friends of mine who were part of the group Plane Stupid. They told me of an action he had done in which he had tried to super glue himself to Gordon Brown. This kind of action seems typical of Glass who for many years has dedicated himself to causes of environmental and social justice. He is currently living in Berlin working on a project that will bring together the descendants of Nazis and their victims, and work at how everyone can begin to put the past behind them. One of his main focuses is also campaigning against the cuts to HIV/AIDS services in the UK, of which his show Shafted has become an unexpected vehicle for. Shafted is at The Pleasance Cabaret Bar, 19th and 20th of June @ 20:30.
So how did the idea for Shafted come about?
I was saying to my mate Tilly that I was finding it frustrating speaking to so many friends who were getting upset finding out I was HIV positive. It was taking up a lot of time and energy. I was like “How can I deal with this?” and she was like “I know, why don’t you do some sort of coming out show to all of your mates and family at once. We’ll get a venue and do a big raucous show about being [HIV] positive and the realities of it but doing it in a really celebratory way, rather than a “We’re all gonna die” kind of way.” So that’s how it came about, a coming out show, almost like Stars in Their Eyes, where you tell your story from infection to what it’s meant to you in terms of friends and lovers. We’ve got a nine-foot giant cock that is also a human canon, so then you walk behind stage get into the giant cock and get blasted across the stage. It’s taking a heavy issue and making it digestible. Fear is paralysing, so how can we talk about it and laugh about it and play with an issue?
That must have been very difficult to do, what kind of reception did you get?
I did it with my story twice, the first one was in a church, then for the second one The Arches picked it up. It was good doing it there because it was bit more formal; we had a director, we had a choreographer, we had a budget. But it was really strange coming out twice because a lot of people were like “Yeah we know Dan, shut up!” so it kind of defied the point a bit for me. It was a different audience but for the first one I was much more nervous. The second one, I loved but it was a bit less shocking. We’ve been asked to go to Australia and India, South Africa and America. It will be great to take the giant cock all over the world. I may come out again in other cities but in Scotland again it would be a bit strange. It did its job for me because it enabled me to talk about it publically, because some people, like I did for many years, just deal with it on their own, in their mind.
You obviously have a very personal connection to the show. How does it make you feel seeing your mantle being taken up by other people?
So there’s a new person/protagonist for each show, now it’s a guy called Billy. He’s so funny, he was the chair of the UK wide Lulu fan club. It feels really good to be able to enable somebody to go through the same process. For me it kind of worked because you’re taking an issue you find hard to deal with, you take risks and you do a show about it. To be able help someone else is really great, I feel very lucky. There are various other parts, which are sort of set pieces for the tour, but the storytellers will be different.
So there’s a framework to fill around and the protagonist personalises it with their story.
Exactly. It’s also about that person having the best night of their life. So for example in this one, Billy loves Lulu so we’re having lots of Lulu in it. He’s got loads of his mates in the show, he’s going to have his mum on the stage because he’s got a really close relationship with his mum. He’s going to be singing on stage because he loves singing. So all the things he loves, having the best night of his life, talking about something that is so meaningful to him. And enabling something really beautiful to happen, it’s really great to see.
I think with HIV, as with many issues, people are bored of the sincerity, the earnestness and the internalised seriousness. Humour is not about trivialising an issue, it’s about making it more digestible. We want to actually challenge the government when it comes to cuts to services. The show is just the centre piece in a wider body of activism. For example we’ve done loads of actions. We went to Atos in Glasgow, we went to their office with loads of people with HIV and some friends and used the cock as a battering ram, and blasted the doors open with the cock. It was excellent. The poor secretary at the door.
So what are the political goals of Shafted?
The ultimate goals domestically are: stopping cuts to education and prevention services. So to give the statistics: there’s been 41% cuts in London, up to 80% in Wales and with the welfare reform bill in Scotland there’s real threats to the health services here as well, and of course there’s the UK wide threat to the NHS. There’s a rise in transmission levels across the UK but the highest rise in transmission levels is with middle-aged straight women, for many reasons. One is a higher rate of divorce and therefore sleeping with different partners. Also the propaganda isn’t targeted at middle-aged straight women. For example my mate went undiagnosed for ten years, she’s 50, a straight woman. She was really sick but the doctors never gave her an HIV test, they just assumed she wasn’t. It’s ridiculous, when there’s a rise in transmission levels, why are there cuts to education and prevention? I got it because I didn’t know a Scooby about HIV, I should have done but I didn’t.
That’s the domestic issue but globally it’s about ACT-UP, who are the people we’re doing the whole show in tribute to, their ultimate goal is fighting until there’s a cure for everyone across the world. I think that’s totally possible, it can happen if there’s the political will, as with everything. Of course it’s a racial issue, it’s a homophobic issue. If it was mainly targeting white, rich straight people they’d obviously put the money into it.
But your friend with HIV is white and straight. Is enough being done?
It’s getting worse in many ways, what’s being called the Second Silence is what we’re in now. The First Silence being the 80s and 90s when it all started and the Second Silence now because: 1 – The rise in transmissions, 2 – Cuts to services and 3 – That people think it was something that was resolved in the 80s, so there’s less funding. Where do I think things will go? Building a wider direct action movement. I’ve had so many people like “You don’t need to protest, just speak to ministers.” And I’m like “No of course we need to protest. I’ve had mates who have died on me because the government aren’t doing enough.” The predictions are that there’ll be 1 billion people by 2020 who are HIV positive, unless things are curbed now.
After years of activism, how have you enjoyed the artistic process of creating Shafted?
I’ve never considered myself an artist but it’s very much a collaboration between artists and activists. It’s been very interesting seeing the creation of arts and activism. It’s making it political, making it fun, making it easier for people. It’s a process of grieving as well. Take the example of HIV, in maybe more of a subconscious way you grieve for the loss of your health, your pride, your diginity, family, libido. It’s a healing process as well. Better out than in. Loads of my mates now, because it’s been such an imaginative and fun process, have got on board. They wouldn’t have got on board if we’d have been like “Can you just sign this petition?” and now they’re all HIV activists in their own right. They’re much more educated about it now than some people with HIV.