Talking to here

Chuka Ugwu-Oju

 
  John Anthony Loffredo, Piera Van de Wiel, and Jennifer Parkhill. Photo courtesy of Here Artist Collective.

John Anthony Loffredo, Piera Van de Wiel, and Jennifer Parkhill. Photo courtesy of Here Artist Collective.

 

Here Artist Collective is a New York City-based production company that “hopes to bring LGBTQ+ art made by LGBTQ+ artists to the forefront of our society.” The collective’s inaugural project is a play titled Paramour, which will be playing at Access Theater from July 19 through July 22. We met up with Here’s three founders, Piera Van de Wiel, John Anthony Loffredo, and Jennifer Parkhill, for lunch at The Crooked Knife. The transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Q: How do you all know each other?

JOHN ANTHONY: We all went to acting school together — the Atlantic Theater Company has an acting school through Tisch that we all graduated from last year.

PIERA: We all act, but we can also do things other than acting. So, I’m an actor, singer, and producer and Jen is an actor, director —

JENNIFER: Writer.

JOHN ANTHONY: Filmmaker.

Q: Multitalented.

PIERA: Everyone needs to have the slashes now. That’s sort of what I believe in.

JENNIFER: The spark came during our third year at Atlantic. We were all involved in this student-run theater company formed through the school and somehow the three of us ended up gravitating toward each other. After graduating, we took what we learned from this company, and decided to use it for our own thing.

PIERA: And we knew that we wanted it to be LGBTQ-focused.

JOHN ANTHONY: Yeah, the company is a queer artist collective and our primary focus is telling queer stories by queer artists.

PIERA: And also bringing romance to queer stories is really important to all of us. This particular piece, Paramour, definitely does bring romance to queer stories through beautiful heightened language.

JENNIFER: I think we’re all really interested in works from playwrights like Chekhov, Ibsen and Shakespeare, but didn’t see a queer narrative in any of those stories.

JOHN ANTHONY: At least not explicitly.

JENNIFER: And so, rather than mounting productions of those classics with some sort of gender-bending spirit that would make it a queer story, we thought — how about an original work influenced by the ones that we like so much?

Q: That makes a lot of sense. We’re in New York City, and I think the New York City theater scene definitely prides itself on being very open-minded, progressive, etc. — why is it that you three very new people on the scene have to put this together? Why doesn’t this already exist?

JOHN ANTHONY: Well, I’m sure we’re not the first queer artist collective trying to make theater.

PIERA: And we’re definitely not claiming that. This is sort of our classic take on that.

JOHN ANTHONY: And regardless of the fact that there are probably also other groups doing similar things, there aren’t enough that are notable and that are really devoting their resources and time to making queer art specifically.

PIERA: So, we thought — why can’t we add to that?

JENNIFER: There are a lot of established theater companies that will commission work that is queer-focused, but not a lot that are really founded on it.

Q: What kind of response have you gotten so far?

JENNIFER: Well, before we officially formed our company, we had a staged reading last summer of Paramour Part Two. At the time, it was just a one act play.

PIERA: Lots of things have changed. Now it is a three part one-act.

JOHN ANTHONY: In terms of response that we’ve got, I mean, people seem to like it. [laughs] People are only going to say nice things to you pretty much, but I do have friends who will give me real feedback as well.

PIERA: We also had a staged reading back in February, which we invited some people to, including a few industry people. I think the feedback was obviously good since we decided to move forward with the production. I also think people find it quite refreshing that we are on the topic of queer love and queer art and we’re bringing a slightly different, more classic take to it. Some people have asked questions about some of themes that come up in the play — like the theme of children and not being able to have children with the one that you love.

JOHN ANTHONY: In terms of having a child born out of the love between two same-sex people. Yes, you can adopt, but biologically that isn’t possible. Why do people have children? A lot of the time, people want children because it’s one of the greatest expressions of love between two people—to create new life. And you can’t do that really if you’re in a same-sex relationship.

PIERA: It’s a talking point that people definitely brought up and it’s something that comes up a couple of times in the play.

JOHN ANTHONY: We’ve also heard from a lot of people who are really interested and passionate about the fact that we’re doing a queer artist collective. I’ve had a lot of queer actors and artists reach out to me and ask to hear more about what we’re doing. I was talking to a friend about it and he said that people really respond to when anyone does something. It’s really hard in New York to do anything, especially when we all have other lives to live and we all have to make money — we’re not getting paid to do any of this stuff. It takes a lot of effort and time to build something like this and when people do anything like that — really making moves and creating things — people just respond to that action and that drive and that passion.

JENNIFER: Also, a lot of people are so hungry to see their stories finally be told, so there’ve been a lot of people who’ve reached out to thank us for doing this, for devoting a space to telling their stories, and that’s been really cool.

Q: What would you say have been the biggest challenges so far?

JOHN ANTHONY: Well, everything’s a challenge at this stage. When you’re starting from scratch and it’s three young people who don’t have money —

PIERA: You raise a certain amount and think, oh, that’s fantastic! We have so much that we can use! And suddenly, oh, it’s gone.

JENNIFER: Another challenge is actually getting in touch with the people who would want to contribute to what we’re doing. Not fully knowing how to expand our outreach so we can find the people who could truly take this to the next level. So, crowdsourcing has been our main source of funding, which has its own challenges and also puts a lot of pressure on the production since you know it’s your friends and family who are contributing to this, so it’d better be good, you know?

