3 decades later, the Diana effect — and the Casey House effect — come to the stage
Play debuting at Stratford Festival explores impact of visit by Princess of Wales to AIDS hospice in 1991
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It was, in many ways, a historic visit three decades ago.
At Canada's first free-standing AIDS hospice, the arrival of one of the most famous women in the world brought with it a sense of hope and resiliency for those who found a pocket of compassion there, away from a world of deep stigma around the disease.
And now, more than 30 years after Diana, Princess of Wales, spent time talking and shaking hands at Casey House in Toronto, that visit has come to theatrical life, with the play Casey and Diana opening at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont., this past week.
As much as Casey and Diana is set against the anticipation of that royal visit on Oct. 26, 1991, there is more to the play and all that it may prompt audiences to think about, as it explores the potential to overcome alienation, the power of kindness and forming communities, and finding dignity in death.
Nancy Lucier was with her father at Casey House when he met Diana that day in 1991. Lucier was in Stratford to see the play a few days ago, and said later that she found it "emotional and touching" to watch it with her children.
"It's hard to describe to them what it was like going to visit my dad and struggling as he was dying, but the play provided a window into Casey House, as it was at that time."
Diana's visit had a profound impact on Lucier and her family.
"Princess Diana's visit carried my family and I through a very difficult time at the height of the pandemic when we had just found out our dad had AIDS and there was so much stigma around it," Lucier said in an emailed statement Thursday from Casey House.
"It was so exciting when the visit was announced and gave us something positive to talk about. She treated him with dignity and acceptance, which gave a boost to his health and spirits. We were thrilled."
For a brief moment, Lucier said, the play allowed her children to understand at a different level what she experienced three decades ago, and allowed them to share and learn more together.
"My siblings and I experienced hope, compassion and resiliency at Casey House and Princess Diana's visit played such an important part of our story. It changed our whole journey."
Casey and Diana was commissioned by the Stratford Festival in 2018, after playwright Nick Green pitched the idea to dramaturge Bob White.
"One of the jokes that we have at the festival is any play that has royalty in it stands a good chance," White said in an interview.
There was also the fact that the proposal was offering a more in-depth look at a moment — Diana's visit — that hadn't been the focus of any substantial literary or artistic treatment. Plus, there was White's own interest in the topic.
"At a personal level, as a gay man who lived through the crisis in the '80s and '90s, you know, it was kind of a part of my life that I had tried to really shut out….
"I lived in Toronto in the '80s and then in Calgary in the early '90s at the heights of the crisis, and obviously was in retrospect sort of traumatized by that experience, as many gay men were…. So I said, 'Well, this is an interesting pitch.'"
On the front lines
As the play was developed, there were meetings with people who had been on the front lines in that era, including hospice care workers, nurses, doctors and some who had lost their lovers to AIDS.
"What was a recurring … corroborated context was that the hospital system was still really treating men who were succumbing to HIV/AIDS … as aliens," director Andrew Kushnir said in an interview.
"They were leaving food out in the hallways. They were pushing furniture back in hospital rooms … because the fear and the stigma was so alive and well."
And the upshot of that, Kushnir said, was an outcry for compassionate care for a dignified end of life. Out of that came Casey House, which was opened in 1988 by a group of volunteers led by journalist June Callwood.
"It was just a different way of dealing with AIDS and a different way of dealing with death," said Kushnir. "I think the play becomes a kind of portrait of how death can, in fact, be beautiful. Death can be absolutely full of dignity."
Diana's visit to Casey House wasn't her first high-profile time spent with those who had AIDS, but it brought significant attention to it, and is seen by many as playing a significant role in helping to fight the stigma surrounding the disease.
'Needed more attention'
"AIDS was something she very much understood needed more attention and more understanding," Lisa McDonald, communications director at Casey House, said in an interview.
There is in all this, of course, a delicate balance, a tightrope to walk, if you will, between the celebrity aura that surrounded Diana and the degree to which that aura is used — by her or others — to draw attention to an issue as serious as AIDS and the stigma that was (and remains) around the disease.
"There's a tightrope for the playwright, there's a tightrope for the director, and there's certainly a tightrope for the actor [Krystin Pellerin] embodying Diana," said Kushnir.
"We can of course obsess about the portrait of Diana, the personality of Diana, the mannerisms of Diana. But at the end of the day, what did she do…?
"And I think what's beautiful is what we experience in the play is Diana doing something," Kushnir said.
"I'll speak as somebody from the queer community, somebody who you know is part of this lineage that passed through the AIDS crisis of the '80s and '90s — what we retain of Diana is somebody who made human contact with folks who were being ostracized, stigmatized and left to die alone. And that is radical, and that act of compassion, the thing she did, is worth remembering.
"So yes, it's treacherous, but it's so worth it."
Kushnir also sees Diana offering an access point for others into the play.
"I relish the thought that Diana actually becomes this way in for people that maybe don't have a lot of relationship with the LGBTQ+ community," he said.
"I think Diana, although she's not around anymore, I think what she reminds us is that this is living history….
"To be in a space where she becomes a conduit or a way of reminding us that this is not so long ago, you know, and this history is worth honouring and recognizing as being in the air still — that's exciting art for me."
