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Art as Response to AIDS : A nonprofit group 'helps people salvage their identity' by helping them become involved in creative projects.


Every Thursday afternoon, a group of veterans gathered at Sepulveda Veterans Affairs Medical Center to talk about AZT, 2DV, CD4's, WBCs and other ubiquitous medical acronyms associated with AIDS. But it was just talk. And the 10 men were tired of talking.

Michael Fletcher, the facilitator of the HIV and AIDS support group that began meeting in 1989, suggested that the men take action. Three members decided to write a play, "The Martian Condition," to communicate that there is life after an HIV or AIDS diagnosis.

Realizing that others with human immunodeficiency virus or acquired immune deficiency syndrome could benefit from creative outlets, Fletcher founded IDEAS Associates in September, 1990.

Based in Encino, the nonprofit organization has since helped dozens with HIV produce art, providing funds and educational and technical support. IDEAS is an acronym that stands for Identity in Existence Artwork Shops.

"Facing a life-threatening experience obviously shakes up one's identity," said Fletcher, seated in his comfortable but cramped Encino office. "After facing denial about an HIV diagnosis and getting educated about AIDS, many people enter another stage. It's either complete loss, like 'Why am I here?' or their whole identity gets tied up in medical care.

"IDEAS helps people salvage their identity--by getting them involved creatively in art projects. We hope the end result is increased longevity."

Working on a slim $18,000 annual budget obtained from private donations, IDEAS has often plumbed the entertainment industry for such resources as script doctors and props for plays. Artists, who work with those resources as well as 140 IDEAS volunteers, must create and manage their own budgets for projects.

"We're there to guide them to sources, provide some funding and stand back and watch the results," Fletcher said. Venues are usually community theaters and art galleries.

"The Martian Condition," the play written by the three veterans, premiered in February at the Catch One Disco in Los Angeles. Centered on the trials of members of an HIV/AIDS support group, the play had two readings at Burbank's Gypsy Playhouse last year.

"Writing and acting has given me an outlet to say what I need to say about this disease," said Rob Taylor, who lives in Woodland Hills and wrote "The Martian Condition" with Michael Saldivar and Sham Hayworth, a producer for TV soap operas. Hayworth died of AIDS in May, 1990.

"After my HIV diagnosis in 1988, I quit my job because of so many doctor's appointments," Taylor said. "I found myself with lots of time on my hands. It was like retirement. If you have nothing to do, you begin to lose the will to live. IDEAS helped give me back a reason to create and live."

IDEAS also produced a radio theater project called "Safe Sex All Ways," which aired on KPFK-FM (90.7) last year. A short film backed by IDEAS, "You're My Thrill," has gone through two rough cuts and needs additional funds for post-production work. Fifteen visual artists have also received help in producing exhibitions.

An IDEAS-sponsored Latino play, "Siempre Intente Decir Algo" (I Always Tried to Say Something), which forms the acronym SIDA, the Spanish equivalency of AIDS, enters production in April and will be performed at the Barnsdall Park theater in Los Feliz later this year. The play is about an attorney who discloses to his family that he is both gay and HIV-positive. IDEAS gave $5,000 to Project Siempre, the group that produced this play, and guided its members in many aspects of its production.

"At least 75% of fund raising goes directly to projects," said Fletcher, whose goal is to establish an arts facility with galleries, studio work areas and a small stage. "Our purpose is not to build a big organization, but to build better artists. We also want them to learn business skills, so we occasionally run workshops that deal with production schedules, budgets and how to write grants. That's our ultimate goal--to see artists become separate and viable.

"That's important. Artwork can survive all of us and go on forever. It's the best shot at immortality we have."


What: IDEAS Associates, 16917 Ventura Blvd., Suite 8, P.O. Box 260817, Encino 91426.

Call: (818) 344-1304.

What: "Crying to Laugh," a benefit to support IDEAS Associates, will be held at the LA Cabaret Comedy Club, 17271 Ventura Blvd.

Hours: 7:30 p.m. Monday.

Price: $15.

Call: (818) 344-1304.

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