Queer, Ill, & Fantastic: An lnterview With Joseph Varisco
Photo courtesy of Joseph Varisco
You can find Joseph Varisco on any given Monday at Beauty Bar on 1444 W. Chicago hosting Salonathon LEX I CA—vocabulary of the people—or sitting off to the side snapping his fingers in the air as some force of nature takes the floor and changes lives. Or perhaps standing behind the shimmery DJ booth as [X]P spins on the nights Varisco curates the show.
Right now, though, Varisco’s putting the putting the finishing touches on his July 5th and 6th show, Queer, Ill, & Okay, two days of artists coming together to share their craft; exploring queerness and chronic illnesses such as HIV, diabetes, cancer, and mental illness; expressing stigma, hurt, mortality; and healing though creativity.
With a background in fundraising, creative design, LGBTQI advocacy, and just about anything that requires stellar people skills, Joe is an energetic, and supportive burst of idealism that is sure to cause solar flares with each project that crosses his mind. Chicagoist gave him a call to see how his show was coming along, and to get to know him a little better.
Chicagoist: So, how’s your day going?
Joseph Varisco: It’s going great, just really busy with work. And getting everything together for next weekend!
C: Speaking of work, I see that you do non-profit. What prompted you to get out of the grind of the corporate setting?
JV: I don’t know, JRV Majesty Productions is not necessarily a nonprofit. It’s an initial emerging start-up phase—the reason I got involved, and it’s essentially just me at this point; one of the reasons I got interested in getting into it was that I was interested in finding was in finding ways to create, support,
and provide resources to my community, the LGBTQI community—That are non-conforming as far as creators educators, artists, and cultural producers in this city.
To find ways to elevate their work, and make sure they have their funding as much as possible and also promotion. It was kind of [created] out of necessity for myself as I had, two years ago, graduated and lost a job.
I was really not sure what I should do next. I thought I should try and tie it in to this freelance production work and see if I should create something sustainable.
And two years later, the trajectory, the success was getting greater and greater every month, and more work was coming in. And it was good working with creators from
different backgrounds and from different neighborhoods. And it was something that was born out of passion.
C: Do you see something within the LGBTQI community that is not being fulfilled elsewhere, a niche market, if you will; something that is lacking, that you can provide for these artists?
JV: Yeah! I think [I provide] the resources that people need as far as support--as far as project management and production management.
I find a lot of artists are already really committed to their craft. And doing this intricate work of networking—finding venues, and managing events and you know, basically spreading the word about their event and being able to share it—it’s a lot for an artist to take on.
I didn’t realize I had that capacity for engaging the very individuals who had those resources or interacting with them—It’s something that was lacking, it was something that was needed.
People need that kind of support to validate their work, and to get it in front of larger and different audiences. To get it in front of the community here in Chicago.
I like to act as kind of like a catalyst or intermediary to make those things happen, and I get to work with people that I truly admire. I think that their work is important and powerful,
and bring it to a place where it can be sustainable for those who continue to uphold an independent craft.
C: You seem like a really busy man. I know you have to deal with burn out, and keeping up with all the events and parties, and networking. How do you take care of yourself, and your health?
JV: That’s a great question! The work is relentless. Which is a good thing, in my opinion. There are a lot of really important initiatives, campaigns, conversations dialogues that are vital to engage for and by our artists. And it can be grueling
I guess the work doesn’t end. A lot of times, it seems like, “Okay, we’re done! We’ve achieved our goal.” But there’s always something else to be tackled next.
One of the ways I care for myself is by doing this work—and I’m very passionate about it—Queer, Ill, & Okay, which was born out of my HIV diagnosis, was a way for me to kind of observe and create and kind of connect with my own experience, and give back to my community.
It’s been very cathartic seeing how others are living in their bodies, and are finding ways to care for themselves. But outside of doing direct work, I would say that one of the ways in which I do some self-care—my home. I have a lovely home and some lovely roommates. And taking care of each other. Supporting others. Cooking and singing are something that I find are effective in producing self-care.
It is important to take moments to step away from the work and observe what over a period of time what has been accomplished.
Although it’s a great position to be in considering that I essentially work for myself, and I establish what those standards are. It’s a great and it’s a challenge——a challenge of the integrity of what it is that we’re trying to accomplish.
C: Tell me about your time with About Face Theater. Did your time there lead you to Salonathon?
JV: I had been doing Salonathon already for about a year, before I started work at About Face. They invited me to join a youth based show about being queer, about being positive, about being people of color, about our economic status.
And it was good! We took it around to different schools, and it was a
really valuable experience. And my first release events, after discussing them with Jane Beachy, who is such an incredible person to work with. She’s an integrity driven individual. And she extended the invitation to me to join the curational team at Salonathon. Which I was really excited to jump in on.
It’s kinda like these overlapping events, and when your life picks up, you just jump on, and I’m really
excited to be a part of it.
C: I love Jane! She’s such an amazing woman. OK, I’m gonna ask about the story you told at the last Salonathon where you spoke about how you got the idea for the sparkly glittery, mass of art and inspiration and information that is QUEER, ILL, & OKAY. This brilliant, community involvement series.
Can you just walk me through the whole idea process?
JV: Yeah, two years ago I got my HIV diagnosis. As I was going through it. Watching films, TV, listening to music, reading literature, essays, whatever resonated with my experience of living with chronic illness.
I kept coming up short. And a lot narratives that I was finding were from the initial epidemic of HIV, and those stories are so important to our history—but a lot of the stories of that specific demographic; gay men in New York and San Francisco were vastly different from my own life. And during conversations with friends and family and colleagues, I
found that a lot of these folks were creative in their own way.
I thought, "wouldn’t it be interesting to explore, through their eyes, what their experiences are?" I got some great advice on how to approach a crowd, and that was very helpful. And I ended up working with Links Hall from Poonie’s Cabaret to share a night’s worth of performance work
And that was my first exploration into QUEER, ILL, & OKAY with the pilot version of it. And the night was really successful, it featured 7 different artists, people were sitting on the floor, the seats were all filled. And folks stuck about for two hours afterwards just chatting. We’d just tapped into something. And a few of the artist’s friends who had come to see the show came to me and said they’d be interested in performing if I decided to do it again.
And that got me interested in thinking about the next phase. And it’s important
for artists to get paid for the work they do. So we started a Kickstarter campaign, and enough to cover all the costs.
C: Alright, last question. I’m always trying to get as many people to Salonathon as possible. And when they ask what it’s like I can only describe it as a new-wave/new-millennium style vaudeville-esque platform for creatives.
Anything goes. How would you describe it?
JV: Yeah! Like a cabaret of sorts. It’s pretty much how Jane Beachy describes it. It’s is a home for underground and mocking, genre defying art. It’s a place where people receive feedback, and find collaboration, to push themselves forward. QUEER, ILL, & OKAY would not have existed without having being a curator for as long as I have. And yeah, I describe it as a home for artists who are looking to share their craft and share it with a supportive and compassionate audience.
C: And... super cute, right?
JV: Yes. Super, super cute!
QUEER, ILL, & OKAY takes place July 5th and July 6th DEFIBRILLATOR performance art gallery, 1136 N. Milwaukee Ave., $5-10 suggested donation
By: Ester Alegria