Left to right: Paz Tanjuaquio with Nicky Paraiso in now my hand is ready for my heart: intimate histories at La Mama. Photo: Theo Cote.
The crowd is bustling at the Jane Street Tavern, and the E train has been recalcitrant. But I burst in the door only a few minutes late and Nicky Paraiso waves. We retreat to a back room that is not really quieter, with a group of happy women at the table behind us, and a couple with a young child across from us. But Nicky’s voice is clear and strong, and we sit down for a drink and a meal and a good talk.
Nicky’s new full-length work, now my hand is ready for my heart: intimate histories, is opening on March 22. I’ve been following its progress from the Kickstarter (I gave) and online. Nicky is my friend since we met serving on the Honorary Awards Committee for the NY Innovative Theatre Awards. He’s a writer, performer, and essential curator, mostly of dance work at La MaMa. His curatorial work has occupied him greatly the last two decades, and he felt the need to return to his own creative work. He’s made a piece that’s autobiographical, telling the stories of his life through word and dance.
Kathleen Warnock (Rail): It’s good to see you. We rarely get together unless we’re both serving on a committee or at an event. One of the reasons I also wanted to talk to you is that we are both artists who also do a lot of curating. [I am also a playwright who curates and produces: I run the Drunken! Careening! Writers! series at KGB since 2004, and serve as Associate Artistic Director of The Other Side of Silence (TOSOS).]
Nicky Paraiso: That’s right, and that’s one reason I wanted to do this piece. I’ve been a curator at La Mama for the last eighteen years. I did House/Boy in 2004 [an autobiographical solo], but that was the last full evening of work I really dove into, so I thought it was time to step out from behind the desk and take care of myself as a creative artist. I got a nice boost in 2017, when I applied for the TCG Fox Fellowship Grant [awarded for Exceptional Merit and Distinguished Achievement]. I asked myself, “How can I own that appellation of distinguished achievement?” And I was able to, so I proposed something, and lo and behold, the panel went for it. I had asked my artistic director, Mia Yoo, for a spot in 2019, and she said: “We have three weeks at the end of March.”
Since then, the piece has gone through a couple of iterations. But what’s remained constant is that I wanted to work with these specific choreographer/dancers [Irene Hultman, Jon Kinzel, Vicky Shick, Paz Tanjuaquio], and they make their own work, and they appear in their own work, and we are all of a certain age or certain generation. I love young people, but this is about my generation, and how we continue to be artists and how at a certain point, our work changes, especially dancers, when their bodies change. In other times…older times, dancers stopped dancing when they were 35 at the latest. But now, there are dancers who continue to work and make these amazing dances, which are more detailed and nuanced because they are older. And that’s what I was interested in, and I wanted to understand the way these dancers worked.
I was coming from an actor’s point of view, and yet in my working life, I have worked with more choreographers than not, including Meredith Monk, whom I worked with for ten years. People forget these things. So it’s interesting how you remind them, or make it part of your work to remind them: “You see I did this work with this particular genius artist and I have never forgotten it,” and how that informs who I am now, as a performer. So I had two great genius mentors: one was Jeff Weiss, and the other was Meredith Monk.
Rail: That’s a great combination
Paraiso: They are very different…so different from each other. We always talk about the auteur artist, but we barely speak about the actor or the performer who works with an auteur, like Mary Shultz working with David Greenspan, people like that, what these artists bring to the playwright or playwright/director.
And then to jump way ahead, I’m now working with the director John Jesurun, who has very strong views, and is an auteur as a director. And he has found a way to allow me to speak about how these great mentor/artists have affected my work as a performer, and how I have synthesized the work that I learned from them into my being, into my body, my imagination; how they, Jeff and Meredith and many others, informed my work then, and have informed the work that I do now.
I am one of those autobiographical-confessional kind of performers who has worked a lot of the time by myself, with direction, and because I think that’s important. But now, I’ve brought these choreo/performers into my creative space, and it’s been an informative, educational, frustrating, different way to approach making a work. And bringing in the very strong visual playwright/director John Jesurun has also informed the way I’m presenting myself. And it hasn’t been an easy process.
But this past Sunday, we found an ending to the show, which is opening on March 22! And now I see that we actually have a show! And now the dancers know—they really wanted to know the arc of the piece. They are just as interested as actors and theater makers about the intention, which was a little frustrating to me: I’d say, “Well, you’re dancers, why don’t you just move?” And they’d say, “Well, we have to have a REASON!”
