Lonely Planet reading explores AIDS epidemic through friendship

Geneseo saw the second of this semester’s department of theater and dance’s staged readings on Thursday Oct. 13—a play that boldly explored the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Lonely Planet, written by Steven Dietz, was directed by theater and communication double major senior William Gfeller. It also starred communication major senior Casey Churches and musical theater major sophomore Brian Sousis.

Performed in the Robert Sinclair Theatre, the staged readings give students the opportunity to hone their directing and acting skills. They are produced in partial fulfillment of professor Randy Kaplan’s Directing II course. Students handpick their own production to produce, cast the actors and direct the play for performance in the class.

Gfeller directed two staged readings prior to Lonely Planet. His previous plays lacked staging, however, and instead focused on the actors’ voices as they simply read from their scripts. This is his first fully staged performance, complete with blocking, props, sound, costumes and lighting cues.

Gfeller said he strived for a sense of realism when he chose Lonely Planet as his third staged reading. He was drawn to the play because it depicted the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the context of friendship, rather than with a romantic or family relationship like most other works in the canon of AIDS drama.

“It’s just important to understand that if you don’t acknowledge [the HIV/AIDS epidemic], you’re going to forget it,” Gfeller said. “It’s important that it retains its place in our cultural dialogue.”

Dietz’s masterpiece, while still considered to be a modern text, first premiered in 1993 after the epidemic that caused so much hysteria. Although many people are still affected by the disease today, Gfeller and his actors engaged in multiple discussions during rehearsals and did research in order to better understand the main issue of the play.

With only two actors involved, the play is very dependent on their relationship. Luckily, Gfeller, Churches and Sousis are longtime best friends.

“There were a lot of laughs … and a lot of tears,” Gfeller said. Their personal relationship inevitably affected the rehearsal process.

Following every staged reading, there is a “talk-back” in which the audience, the actors and the director exchange comments and opinions and ask questions. The talk-backs resemble Q&A sessions, while also acting as a discussion, so that by the end the conversation, audience members, actors and director alike are all sharing thoughts on the work.

The ability to talk in an open discussion immediately after seeing a production is one of the greatest parts of the college’s staged reading program—it successfully gets everyone involved and allows for different perspectives to be shared.

Upcoming staged readings include Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” as adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by theater and English adolescent education double major senior Benjamin Ranalli on Thursday Oct. 20 and Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes, directed by communication and musical theatre double major senior Brittani Samuel on Nov. 17.

All staged readings directed by students are free admission.