Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Getting unstuck after the AIDS crisis


Matt Weimer, left, Desiree Rogers, Scott Cox, William Giammona, and J. Conrad Frank make up the world-premiere cast of "Still at Risk" at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema
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Tim Pinckney had reached that pivotal point in a young actor's career: He was finally spending more time on stages than waiting on tables. But he realized that career was over when he had to agree with a casting director's decision not to hire him.

"My best friend was getting sicker and sicker with AIDS, and there was no hope, and every time I left town for a month for an acting job, it was, like, this is a month I should be spending with David," Pinckney said. "I had been offered a role in a big tour, and I told them that if David goes into the hospital, I'm leaving that day. And they said, well, we can't hire you, and I said, I wouldn't hire me either. It was clear that my heart wasn't in it anymore."

Show business wasn't even back-burnered after that. It was off the stovetop entirely, and Pinckney went to work full time at Gay Men's Health Crisis as his friends were dying at an astonishing rate. But from that experience, and results that helped remove the death sentence from a HIV diagnosis, Pinckney has for his new play drawn a character at sea now that the ship he helped command has docked. Kevin, who had been an actor before an activist, is the focal character in "Still at Risk," having its world premiere at New Conservatory Theater Center.

It was nearly 20 years ago that NCTC presented Pinckney's very first play, "Message to Michael," not long after its New York run. Pinckney and NCTC Artistic Director Ed Decker stayed in touch over the years, and when an Actors Fund event he was producing brought Pinckney to the city, Decker asked if the playwright had anything new. Soon he was reading Pinckney's "Still at Risk," and not long after agreed to usher the play through readings and workshops toward its world premiere on Jan. 27.

"Still at Risk" is set in 2005, not long after the HIV treatment breakthroughs of the late 1990s began changing the healthy landscape. The urgency behind Kevin's passions is dissipating, and even as he celebrates, he misses – certainly not the disease's human toll – but the crisis intensity that had been his fuel. "Kevin is in his own way stuck and doesn't know how to become unstuck," Pinckney said.

Despite a disquieting title and its AIDS backstory, the play, Pinckney is eager to note, is filled with humor. "I don't want people to stay away because they think it's going to be this bleak revisitation of the AIDS crisis," he said. "The play is framed around the planning of a benefit, and having been in the middle of so many of them, I can tell you it's often an absurd situation."

"Still at Risk" playwright Tim Pinckney left acting to become an AIDS activist before moving into playwriting. Photo: Sean Turi

At this fictional gala honoring both living and late heroes of the movement, the name of a fallen victim, and one of Kevin's closest friends, is somehow left off the names of honorees. "That's what starts Kevin on his journey," Pinckney said, as two friends try to help nudge Kevin into a healthier direction. "His best friend, Mark, is still an actor, and they have a delicious wise-ass sensibility in the way they talk together. And then there's Susan, someone Kevin knew back in the days of activism but who has found her own way to move on. There is also a confrontation with a younger character with little awareness of the sacrifices that have made his life easier.

"A lot of the play just came from seeing the changes in gay culture, things that switched in many great ways, but what we went through seems a little bit pushed aside," Pinckney said. "Back then, I couldn't even have wrapped my head around gay marriage, but a lot of these freedoms are on the backs of what many went through at the height of the AIDS crisis, and it's where we found our voices as a people."

Much like the central character in "Still at Risk," Pinckney was an actor who became an activist. "There are absolutely moments in the play that are very much my experience," he said, "but the journey of the play actually has very little to do with me."

While the character of Kevin is stuck, Pinckney found his way into a new chapter through playwriting. It started as a series of letters he wrote posthumously to his late friend David that eventually became his first play. "Message to Michael" got mostly good reviews and had a successful run in New York in 1996, though a negative notice in The New York Times limited its future possibilities. "But once you've gotten your ass kicked by The New York Times, you can take anything," said the playwright.

In addition to playwriting, Pinckney spends much of his time as a producer for the Actors Fund's concert series that will soon present a reunion benefit performance of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" with original star Sutton Foster. Earlier he helped produce a benefit concert of "Funny Girl" with 16 Broadway divas sharing the role of Fanny Brice.

Home for Pinckney and his husband, actor Edward Pisapia, is in the New York commuter village of Maplewood, N.J., where, on the day of this telephone conversation, Pinckney was in bed with a bad cold. "I'm just trying to feel better so I feel fit as a fiddle when I get to San Francisco," he said. He'll be at final rehearsals and previews through opening night of "Still at Risk," giving whatever notes that might seem helpful to director Dennis Lickteig and the cast.

"I've been to San Francisco for two separate readings of different drafts of the play, and then in December I got to spend four days with the company for some pretty intense rehearsals," he said. "I know I have the A-list of New Conservatory Theatre, so I'm in very good hands."


"Still at Risk" will run Jan. 19-Feb. 25 at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Tickets are $20-$45. Go to


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