Monday, August 30, 2010

Adam's up to

253 playwrights now. The latest is someone named Anthony Weigh. I'm not familiar with his writing, but I do enjoy this interview. The below seems an appropriate bit to excerpt here, particularly in light of a recent FWL post.

English theater can tend to be preoccupied by a kind of politically topical social realism. John Osbourne casts a long shadow in England. There are exceptions to the rule, but they are rare. Churchill is NOT the norm. Quite a lot of plays set in living rooms on housing estates about two young lads smoking drugs, while one of their sisters comes of age, and another of their sisters struggles with obesity, and an uncle who's a bit of a paedo, a father trying in vain to get a job and/or come out of the closet, and a Mother who's battling the bottle and attempting to save the planet from global warming while breeding fighting dogs.

Also, the staged landscape is often benign. It's not for nothing that Pinters' plays happen in kitchens and living rooms and attics. The English natural environment is soft, toothless. There is nothing dangerous about place in England as there can be in Scotland or Russia or Canada or Australia. This is reflected in the writing. As a result you will almost always encounter a sofa in a room somewhere in an English play.

[...]

Having said all that, the English have a wonderful ear for the unsaid. Drama as a kind of dance of longing and unfulfilled hopes. The excruciating pain of the fumbled encounter. The badly handled joke. The silently cooling cup of tea placed on the kitchen table. The half remembered slight that led to the death of a child. No one does that better.
Well said.

I'm just getting around

to reading this New York Magazine profile of James Franco, which highlights his irrepressable energy and pursuit of learning, along with the curious performance-art element of his career and persona.

I started reading it wanting to be really cynical about it, but he comes off even more adorable by then end of it, perhaps in part due to the author's starstruck encounters with him. Regardless, it's hard to deny he's more fascinating than most Hollywood heartthrobs.

The whole thing's worth reading, but this one bit really stood out to me--

He’s systematically challenging mass-cultural norms. Franco, you might say, is queering celebrity: erasing the border not just between gay and straight but between actor and artist, heartthrob and intellectual, junk TV and art museum. His obvious relish for gay roles challenges the default heterosexuality of Hollywood leading men like Clooney or Pitt. He seems more interested in fluidity, in every sense, than in a fixed identity. As a commenter on the website Queerty put it: He’s the World’s Gayest Heterosexual! But he’s also the world’s most heterosexual gay, the world’s highest lowbrow, and the world’s most ironic earnest guy. It is also possible that he’s just engaged in the world’s most public, and confused, coming-out process.
I do love that.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Brandy just sent me

this link and I have to say I cannot possibly be more relieved upon reading it.

Frances Bean Cobain has reportedly moved in with Marianne Faithfull.

The 18-year-old - who was recently released from her grandmother's guardianship - has planned to spend the next year at Faithfull's home in Paris while she works on her art.

A source told The Sun: "Frances has a strong relationship with Marianne.

"She's her Bohemian grandmother."
I like to think that she's the bohemian grandmother of us all.

This seems an apt song for the occasion--



And here's a special bonus, just because.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wrapping this up

Previously on FWL. Also this and this.

I guess that's why I find all this bluster so frequently tiring, whether it's an insistence that theater must be nothing like TV or film, or like old school realism, or whatever other formal rules one wants to arbitrarily place on the creative process. It wants to ignore the obvious and unavoidable historical relationships we all have with the past, with the history of the form. Even rejection is reaction, engagement, interaction. TV, film, realism, the avant garde -- to me they seem impossible to fully separate, and they all have reserves of excitement and utter boredom to spare.

And of course, as tiring as it all is, I also understand that this bluster, this impulse, with all its naivete (or, if I want to be cynical about it, its hypocrisy or dishonesty), is essential to the progression of the art form. Pinter parodies the kitchen sink. Annie Baker gets fed up with realism altogether, then finds her voice in its continuing evolution by alluding stylistically to Pinter while looking for surrealism in realism. The Living Theater tests the boundaries of the audience relationship a generation ago. British directors do the same with their own very specific intentions. I get it. It's necessary.

I guess I can live with the bluster if it helps give the audiences something new and exciting to see, something to get them in the seats.

I still think critics ought to know better, though.

Thinking about the audience

Here's that long post I never quite finished. See here and here for background.

I guess the idea I've been circling as I've written these posts is this: How do we innovate the form while creating work that is viable for its stages, whether economically, stylistically, or in regards to its accessibility?

