Timothy Conigrave fell in love. It was 1976 at Melbourne’s Xavier College, a private secondary school that has graduated one Australian premier, several state governors and a Supreme Court justice. It was the first day of school, and Conigrave, 16, was standing in a crowd of boys, dressed in black jackets with Xavier’s signature red-trimmed lapels.
“On the far side of the crush I noticed a boy,” he later wrote. “I saw the body of a man with an open, gentle face: such softness within that masculinity. He was beautiful, calm. I was transfixed. He wasn’t talking, just listening to his friends with his hands in his pockets, smiling. What was it about his face? He became aware that I was looking at him and greeted me with a lift of his eyebrows. I returned the gesture and then looked away, pretending something had caught my attention. But I kept sneaking looks. It’s his eyelashes. They’re unbelievable.”
Thus began a love story — a real story of love with all of the trials and tribulations and hilarity and sadness that one finds in life but not in romance novels.
Conigrave chronicled his love for John Caleo, the captain of Xavier’s football team, in Holding the Man. His memoir has become one of Australia’s best-selling books, listed as one of the “100 Favorites” by the Australian Society of Authors. And in 2006 it was adapted for the stage. The term “holding the man” is used in Australian rules football to describe a transgression that is penalized.
Holding the Man opens in Los Angeles on Saturday at the Matrix Theatre as the inaugural performance of the Australian Theatre Company. ATC’s co-founders, Nate Jones and Nick Hardcastle, say their goal is ” to harness the huge breadth of Australian creative talent here in L.A. The company will focus on sharing Australian stories and culture and developing new works by Australian artists.”
Holding the Man was a hit in Melbourne and Sydney and in London’s West End. Critics praised it for a portrayal of love and loss that appeals to people gay and straight. In its background is the emergence of the gay rights movement and of AIDS, which took the lives of both Conigrave and Coleo in the early 1990s.
Adam J. Yeend, a member of that pool of Australia talent that Jones and Hardcastle are trying to assemble, plays the part of Caleo in the Los Angeles staging. He remembers well when he first saw the play in Australia.
“It blew my mind,” he said. “I could just barely clap… It’s a beautiful story.”
Yeend, who moved to Los Angeles in 2008, said Holding the Man is “funny in many ways. It’s a great night out at the theatre.”
But Yeend, who is 33, said it’s also a reminder of the early impact of HIV and AIDS to a generation of young men like him who didn’t live through it.
“In the community generally, there’s a complacency toward STDs and HIV,” he said. “The crisis of HIV is not taught. It’s like this is something that happened in the past and it’s forgotten.
“I feel a sense of responsibility with the play. We need to talk about this. We need to be educated.”
Others are Nate Jones (Australian stage production of A Chorus Line and feature film Restraint) as Timothy Conigrave, Cameron Daddo (best known in Australia as the host of Perfect Match and for mini-series The Heroes, Golden Fiddles, Tracks of Glory, Bony, Beaconsfield and Packed to the Rafters and in the U.S. as a regular on series such as She Spies, Hope Island, F/X and Models Inc.), Luke O’Sullivan (Australian theater credits include Alan Ball’s All That I Will Ever Be, Elizabeth Coleman’s Almost With You and the U.S. tour of The Silver Donkey); Adrienne Smith (Australian TV movie Dangerous Remedy and series including City Homicide, Blue Heelers, Neighbours, The Secret Life of Us and We Can Be Heroes) and Roxane Wilson (roles on popular Australian TV series such as Home and Away, Out of the Blue, The Alice and Stingers).
Yeend says he admires Caleo for being a football captain and having the courage to come out as gay in the 1970s. “It was kind of ballsy… I wish he was still around.”
Yeend said the play also has been an amazing experience for him because of Larry Moss, the acting coach who is directing it. “Working with Larry has really kind of rekindled my love for what I do,” he said. “Larry is so specific. Every work is being analyzed. He believes in honoring the writer.”
Yeend’s acting has included roles in Australian stage productions of The Hurting Game, Chain of Fools, The Girl from the West of the City; the lead in the Australian feature film Offing David; Lifetime’s Liz & Dick, World Music Independent Film Festival Best Actor nomination for Alchemy and the lead role in the upcoming An American Piano, which has been accepted for entry at the Cannes Film Festival.
He also has a passion for writing. He wrote and produced Stigma, a web video series in which he portrays a young man who is engaged to a woman and has to come to terms with his homosexuality and a fear that he is infected with HIV.
While he portrays a gay man in Stigma and in Holding the Man, Yeend, who is gay, says that’s not the focus of his acting career. He also says there’s a stereotype about gay men in American film.
“The industry here is missing out on the way they cast gay characters,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be so obvious.”
That stereotype has affected him. “There are those in the industry who have told me I can’t play gay because I don’t look like it.”
“I have a huge problem with the presentation of masculinity in American film,” he said. “I just want to be a dude with vulnerability.”
In Holding the Man, Yeend is that.
Holding the Man opens Saturday at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. and runs Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8 p.m. through June 29. Previews are scheduled for 8 p.m. this Thursday and Friday. Tickets, $34.99, can be purchased online for all but the Friday preview, which is being staged for the benefit of The Thrive Tribe, an HIV advocacy organization whose goal is to “connect, empower and inspire people whose lives have been affected by HIV.” Tickets for Friday night’s performance can be purchased on its site.