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How a pharmaceutical company’s HIV research became immersive theater

How a pharmaceutical company’s HIV research became immersive theater
[Photos: courtesy of Harley & Co.]

Four years ago, when ViiV Healthcare commissioned an ethnographic research study to understand the impact of HIV on black men in Baltimore and Jackson, Mississippi, the pharmaceutical company came away with a set of complex findings. Cultural identity, contextual environment, social structures and lack thereof—they all play a role in contributing to the bleak CDC statistic that, at the current infection rates, one out of every two black men in the U.S. who has sex with men will be infected with HIV in their lifetime.

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ViiV, the HIV-focused joint venture between GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Shionogi, realized it had to think outside the box if it wanted to present the implications of its research in a way that would resonate. Boring old PowerPoint presentations weren’t going to cut it. So it turned to the New York-based creative agency Harley & Co, whose cofounder Sarah Hall is an expert in impactful, experiential design concepts.

“I work a lot from a cognitive neuroscience perspective in thinking about how do we construct environments that literally affect perception and cognition,” Hall tells me. “We brought up a few men to New York who were connected to this research, and I really thought that no one’s going to understand this in a way that they need to be motivated to act if they just hear this in a passive way.”

Harley & Co enlisted a team of “community captains,” who sourced hundreds of personal stories directly from gay and bisexual black men on the front lines of the health crisis. The result is As Much As I Can, an immersive theater project whose script was based on the experiences of HIV-positive men—people who often find themselves ostracized from their communities and lacking the support structures for treatment.

The show was previously presented in Harlem, Baltimore, Jackson, San Diego, and Raleigh, North Carolina. And this week it will come to the Public Theater’s famed Joe’s Pub venue in lower Manhattan, where it will play 10 performances through Monday, September 16.

Left to right: PJ Johnnie, Jason Veasey, Jason C. Brown, Jasmine Rush, Brandon Gill, Marquis Johnson, Dawn L. Troupe, Joel Hurt Jones, Stephanie Berry, Cory Gibson. Bottom row (l-r): Vasthy Mompoint, James Watson, Dimitri Moise, Christian O. Jimenez [Photo: courtesy of Harley & Co.]
Hall says she was inspired in part by popular site-specific works like Sleep No More, the long-running immersive adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But where the primary goal of that show is to entertain and thrill, As Much As I Can is designed to motivate audiences to act and to understand the extent to which we’re all connected to—and complicit in—larger social crises that impact the world. Immersive theater is the perfect vehicle for that, says Hall, because the interactions between audiences and actors trick our brains into thinking we’re having real-world experiences.

“You’re actively being engaged with the show and you’re reacting, and people are interacting with you,” Hall says. “There’s often a very blurry line about whether the person next to you is an actor or somebody who’s watching.”

For ViiV Healthcare, the goal of As Much As I Can may be to raise awareness of a crisis and ultimately boost sales of its portfolio of antiretroviral drugs. But for Hall, who lost a close uncle to AIDS when she was young, the show is personal. It’s also her way of proving that the much-derided, often-obtrusive world of marketing and advertising can be a force for good too.

“I have a profound respect for the fact that we as advertisers—as brands, etcetera—have completely cooped public space,” she says. “So if we’re going to be in it, we need to do something of value. We need to always push to do something that improves the human condition.”

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