Circle may be the operative word there; reading over my old posts I discovered this is something I've addressed before:
I just wonder if the real question is how does an author or performer (or audience member) learn to balance or distill the more demanding performative or innovative aspects of a work in order to better engage with its story or its meaning.
It goes without saying that we have all chosen to work within the strictures of this form -- even the avant garde has its traditions, its formalism, beginning with the most traditional element of all: the relationship between the audience and the players. It may vary but has it ever been monumentally reimagined?

The closest thing I've heard of lately was in reading this Ben Brantley article in the NYTimes about what's going on in London right now, specifically an opera based on The Duchess of Malfi, and a short original play called You Me Bum Bum Train.
“Bum Bum” puts you at the spotlighted center of a cast that can run into hundreds; “Malfi” underlines, in exasperating and tantalizing ways, your helplessness (and perhaps your guilt) as an anonymous, voyeuristic spectator.

[...]

It was “Bum Bum” and “Malfi,” though, that received the most attention as emblems of a flourishing new cultural movement, one that purports to redefine what it means to be part of an audience in the early 21st century.
And yet we still call it an audience, don't we? Brantley goes on--
Relatively recent antecedents to “Malfi” and “Bum Bum” may be found in the 1960s, when cultural orthodoxies were under heavy and contemptuous siege, and troupes like the Living Theater were notorious for theatrical events in which actors (sometimes naked) snaked and stormed their way through their audiences, stroking, shaking and clutching. Spontaneity — the seeming opposite of being well rehearsed — was a watchword of such occasions; so was serendipity. The idea of happenings was that anything could happen. We would all find our primal selves and connect as we never had before; even if it wasn’t pleasant, it would be beautiful.
And there's another legendary theatrical precursor, The Living Theater. But I digress.

It appears London is having a moment with this trend; I've been paying a bit of attention to this new show by Mike Bartlett, Earthquakes in London at the Royal National, directed by Rupert Goold (the director behind Enron). Here's a quote from the review in the Telegraph--
What’s surprising, however, is how much fun this dark show provides. In a co-production between the NT and Goold’s Headlong company, the Cottesloe auditorium has been spectacularly transformed. Many in the audience sit on bar stools at curvy counters on which the actors perform. At either end of the auditorium there are two raised proscenium arch stages for more intimate scenes, and throughout the play combines the political and the personal, bruising family drama and off-the-wall humour. One moment you are voyeurs at a burlesque show, the next watching appalled as a family of three sisters tear themselves to shreds....
For all this experimentation with the audience experience, it seems most appealing to me when it's essential to the substance of the work. As much fun as Earthquakes in London sounds, it's Malfi that really sounds provocative where that's concerned. Here's more from Brantley--
Physically this “Duchess of Malfi” may allow unusually up-close-and-personal access to its mise-en-scène. Yet I’ve never attended a show at which I felt so utterly disconnected from the performers.

“Malfi” leaves you feeling powerless, confused, both overfed and underfed, and slightly contaminated. And though the production is as live as theater gets, it also approximates the everyday emotions of watching passively as the world is parsed, segmented and scattered on different screens. Its chilling suggestion — appropriate to an era drowning in an excess of disparate images — is that even as you feast on a surfeit of lurid vignettes, you, the audience, will never know the whole story.
And yet, the show, for all its seeming interest in alienating the audience or accentuating its passivity, can't negate the audience altogether. You can't seek to alienate something and ignore it at the same time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

I have one other long post

but it's making me tired. Maybe I'll put it up later. In the meantime, here's some Blondie. Just cuz.



More on that Annie Baker interview

See here for the pertinent quote.

In that interview Baker goes on to say--
[P]utting information in for the sake of having that information makes me want to die a little. Audiences need way less exposition and backstory than we think they do.
I think this is true, and it also recalls Pinter's insistence on characters we know nothing about being as dramatically viable as characters who've told us their life stories. I think about that assertion all the time, particularly when I get hung up about how things have to be in order for the story to be successful, or meet whatever conventional classifications would make it viable for production in the eyes of those who make the decisions.

Of course I also took personal pleasure in reading this interview, because there's great stuff in there for the writer in me. The longer I write the more frustrated I become with the more or less required conventional elements of the form, the dishonesty of them. I'm not suggesting I've rejected realism the way Baker was thinking of doing way back in 2007, and anyway I know these recent blog posts are pretty strong evidence I don't have much problem with it.