So now it’s two weeks from the opening, and all in all in all, this is the right moment for them now. For them to really choreograph themselves into what has actually become my work. At the beginning, I thought I’m asking these dancers to let me into their process but they said: “No Nicky, we are more interested in what YOU have to say. Please keep telling us, and we will find a way to be who WE are.” John said to them: “You are not characters in Nicky’s piece, you are who you are,” which is a unique way of approaching a theater work, because we are always creating characters.
If I’m talking about my mother, about Meredith, people I’ve worked with, they are not interpreting those stories, they are still who they are, and the movement really comes from an integrated place in their bodies.
(We order a cocktail.)
Rail: When you were growing up in Queens, becoming an artist, what did you think you might want to do?
Paraiso: I thought of myself as an actor, but I studied classical piano from five years old on. That’s how I ended up at the Oberlin Conservatory as a double major. I doubled in piano performance and theater, studying with the great Herbert Blau. He was my mentor and teacher there, and my classmates, who worked with him were none other than Bill Irwin and Julie Taymor and Philip Himberg [Executive Director of the MacDowell Colony]. And then sometimes I say to myself: “Whatever happened to me?”
Rail: Then you went from Oberlin back to your hometown to attend NYU.
Paraiso: I did my piano recital at Oberlin on a Saturday and started NYU on a Monday, September ’74. We had a big class of about thirty people, which whittled down to twelve or fifteen, but there was a great teacher, Peter Kass, who worked with us.
Rail: Here come our drinks… [two Manhattans: mine with a twist, Nicky’s with a cherry.]
Paraiso: Look at those! We’ll be trashed.
Rail: Then the interview will be better!
Paraiso: So, Peter Kass said to our group: “If you can survive me, you can survive the American theater.” And I said: “OK. I will survive.”
Rail: Why do acting teachers like to do that?
Paraiso: I know! On the first day of class. And not everyone did, but I ended up loving that man. But that was kind of a sensibility of the 1970s: we will give you the best training you will ever have, but when you graduate you will not work for another twenty or thirty years. What a thing to say! But I didn’t give up. I just said: “Oh my God. Do I have to wait that long?”
Rail: And when you were at school, did anyone say things like “certain parts are not for you”?
Paraiso: No, they didn’t say that, but they did tell us what the reality would be outside. In classes, they told us you can play any role. These characters are within you; they are not something you are trying to aspire to… although it is. But your imagination and personality, whoever you are, is larger and more important than the character you are playing. Peter Kass railed against the whole Method. He’d say: “You are here to accomplish the playwright’s work. You are not here to injure or destroy your emotional life.” What I was taught is: YOU will be thinking intelligent actors, you will not be at the mercy of your emotional whatever. If you follow the objective and the intention, the emotions will come out.
Rail: And then you graduate and find out what it’s like in the real world…
Paraiso: I moved into the East Village. I had been commuting from my parents’ home in Queens, and I moved into a studio apartment where I still live, because I can’t move anywhere else. Because it’s rent stabilized.
Rail: Well, you went right to the EV, which seems like a pretty smart move.
Paraiso: It was a burgeoning time of great creativity. I wish I could skip the 1980s for different reasons. They were [long pause] such a time in our lives—in our young lives—and people were trying to find different ways of working. It was a time when people continued to write plays, but people wanted to NOT write plays—and they were writing more about character, or more autobiographically, or they were writing that 10-minute piece that they’d perform that night and what is that all about? So they weren’t always concerned with making the well-made play, it was more immediate: I have to show something tonight! I remember sitting in the old Dixon Place, and there were three or four performing artists writing their pieces ten minutes before the show. And I was one of them! And I said: “Why are we doing this?” But when Ellie [Covan] introduced the evening, and it was each of our time to go out, we just intuitively knew how to be in front of an audience, even though our work was unfinished. I’m not condoning unfinished work! I’m just saying at a particular moment in time we had that opportunity, thanks to people like Ellie Covan, and Mark Russell at PS122, to work and learn, and there were other performance venues. More than we have now.
Rail: Ellie gave me my first paying gig as a writer in NYC.
Paraiso: There you have it. So we knew how to create something by the seat of our pants, and that was a very interesting period, a very creative period, with people like Carmelita Tropicana, Karen Finley, Lucy Sexton, Steve Buscemi, Jo Andres, John Jesurun, John Kelly. But I was still not quite formed. They were my heroes and heroines, so I would be a little bit more on the sidelines, and I was learning. I had had all these great teachers at Oberlin and NYU, and then Jeff Weiss took me under his wing, so to speak, both Jeff AND Carlos Ricardo Martinez, his great partner, who was…not for everybody. But you could not mention one without the other.
