A mother in Olympia, a dying man in Los Angeles, a young hemophiliac in Australia -- Victims of personal tragedy find love, hope and family confronting their fears.
Living in the Bonus Round.
Music, suicide, healing broken spirits - life and love on the Internet in the age of AIDS
by Alec Clayton
published in Tacoma City Paper, September 24-30, 1998
Relationships formed on the Internet are not all sordid affairs. The Internet connects hearts and souls in positive, life affirming ways never before imagined. To paraphrase the opening of an old television show, there are eight billion stories on the World Wide Web. THIS IS ONE OF THOSE STORIES. It is the ongoing saga of a songwriter living with AIDS, a mother who lost her son to suicide, and the way their friendship -- started on-line -- has given renewed hope to countless people around the world.
Steve Schalchlin (pronounced Shack-lin) is a songwriter living with AIDS, a gay man and the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. Gabi Clayton is a mother residing in Olympia, Washington. Her teen-age son took his own life because he could no longer cope with the harassment and beatings he suffered because of his sexual orientation. Through the Internet, Schalchlin and Clayton became friends. And through this Internet connection they soon expanded their friendship to include others from around the world -- a young hemophiliac from Australia who is HIV+ from a blood transfusion; a housewife; a student; and many more. These people, each in their own private battle, were trying to promote understanding and to fight against prejudice. Thanks to the instantaneous friendships made possible by the Internet, they have become family -- bound tightly together despite thousands of miles of physical separation. This family grew out of tragedy and continues to flourish in hope.
From death to life
Three years ago Steve Schalchlin thought he would die within months. Hooked to an intravenous feeding bottle14 hours a day and wasted down to 135 pounds, Schalchlin wanted to tell his friends and family about his experience with AIDS while he still could. A friend gave him a computer, and he started an Internet diary that soon attracted thousands of readers. He also began writing songs about his life. The first was a song called Connected, which pulled together the image of being connected to tubes in the hospital with the need for people to connect their lives. It was inspired by an incident that happened during his first trip to the hospital. Anson Williams, the actor who played Potsie on Happy Days, happened to be in the hospital that day visiting his wife. Williams saw Schalchlin laid out on a hospital gurney, connected to tubes and bottles, and asked him what was wrong. Ive got AIDS, he answered, later reminiscing, It was the first time I had ever said the word. But I didnt say it, I shouted it. I thought he would go running from the room. But instead, he came over and took me by the hand. Williams encouraged him to fight the disease. Schalchlin now jokes, I decided to live that day because I didnt want the last celebrity I ever saw to be Potsie.
Schalchlins life partner of many years, Jim Brochu, is a writer. Noticing that writing songs again after many years of not writing seemed to invigorate Schalchlin, Brochu starting giving him assignments to write more songs. And together they created a loosely autobiographical musical called The Last Session. Brochu wrote the book, and Schalchlin wrote the music and lyrics. Scraping together a budget, they managed to arrange a limited reading of the play in Los Angeles, with Schalchlin playing the lead role. He was spending fourteen hours a day hooked up to intravenous nourishment, and then rushing to rehearsals each evening. Meantime, he had started taking the new protease inhibitors and his health and strength were returning.
Don Kirkpatrick, an advertising professional in El Paso, Texas, came across Schalchlins website. His story of his struggle with AIDS was riveting, Kirkpatrick said. Coupled with this gruesome tale of a man dying before my virtual eyes was his recounting the birth and growth of The Last Session ... I decided that I wanted to see it at its first full production at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood.
Afterwards, Kirkpatrick offered $500 to help produce Schalchlins first CD, Living in the Bonus Round, thus named because four years beforehand Schalchlins doctor told him he would be dead in a year. Kirkpatrick later invested another $10,000 to help the show get to New York, where it had a four-month run at the tiny off-off Broadway Currican Theatre, followed by a five month run off-Broadway at the 47th Street Theatre. At both venues the show played to sold-out houses and rave reviews. It was a howling success, Kirkpatrick says.
When Schalchlin first began publishing his diary on the Net to let people know firsthand what the paint and suffering was like, another sufferer, Gabi Clayton, a certified mental health counselor in Olympia, Wash., decided to design a small, simple web page with a photograph. Claytons web page caught the attention of Schalchlin. The photograph was of her son, Bill. Underneath the photo Clayton inscribed: This page is in honor of one of my two sons, Bill Clayton. Bill was openly bi-sexual. In April of 1995, he was assaulted in a hate crime. On May 8, 1995, Bill committed suicide, despite loving support from his family, friends and many wonderful people in our community. Bill was 17 years old. He was a bright, warm and creative young man. He is greatly missed. Please remember him and speak out to end discrimination, hate speech, and violence against people who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered.
Schalchlin stumbled onto Claytons site. I saw a picture of a particularly angelic young face with a kind of impish smile, Schalchlin says, and I couldnt tear my eyes away from that face. Every day for a week or more Id return to Gabis page and look at that face. Sometimes Id just sit and stare without emotion. Sometimes Id sit there and tears would roll down my cheeks. But I kept going back, haunted by that sweet, innocent smile and wondering why anyone would hurt his child.
Schalchlin wrote to Clayton, igniting a wonderful friendship, one that she says has helped her come to terms with her grief over her sons death. Schalchlin asked Clayton to tell him the whole story of what had happened to Bill. Inspired by Schalchlins site, Clayton was already working on an expanded version of Bills story. She sent it to Schalchlin, saying, Do whatever you want with it. So he posted it on his own website.