I just find with greater frequency as I get older that the pat solutions, the emphasis on resolution, sentimentality, and so many other hallmarks of the form just seem inadequate to create a theater experience with much semblance of sincerity. I find myself responding by doing the opposite of what Baker does; I once got a diplomatic rejection letter saying my script was a little too "revved up" for their theater. Lately I'm fixating on depictions of violence in (mine and others') plays, and I'm really big on writing in all caps as well, to the point that it's starting to irritate me.

And that gets at the bigger problem. I start to irritate myself and smooth everything out in the rewrites. Sometimes I think it seriously works to my favor (it took me about 4 drafts of rewrites on my new play, Bumblefuck, AR, to get it organized and working well enough to figure out what the hell I was getting at), but then sometimes I bristle at the notion that all the conventional story insistences have to take place in my seemingly realistic narrative. And at the same time I kind of shrug at the inevitability of my attempt to address those insistences in some form or fashion as I rewrite.

I still think I try to innovate, to push myself, and to challenge what I feel is the kind of theater that seems hackneyed, overly familiar, safe, easy, etc. Mostly I'm just trying to write things that work and might be read by lit offices with a modicum of interest. Still theatrical. Hopefully challenging, but not unaccessible.

So it's a conundrum, I suppose. The conditions of the form we've chosen to write in.

I just finished reading

Annie Baker's The Aliens in the July/August issue of American Theatre. She has some nice insights in an accompanying interview by Stuart Miller. It's not available online, unfortunately, but you can pick up a copy to read the whole thing. There are some more ideas here that relate to some of what I was getting at in previous posts.

Here's my favorite bit--
I did reach a point in 2007 when I was completely fed up with what we call "naturalism," and I thought that maybe there was no point in even trying to write that way anymore. But the dream -- the dream of what naturalism could be if we let it out of its creepy, pseudo-intellectual, watered-down, lame-o Off-Broadway cage -- kept haunting me. Because the way people really talk is so strange. If you transcribe a conversation, it sounds nothing like the so-called naturalistic plays they put up at most big nonprofits. If anything, ti sounds more like the writing of Mac Wellman and Richard Maxwell and Anne Washburn, people who are still considered pretty experimental and "downtown."

So at some point in 2007 I decided that I was going to try to write the kind of naturalistic play that I wanted to see, a naturalistic play that paid such insane attention to everyday detail that everyday detail would become defamiliarized and incredibly strange. Like standing really close to an Impressionist painting and just staring at the blobs of paint. What am I saying? In real life we're silent and bored and inarticulate a lot of the time, and yet in most so-called naturalistic theatre it always feels to me like the writer and director are trying to pretend that life is high-paced and exciting and that everyone likes to talk about feeling and ideas in an intelligent way that relates back to a central theme. I'm way more interested in staring at the paint blobs. The paint blobs of silence.

The painter Francis Bacon said this great thing about painting that I find very relevant to playwriting: "You're trying to make an image of appearance that is conditioned as little as possible by the accepted standards of what appearance is."
Here again we have a tradition of an innovative young playwright pushing the medium forward by reacting to and interacting with the dominant style. Her frustration is hardly new; it's a more specific expression of what the folks at Psittacus were getting at (and I wrote about here). Further, the interviewer compares her use of pauses and silences to Pinter, linking her to another innovator of the form, one who was likely reacting to the staleness of traditional realism in a similar way. To different ends than Baker, of course, but that's one of the lovely things about the creative process. Out of similar frustrations come a whole host of creativity, whether it's a great new movement in literature, Cassavettes, Dogma 95, or a hotshot new playwright working to make realism as edgy and fresh as an avant garde painter.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Nina Simone

is bubbling up a lot for me lately. I went on a Youtube spiral yesterday thanks to The Wicked Stage, which features a vintage clip of her singing "Mississippi Goddam" right now.

She's pretty outstanding in this one, as is her outfit.



And I thought I'd post the next one in tribute to MilkMilkLemonade at Rogue Machine. It's a charming show and my friend Hollace is in it. They've been doing late nights but let's hope it extends some more and does some more prime time performances. Go see it if you can.