PIERA: Also, another challenge is you reach out to friends and family and you keep reaching out to friends and family and you’re like — I need to go to the next level, so it’s not just my friends and family who are putting money towards this production. And that is the challenge — how do I access these different groups? How do I access more of the LGBTQ community?

JENNIFER: Casting I think was another challenge. Just trying to find the right actors that didn’t have conflicts.

PIERA: Absolutely. Conflicts are tricky. Everyone lets you know when they are and aren’t available and you do your best to make everything work.

JENNIFER: There are also a lot of actors in this project that are not of our age group. We have a wealth of actors that we can call upon that we know from our school around our age, but finding actors who are in their 70s or 80s can be hard. So we really reached out to everyone we possibly knew for recommendations and found that doing it by word of mouth rather than just calling in people from online was better for us. I’ve definitely learned a lot about the casting process and just about New York theater in general by doing this. It’s been good for me as an actor — understanding that meeting people is actually the way to get into the projects that sound interesting to you.

PIERA: Actors go into an audition with the mentality that they’re going to be judged based on their experience and how good they were and I’m like — that is an element. That is one element. They’re also judged based on availability or look or even how they look with the other actor. And our casting process was pretty similar. Some people wowed us, while with others we said, oh, that’s something that could potentially work, but she can’t do this time or that time, so… you need to be open to having the best actors at this time.

Q: There’s a quote I can’t quite recall — I think it was a Rumsfeld quote. Donald Rumsfeld.

PIERA: I may have been thinking about the same quote.

Q: He was talking about the Iraq War and he said you don’t go to war with the army you want, you go to war with the army you have. Which is a terrible analogy.  

PIERA: That definitely was not the quote I was going for.

Q: I’m in no way comparing your company to the Iraq War.

PIERA: Thank you.

Q: But I think the point stands.

JENNIFER: The other challenge with casting is we really wanted to invite as many LGBTQ+ actors into the room as possible because we feel that often, not enough queer actors are seen for queer roles. At the end of the day, it comes to the best actor for the job, but we wanted to at least fill the room with as many queer people as possible. So often, you see a straight actor playing a queer role, and it needs to balance out so we can get to a place where it’s just about the best person for the job because both are getting the opportunities to at least audition. So, trying to balance the universe.

PIERA: But also welcome the supporters of LGBTQ.

JENNIFER: But we’d never ask someone to tell us what their sexual orientation is, so how do you invite those people into the audition without prying into their private life?

Q: I imagine making it clear what types of stories you’re trying to tell — not being ambiguous about the message. I’m sure that’s one way of making sure that a diverse group of people are coming into these auditions.

JOHN ANTHONY: That’s something I feel very passionate about. Like what Jen was saying, it is rare for a queer actor to portray a queer character. I mean, yes, it’s less rare in theater, especially in New York City, but even then, there might be a lot of queer actors, but they’re not always getting the opportunity to play queer characters. And in terms of film and tv, oftentimes, the actor portraying a queer character is straight. And it’s not to say that they can’t do it or don’t have the ability to convincingly portray a queer person, but it’s about what Jen was saying — evening the scale. It’s so uneven right now, we have to balance it. Then things can be the best actor for the best part, but that philosophy doesn’t work right now when you’re denying queer actors the opportunity to work. I want queer actors to get to the point where the scale is balanced and they can work on any project — whether it has everything to do with being queer or nothing to do with being queer. But until then, we have to take the opportunity to give queer actors the opportunity to act and portray queer characters. I feel that it’s very important for visibility and representation.

Q: And do you think that the New York City theater world has gotten better about that, broadly speaking, or not so much?

JENNIFER: I think there’s a lot of progress being made. I think that the issue is actors with clout get projects funded and there aren’t enough queer actors who have that amount of clout. And so, I think as that continues to change, things will get better.

PIERA: But we are in a time of change. Everything is shifting. And I think there’s going to be even more shift. And I look forward to the day where everything is on an even field and we can just be humans.

Q: It seems like a major issue in a place like New York City — and this is my perspective as a straight person, so correct me if I’m completely wrong about this — isn’t so much tolerance as it is ignorance. It’s not being aware that there even are these issues of representation because you wrongly assume that these types of stories are being told.

JOHN ANTHONY: And yet I find that, especially with gay men who may be particularly effeminate or flamboyant, you have a much lower chance of getting work because people aren’t seeing you as a human. They’re seeing you as someone who can only play a stereotype of himself.  So, I think we’re far away from where we need to be in terms of — why can’t we see that flamboyant man playing a love interest of a woman? And who knows what that woman will be like? There’s such a range and diversity of human experience that even in the New York theater scene is not visible or valued.

JENNIFER: I think that so many productions are introducing more and more queer characters, especially as younger writers are starting to rise. I do find that there’s still stereotyping, which I think will change, but it’s going to take some time. Today, if there’s a gay character, it’s often a very specific kind of gay character — one supposed to be identifiable simply by looking at them. And, as you mentioned, I think that’s just ignorance.

Q: Right, I don’t think it’s conscious bigotry. I think it’s lack of exposure or — well, ignorance really serves as a good catch-all term for what I think we’re talking about.

JENNIFER: And theater is such a great vessel for education. The only way that people will develop new ideas about these things is actually experiencing these ideas in the same room.