It was a bit of a surprise for me the next morning when he sent me a URL and there it was, Clayton says. But I knew it was what I had to do, so I soon moved it to my pages and it has grown from that.
When Schalchlins CD came out, Clayton opened it and was surprised to read in the liner notes: In memory of Bill Clayton and dedicated to Shawn Decker. Thanks to Don, Ronda, Kim, Jim, Gabi, Tracey...
Many of the people mentioned in the dedication were people who were later to become known as the Nubihees, a network of friendships that began on the Internet and extended into the real world.
As Schalchlins song, Connected says, we all must be connected to each other. And connections on the Internet become as complicated as the wiring in our homes and offices, one person connected to another and another and another, as in six degrees of separation. ... Sometimes these people meet in real life, and what we typically hear is that such real-life meetings are disappointing. Sometimes tragic. Not so with Schalchlin, Kirkpatrick, Clayton and their Internet friends. This network of friends rewarded a circle with constant growth and examples of everyday heroism and toleration -- it introduced Shawn Decker, a young hemophiliac living with HIV since he was 11 years old to Tracey, a student who took Schalchlin to Old Dominion College in Virginia for a performance to raise money for an AIDS related charity; it gave Luke, another young hemophiliac from Australia (HIV positive since he was three) a chance to meet Kerry and the love of her life, a pet pig named Hoover; for Ronda, a music producer in L.A. and a longtime-friend of Schalchlins, there was an introduction to Linda, a woman who was struggling with accepting of homosexuality. As a virtual support group, these Internet friends began to call themselves Nubihees, an almost-acronym for Numerous Big Hearts and One Big Head. (Schalchlin is the big head.)
The way Linda became a Nubihee typifies the way these and other connections happen. While trying to learn from Schalchlin, via the Internet, about homosexuality and homophobia, Linda learned her own daughter is a lesbian. Panic stricken, she wrote to Schalchlin asking What to I do?
You need to talk to my friend Gabi, Schalchlin responded, putting the experiential resources of the group to work. When Linda and Clayton met on-line, and Clayton soothed Linda in the way she does other parents who contact her with similar questions. Did you love your daughter before you found out she was gay? Clayton asked. Well, shes still the same daughter.
The Last Session
Opening on a shoestring budget, seasoned professionals, impressed with the script and the music, were willing to work for nothing in the critically acclaimed New York showcase which went on to be nominated for Best Musical by the New York Outer Critics Circle and the New York Drama League. Bob Stillman, in the lead role of Gideon, had recently played the lead in Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway. He later told Clayton that before being cast in this part, he had become a little disillusioned with show business and The Last Session made him remember why he had fallen in love with theater to begin with.
Gideon, based on Schalchlin, is a former gospel singer who is dying of AIDS. When he can no longer face what the disease is doing to him, he decides to commit suicide. But first he invites his old friends back into the studio for one last recording session. None of them know that he plans to kill himself. One of the old group cannot show up and Buddy, a homophobic Christian, is his unexpected replacement. The clash between Buddy and Gideon is so strong that at one point Gideon breaks out in angry song: Id rather be me with AIDS than to have to be you without it ... At least I know whats killing me. Unlike the platitudes and pat solutions offered up by musicals such as Miss Saigon, their conflict remains unresolved, but each learns to see the humanity of the other.
Despite the harsh realities of AIDS, suicide and bigotry, it is a musical full of hope and humor. Brochu, who directs the show, said on an MSNBC interview, Its the funniest play about suicide youll ever see. People come out of the theater and I see their faces and they say, Youve changed my life. I came in feeling depressed and now I know I can go on.
In the two years since Steve Schalchlin and Gabi Clayton met on the Internet, both their web sites and their personal lives have expanded. Clayton is now the webmaster for PFLAG in Olympia and for the Safe Schools Coalition of Washington, in addition to managing her own growing site. Bills Story has been translated into German and Japanese and has received more than 28,000 hits. Clayton has appeared on television and radio shows, including an appearance on the Rikki Lake show with another friend she met on-line. Articles about her have appeared in newspapers and magazines in Australia, Canada and the United States. Schalchlins site, likewise, continues to grow. The Last Session has become a huge success and Schalchlin tours the country performing his songs and telling his story.
People who access their websites often e-mail them to ask for help with their personal problems -- living with AIDS, coping with bigotry, seeking connections with someone who understands -- or to thank them for giving others hope to carry on. But it is not all positive. There is also hate mail (nearly always anonymous), such as the letters to Clayton suggesting she end her angst by committing suicide and join her dead son in hell.
Among other things, the Nubihees offer one another support in the face of such hatred. Although they originally met on-line, most of them have now met in real time. During the New York run of The Last Session, they got together on two separate occasions, one an opening weekend party and the other a party for Internet friends, members of the cast and others. They came from as far away as Australia and Brazil.
Don Kirkpatrick flew Clayton to New York last year for the opening weekend of The Last Session as a surprise for Schalchlin. The day she flew to New York for the opening of my musical, and I put my arm around her, I think we both wept, Schalchlin says. Of the things Ive done in cyberspace, of this I am the most proud.
Resources for joining The Nubihees and discovering a life beyond AIDS on the Internet
Living in the Bonus Round -- Steve Schalchlin's Online Diary
Living In The Bonus Round: Where time speeds up and the prizes are better
The Last Session
Gabi Clayton's homepage
The Safe Schools Coalition
Shawn and Gwenn :: A Boy. A Girl. A Virus