Friday, August 13, 2010

I've been reminded of

something I wrote in an email to another playwright a few years ago that further elaborates on all this. There was some kind of "realism conversation" happening on some listserv we both subscribed to, and I typed this up. It seems like the best summation I could come up with on all this.
I don't think it's fair to dismiss realism anymore than it's fair to dismiss experimental theater just on the basis of its form. And we should also bear in mind that some of our best and most pioneering realists could also be called experimentalists because of the subversive ways they manipulate the form -- Pinter, August Wilson, Mamet at his best, Albee...I don't think it's too much of a stretch to suggest that all of the major, canonical realists do this and that's exactly why they're still read and performed. Even major writers I consider to be seriously experimental -- like Suzan-Lori Parks, for instance -- do so (at least partially) in the context of realism.

Frankly, I think calling any play "realistic" anymore is insufficient. In fact, realism has gone through so many different permutations at this point that it seems only slightly more specific than calling a piece of theater "a play."

The bemoaned kitchen sink

I was just checking out LAStageblog this morning and saw this post by Greta McAnany about Psittacus Productions and their new show, A Tale Told by an Idiot. It made me want to expound a little bit on the post I wrote the other day about theater and TV.

McAnany leads with the following--
In a city pegged for its legendary film industry, it is easy for theatre to find its identity somewhat wrapped up in that of the silver screen. With over 500 theatres scattered about greater Los Angeles and near-by counties, plays often lean toward the “kitchen sink drama” of reality TV and sitcoms, showcasing the talent rather than the story.
A few things occur to me on reading this paragraph:
1) This writing contains a no-brainer of an organizing principle for a feature piece about an L.A. theater group that prides itself on being experimental, but I’m not sure I trust it to hold up to scrutiny.

2) I like the title of the LAStageblog post, "Psittacus: Searching for LA's Theatre Identity," but based on the article it sounds like their leaders think they've found it already. And they're not impressed.

3) I’m also not sure how the phrase “kitchen sink drama” applies to reality TV or sitcoms, or how “kitchen sink drama” showcases “the talent rather than the story.” If there’s anything reliable about kitchen sink drama, it’s the story.

4) It’s obvious from the first paragraph of this story that “kitchen sink drama” is really just code for “story driven conventional realism.” The subjects of the post go on to reiterate this.
The phrase “kitchen sink drama” is synonymous with “kitchen sink realism,” a name given to a movement in British drama in the late 50s and early 60s. It’s the whole John Osborne Look Back in Anger “Angry Young Man,” drama, very working class, very domestic, very much an extension of the mid-century Social Realism that was so prevalent at the time. It’s been a subject of parody since Pinter hit his stride (my understanding of The Homecoming was helped by viewing it as a wicked parody of these types of plays); its bad rap is certainly nothing new.

The only truly kitchen sink play I’ve seen in Los Angeles this year was The Subject Was Roses, (an American spin on the style from 1964), memorable precisely because of the working kitchen onstage. As old-fashioned as that show felt, even it seemed a modern, quietly poetic elaboration on the form. (And old-fashioned or no, I still admire that script.)

As for comparing television and film to kitchen sink realism, I certainly don’t see reality TV as an apt comparison so I'm not even going to bother with that. I imagine that sitcoms often get this rap because of the domestic scenes and three-camera format. But I only know of two (successful) three-camera sitcoms on the networks today, The Big Bang Theory and Two-and-a-Half Men. Anyone paying attention to TV over the past 10 years or so knows that shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock have all but made that format obsolete. And even the successful 3-camera shows I mention above don’t fit neatly into the domestic clichés these theater folk want to indict them with. There may be other clichés to mention, but I’ll let someone else write about those.

The best correlatives I can come up with for the kind of kitchen sink style of domestic comedy or drama on television (at least in sitcoms) are possibly 20 years old. Roseanne, perhaps? I think that just might be the most authentic iteration since Norman Lear, specifically because of its working-class bite. Twenty years ago, folks. And that was before the series got all crazy and Ab Fab at the end.

In short: kitchen sink drama is not a prevalent aesthetic movement, on stage or screen. It's not choking the life out of the Los Angeles stage, or any other stage, for that matter. This is a 50-60 year old (primarily) British phenomenon with very specific characteristics, some of which might’ve lingered on the American stage and screen, but I'd hesitate to suggest that it's fashionable even in the most conservative backwaters of the world stage. To describe all that is not experimental, or all that one perceives to be conventional, as “kitchen sink drama,” is imprecise, at the very least.

