NEW LEBANON — The Darrow School hosted renowned playwright, author and AIDS activist Larry Kramer April 9-10. During his visit, he worked with students in the writing reflections, theater and video production classes. Students had read his iconic play, “The Normal Heart,” about the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
Kramer began his visit at a dinner April 9 with the writing reflections class. The following day, the class met with him again to discuss “The Normal Heart,” which is being made into a film this year by HBO Films, starring Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo and Jim Parsons and directed by “Glee” and “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy.
His writing process, arts and activism were all topics of discussion. He later met jointly with the theater, film and video production classes. William McGreal, director of performing arts, led the discussion. The students then read and improvised scenes from Kramer’s play.
He talked about his many accomplishments during the assembly, as well as his activism, including the evolution of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GHMC) and ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), both of which he founded. Both, he said, had a huge impact on AIDS activism and public health.
Erin Millin, director of college counseling, and senior Nina Tobin, student body president, led the question and answer forum with Kramer.
When asked how he became an activist, Kramer said that being consistently involved on an issue was key. A person needs to keep moving and not give up. Activists, he said, try to change the world.
He talked about the harsh reality of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Founded in the 1980s, GHMC was the first AIDS/HIV support organization in the nation. ACT UP is an AIDS advocacy and protest organization.
“It was considered a dirty word when I was your age, to be called an activist,” said Kramer.
As an activist, a person needs to know an issue inside and out. He added that a lot of the AIDS/HIV organizations out there now are there because of the work ACT UP started. Kramer said that you need to collect all of the information needed in order to make a difference.
Millin and Tobin asked him what his take was on legalizing gay marriage. Kramer responded that he and his partner want everything a straight couple can have as a legal married couple. He added that it’s been a long fight for this right.
“It’s unfair, we want to be declared equal in all ways,” he said.
The discussion over gay marriage prompted a chat about Kramer’s latest novel, “The American People,” which he has been working on since 1978 and will be published in two volumes next year by Farrar Straus & Giroux. He described the book as a history of homosexuality in America, adding that people need to realize how little has been achieved in the fight for gender equality.
Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” opened Off-Broadway on April 21, 1985 at The Public Theater in New York City, which was founded by Joseph Papp, who produced the play. It holds the record for being the longest-running play. It was also named one of the 100 Best Plays of the Last Century by the National Theatre of Great Britain and its revival on Broadway — beginning April 19, 2011 — has won three Tony Awards.
“It was very satisfying to see and the whole experience was incredibly moving. All of the characters in the play are real,” Kramer said of seeing his play revived on Broadway. He said that the first production of the play was viewed more in the political sense and now he believes it can be looked back on as history.
Kramer also dispensed advice about writing. He said that he writes every day and that it is a process. Using his latest novel “The American People” as an example, he said he had written bits and pieces of it for more than 30 years. He said that there was some unconscious force showing him which way to go with his writing.
Other achievements include a non-fiction book, “Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist,” an assemblage of his political writings from The New York Times and other publications, and his 1978 novel, “Faggots,” continues to be one of the best-selling gay novels.
In addition, he produced and wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s classic novel “Women in Love.” The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award and the film received three additional nominations and a Best Actress Oscar for Glenda Jackson.
Following the assembly, Kramer had lunch with the campus group Spectrum, a student led LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) and ally group. The group included Spectrum’s advisor, Elizabeth Oniskey Ramirez, as well as freshman Adam Fuchs, sophomores Alex Howley and August Shah, juniors Julia Reynolds and Kate Anderson and senior Corey Dale-Miller.
“You need to go out there and live and experience life,” Kramer imparted on Darrow students. “One of the hardest things for recent generations to deal with has been having it be more important to be considered one of the crowd. Don’t be afraid to speak up.”