Then there here was Meredith. I felt blessed that I was actually in the company of these genuine geniuses, Jeff Weiss and Meredith Monk, and that I could work with people like Anne Bogart, Laurie Carlos, Robbie McCauley, and the woman who I consider my Filipino soul sister, Jessica Hagedorn.
Finally, there were things going on in those 1980s that I fear to talk about in my show. As I say in the piece: AIDS walked in the door and never left. Here was a very fruitful, happening time artistically, and then this fucking disease comes in and bollixes everybody up.
Rail: Then, after a generation was lost, people started living because of the cocktail, etc.
Paraiso: Then we had that—people were able to do that because of those medicines.
Rail: And then there we are in the ’90s, which were a real mixed bag in a lot of ways.
Paraiso: There was Reagan, then Bill Clinton, who wasn’t really that vocal about his support for gays, and then he got into trouble. And then we got George Bush.
This was a very difficult piece to finish because it took so much out of me. And John Jesurun was badgering me, asking me what happened between 2000 and 2019? Well, that’s when I became a curator. That’s when Ellen Stewart, who had been looking at me all those years asked: “What’s going to happen to Nicky? He’s going to fall off…we’ve got to do something.” So now John is telling me this twenty years later, and I never heard that from her. I had a very particular relationship with Ellen, which I talk about.
Rail: She & Ellie Covan are the smartest women downtown because they bought their spaces.
Paraiso: And Ellen bought in the early ’70s, when no one wanted to touch them.
Rail: Thank goodness we still have an E. 4th St.
Paraiso: That was one of the better parts of the Bloomberg Years. He declared that part of E. 4th St. as a cultural district, so they can’t change it.
Rail: I have to say in whatever this era ends up being called, that one of the things that helped soothe me after the election in 2016 was that night at La MaMa you played “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”
Paraiso: Oh yes, I remember that night: “He’s Our President/He’s Our Problem” [a performance action event at La Mama, curated by Paraiso]. That was a really bracing night.
Rail: Is what happened in ’16 and since reflected in what you’re doing now, in terms of your work or the people you are bringing in?
Paraiso: Looking back a little bit, I’m thinking about someone like Dan Fishback, who actually challenged me, in I think 2011 or so, when my hero Peggy Shaw did her piece, Ruff…
Rail: That was one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
Paraiso: It was about her stroke, and her dream about Ellen Stewart trying to take her to the underworld. And she said: “I’m not ready to go yet.” Peggy & Lois [Weaver] had these “long tables” with the audience after the show, and Dan Fishback was there for one and he said: “Here we are at La MaMa at the long table, and why isn’t La MaMa curating the young, queer artists?” And I said: “Dan, do you want to talk about it? Shall we have a meeting tomorrow?” And he said: “Oh…Okay.”
And the series we created was all about intergenerational dialogue between older generations and the current ones. I’ll never forget that. And that’s how Squirts [La MaMa’s intergenerational queer performance series, curated by Fishback] came about. Now it’s the same for Dan, in terms of curating, and he says to me, “I have to concentrate on my own work,” and we asked guest curators to come in.
Rail: In terms of this being a “round number” year for Stonewall and Pride, is there anything you want to do or think you should be doing?
Paraiso: As an individual or curator or artist?
Rail: As any of those.
Paraiso: Yes. Trying to address all of this as an older artist. I don’t want to say older—
Paraiso: Yes, experienced. I always think it’s very important for the up-and-coming generations to know their history/herstory/legacy. And that sometimes they should, but they don’t always have to, reinvent the wheel. And that they know there were people before them who were doing this. But I think they want to. I will never forget the moment at this Squirts performance, by Kate Bornstein: she was the elder, and she spoke about how she learned to speak as a woman, and she said, “I played these records by Laurie Anderson, and she was saying things like: ‘Hello, I would like to speak to you’ in this kind of voice. I learned to speak as a woman by listening to another woman.” And…I’m going to cry now…these young queers in the back of house, who were about to perform, started crying. And I said, “OK, I have seen the future. And it’s here at La MaMa.”
Rail: That is the perfect last line. I can’t wait to see your show.
now my hand is ready for my heart: intimate histories by Nicky Paraiso, directed by John Jesurun, runs at the Ellen Stewart Theater at La Mama, 66 E. 4th St. from March 22 to April 7. Tickets are $30, $25 for students/seniors. For more information, visit: http://lamama.org/my_heart/.
Kathleen Warnock is a playwright and editor. Her work has been seen in NYC, regionally, and internationally. She is the Ambassador of Love for North America for the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. She hosts the reading series Drunken! Careening! Writers! at KGB Bar the third Thursday of every month (since 2004). She is a member of The Dramatists Guild.