See below for more quotes from this article to get why I find this problematic--
Kitchen sink drama is exactly what we are reacting against,” says Psittacus Executive Director Louis Butelli. Just as Psittacus suggests, Butelli and co-founders Chas LiBretto (Managing Director) and Robert Richmond (Artistic Director) are spreading their wings and taking flight on a journey to give the theatre its own identity in Los Angeles.
Just as an aside, is it the author of the article or the artists themselves who make such a claim? Oh, never mind. Moving on.
Psittacus Productions began in February 2010 when Butelli, LiBretto and Richmond, who have a history of collaboration, decided they needed a distraction after their move to the West Coast. “In a city with so many artists it was surprising to us to find theatre was less theatrical….”
Substitute "theatrical" with "spectacular" and you've got no argument with me. You've even got Aristotle on your side. I'm just always disappointed to hear artists (or various other theater professionals) claim the adjective “theatrical” only for their own preferred style while dismissing or condescending to that which they find alienating for whatever aesthetic reason suits their arguments.

Lest anyone want to brand me as some enemy of the avant-garde, check here, here and here for my writing on the subject. I’m not interested in marginalizing work that seeks to defy convention – Psittacus’ show sounds exciting to me – I just bristle at easy generalizations about the theater. Or anything else, for that matter.

Post for Dr. Laura

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!
Jerk.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Apropos of not much

Leigh Morris reacts to Colin Mitchell's and Don Shirley's reactions to Morris' and Charles McNulty's reactions to 99-seat theater at LAWeekly's Stage Raw.

Here's a highlight.
[Bitter Lemons'] Colin [Mitchell]'s main beef was that the cordial tone between McNulty and me was too effete. He was annoyed by what he perceived to be McNulty's disconnect from the small theater community. Though Colin conceded that I did challenge some of the assumptions McNulty was making about showcase theater in Los Angeles, I think he wanted me to bite McNulty in the throat and sever an artery.

[...]

Well, civility was maintained last week between Charles and me, to the point of conjuring images for Colin of two dudes in tuxedos sipping cocktails.
Translation: Theater critics everywhere, it's about time you all BUTCHED UP.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Jon Robin Baitz in the LATimes

There's an interesting profile of Baitz in today's Calendar section regarding his new play, Other Desert Cities, and its upcoming reading at Ojai. I imagine this paragraph might get quoted a bit--
Baitz also has found teaching to be reinvigorating, although he has mixed feelings about graduate programs in playwriting. "I didn't go to college," he explained. "My MFA program was going to Seattle Rep, the Taper Lab, any number of smaller theaters … the Padua Playwrights Festival. But the American theater has changed so dramatically. That system where you could go to the regional theaters and develop work easily has sort of collapsed, mostly due to the finances, so the MFA programs have become the houses of development."
You can read the rest here.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

RE that McNulty/Morris dialogue

If there's any one bit of rhetoric in the article I find increasingly tiring, it's this--
Charles McNulty: Theater always needs to be interrogating itself, examining what separates the stage from TV and film. This line of inquiry may seem rarefied, a preoccupation of the avant-garde, but it's fundamental. Why venture outside of your house, deal with traffic and parking, if the kind of drama you've traveled to see is available on HBO with a stellar cast?
Uhm, how’s this? Because the kind of drama we’ve traveled to see isn’t available on HBO. Because HBO is a different medium. Because theater is a live experience happening in real time in front of our faces.

The kind of stale drawing room/living room naturalism I tend to find the most dated actually predates television entirely. I would personally be thrilled to see some of pay cable’s more ambitious approaches to story on our local stages. It still wouldn’t be like I’m watching TV, though. Because I wouldn’t be.

This "theater is too much like TV" mindset is frustrating to me because, A) I don't think there's a great deal of truth to it, or if there is it's still an easy oversimplification; and B) the implication is that it's the fault of unimaginative playwrights and theater artists who don't have the vision to take advantage of the art form's full potential. This implication takes no real account of the political and economic climate in which work is produced, and how these factors influence artistic trends.

Theater is not like TV. Or film. They are different media. I don’t understand this constant insistence on creating some kind of hierarchy of value and quality designed to make theater appear the slumming poseur wannabe who ought to know better, who can only achieve its full potential by either classing up, or by inserting dance sequences, arch, self-consciously poetic dialogue, or some other vague signifier of its “theatricality” that seems as shallow as it is constantly shifting with conventional tastes. I hear this sentiment from critics and theater professionals of various stripes all the time and I usually feel like they're the ones who ought to know better.