As much as the play reflects the "Diana effect" and its impact on Casey House, Kushnir also suggests that Green is inviting the audience to think about the "Casey House effect" and the impact it might have had on her.
"We often think of help or care as moving in one direction, but I believe it actually moves in both directions."
Kushnir says Casey and Diana offers an antidote to the "really divisive times" we're living in now.
"What the play I believe activates foremost is the notion of kindness. And kindness is not about being nice to somebody…. Kindness is risky, but what I believe the play is saying is that we have to take the risk. If we stop taking the risk of kindness, the world will become an unbearable place."
Kushnir says he doesn't know if plays can change the world. He'd love to think they do.
"Maybe they just change us in the moment that we're experiencing them, or for a few days," he said. "But I really, really do believe that plays and art can reflect communities back to themselves in a way that is so meaningful, so powerful, so validating."
Celebrating her regiment's anniversary
It could have been an uncomfortable moment.
Members of the the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise's) were organizing themselves for a photo with their visiting royal colonel in chief. But it was taking longer than expected to get all the reservists in place at the barracks in Sussex, N.B., so Princess Anne was sitting there, just waiting.
Still, she seemed quite nonplussed.
"What might have been an awkward moment while we're … waiting wasn't at all," Maj. Joseph Burchat, the regiment's deputy commanding officer, said in an interview.
"She had the time of her life. She was just chatting with the soldiers and … engaging with them in a very open kind of way."
What really struck Burchat, he said as he reflected on the recent visit, was how Princess Anne was able to "roll with the events of the weekend."
And there were a lot of events while Anne was in New Brunswick as the regiment marked its 175th anniversary.
Along with two parades and two regimental open houses — in Moncton and Sussex — there was a concert, a gala dinner and a church service during the three-day visit.
During a speech in Moncton, Anne praised the 8th Canadian Hussars, Canada's oldest continually serving cavalry regiment.
"The regiment and its soldiers have provided continuous service to the province of New Brunswick and Canada for the last 175 years," she said. "And by anybody's standards, that's no mean achievement."
More than 300 members of the public attended the regiment's open house in Moncton, "way more than we were expecting," Burchat said.
Anne's visit was "an extremely uplifting event" that boosted morale for the regiment, said Burchat, who also had a private audience with her.
"What really struck me is how engaged she actually was and how interested she was in her regiment," he said. "She really took everything in this moment extremely seriously and wanted to know exactly how everyone was doing."
Anne's trip to New Brunswick came two weeks after the coronation of her brother, King Charles, and was typical of many recent royal visits to Canada — relatively short and very focused.
Sussex Mayor Marc Thorne was with Anne for several hours during her visit to that town and said he was "deeply impressed" by her sincerity.
"She is always present to whomever she's speaking with," he said. "Her wit and interest in all things — it amazed me from somebody from her position, who no doubt is constantly moving at different events, her attention to the individuals that she's speaking with."
Thorne knows that within any community there will be people who have different views on the monarchy. "I understand those different points of view."
What's important to him, he said, is respect, and he was pleased to see that as the community came out to see Anne, "God love them, because [it] couldn't have rained any harder."
"But you never saw a frown anywhere in the crowd…. Everybody, including myself, we just accepted it and carried on."
Thorne expects there are a wide range of opinions within the community on the future of the monarchy and its relevance to Canada.
"But I also know that there are a lot of people here in Sussex that truly appreciate the monarchy. We had [Queen Elizabeth] here in 2002 with Prince Philip. The weather was beautiful and it was an extremely large turnout, and that's only 20 years ago, and I'm sure that things haven't changed too much since then."
Inspired by the King
While there is no public word of an official visit to Canada by King Charles this year, he made 18 such visits while Prince of Wales.
His first trip to Canada was in 1970, with his parents, Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth, and his sister, Princess Anne.
As Charles's coronation was marked recently, CBC News spoke with four Canadians who have had a meaningful relationship with him or been inspired by him.
Charles and Perry Bellegarde, who was chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 2014 to 2021, have maintained a strong relationship for several years. Bellegarde first met Prince Charles when he was called upon to discuss an international initiative that would revisit and renew the treaty partnership between the British monarchy and Canadian First Nations.
When Charles wanted to dive into Canada's Arctic waters to experience their unique ecosystem for himself in 1975, the Canadian government turned to research scientist and underwater explorer Joe MacInnis to be the prince's guide.
Jocelin Teron, a professional forester and forestry educator in B.C., was the first recipient of the Prince of Wales award for sustainable forestry. She received the award from Charles during his visit to Canada in 2013.
David Wieser served in the Canada Armed Forces from 1993 to 2022. After leaving the Armed Forces, he set up a small business specializing in the installation of electric vehicle charging stations in Ontario. Wieser took part in an entrepreneurial program launched by the Prince's Trust program in Canada to support veterans in the transition to civilian life.
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– Mike Tindall, on attending the coronation of King Charles. Tindall was at Westminster Abbey with his wife, Zara, daughter of Charles's sister, Princess Anne, but found that being there didn't guarantee everything was within a direct line of sight as the ceremony unfolded on May 6.
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With files from The Canadian Press