I often wonder if we’d see more substantial theater on our stages if we were less concerned with “how is it theatrical?” as a code phrase for the knee-jerk “How is this not like TV or the movies?” and more concerned with, “What makes this stageworthy? What makes it, well, substantial?”

I don’t see theater as too often derivative of film or television. What I see instead is an art form that remains in constant interaction or reaction to traditional (TV, film, and theatrical) realism. I see that as partially a testament to the dominance and constant evolution of the aesthetic movement, but it's also linked to a cultural and economic conservatism that may occasionally loosen its grip on the form but never really lets go.

Of course this links to McNulty’s words of concern later in the article with how the economy is affecting the art form.
My experience over the last 4 1/2 years has been colored more by the recession than by anything else. The fallout on the arts, which was insidious at first, has been devastating of late. More and more theaters are going dark. More and more have adopted a survivalist box-office mentality. The recovery phase may be brightening the mood on Wall Street, but it hasn't hit the cultural sector yet.

My faith in the leadership of our largest institutions isn't exactly at an all-time high. I think the turnaround will come through grassroots efforts. The smaller theaters, unencumbered by institutional baggage, are better positioned to make an authentic connection with an audience right now. I hope they will seize the opportunity. It will require self-honesty, self-criticism and self-discipline — qualities most of us struggle with on a daily basis. The work is happening, but it's erratic. And it needs to deepen if it's to have a more profound impact.
All of this makes sense to me, and indicates he has sensitivity to the relationship between commerce and fashion in the art form. It's as inevitable as the understanding that playwrights like David Lindsay-Abaire make their mark with plays like Fuddy Meers and win Pulitzers for Rabbit Hole.

How these ideas can co-exist with the dismissive, “why couldn’t this have been on TV or film?” is beyond me. No wait, I can actually answer that question. Odds are it couldn’t have been on TV or film because work in those industries is hard to get and, in places where theater is actually affordable to produce, it becomes a viable means of production for people to get their work out there. Devalue that as a "showcase" if you want to, but it’s also just a response to a set of circumstances.

But then maybe it couldn’t have been on TV or film because the playwright didn’t want it to be. Maybe the playwright has a great interest in the challenges that the stage provides to his or her writing. Maybe the playwright is not a wannabe television writer or a screenwriter, but in fact, an actual playwright, writing plays. If she’s writing in a form of realism that seems familiar to you, is that a condition of the work’s lack of invention or something that’s integral to the story that’s being told? Most of us do know what we’re doing. Maybe it’s onstage because, to paraphrase a good friend of mine, "we deem it so."

Friday, August 06, 2010

Charles McNulty and Steven Leigh Morris in the LAT

The two leading L.A. theater critics talk about the 99-seat scene in the city here. I'm still sorting through it and might update with thoughts.

UPDATE: I have no big complaints with this article, although I'm inclined to agree with Bitter Lemons that it's a bit of a snooze-fest. I'd also agree that McNulty still doesn't show much evidence that he sees the amount of small theater in L.A. that qualifies him to participate in a piece like this.

There was one big thing that stuck in my craw, though. I'll post it in a separate entry.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

I stumbled across

a feature in the NYTimes about the late Judith Peabody, a socialite who did important philanthropic and volunteer work for the GMHC at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York. There's a lot of great stuff in the article; see below for highlights.

What made Judith Peabody stand out on the philanthropic circuit was a level of involvement far from typical of women on the charity-ball circuit. Wading into a mysterious viral epidemic, Mrs. Peabody — figuratively, at least — rolled up her sleeves.

As early as 1985, Mrs. Peabody...turned up unannounced at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis office to offer herself as a volunteer.

[...]

There was little mystery...about the stigma associated with the disease, particularly, as Marjorie J. Hill, the director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, said, among gay men. “Gay men with AIDS were the scourge of the earth” in the days when Mrs. Peabody first waded into the midst of the epidemic, Ms. Hill said. “There was this constant with her of consoling and holding people’s hands.”

It may seem far-fetched now to suggest that there was anything unusual about clasping the hand of a person with AIDS. But, as Ms. Hill said, even some medical personnel were fearful of touch.

“Judy would go into hospitals, immaculately, spectacularly dressed in Dior and Gucci, and she would see a meal tray sitting outside a room,” where an orderly had left it. “And Judy, with her mink coat in her arm, would bring dignity to the situation by letting everyone know that she was best friends with the chief of the board of the hospital and that they had better get that tray into the room.”
Read the rest here.