Simon Miller, Nicky Paraiso, and Elf Matt Nasser in of “Christmas in Nickyland.” | LA MAMA
BY CHRISTOPHER MURRAY | Oh, I’ll go to three shows a day most weekends,” noted the downtown performance maven Nicky Paraiso as we walked along the Bowery a few nights before Thanksgiving. We’d just been to see sexy naked Hungarian dancers writhe about the stage for an hour while sweating copiously at the Abron Arts Center. And now, after a pit stop for some bratwurst and beer, we were heading to that bastion of downtown cool, Dixon Place, to see Dane Terry and David Cale’s musical collaboration “Hello, Cowboy.”
I used to call Paraiso “the Pinoy Gertrude Stein,” a nod to his Filipino heritage and his role as a bringer-together of artists. He was born and raised in an Irish neighborhood in Queens, attended Oberlin College, and then got a masters in performance at NYU, but he’s remained close to that ethnic heritage, working frequently with other Filipino artists including Jessica Hagedorn, Ching Valdes-Aran, and Ching Gonzalez, and offered support to both the Ma-Yi Theater and the National Asian American Theatre Company.
In the mid-’90s, his Stein-like role was formalized when Paraiso began convening dance and cabaret events for the late Ellen Stewart, La MaMa’s formidable founder. Since then, he’s been seen less behind the piano or wielding a violin or concertina on stage, but has developed an important role as an artistic mentor on the East Fourth Street “Arts Block” in the East Village, where La MaMa is a keystone institution, as well as at many Lower East Side performances spaces.
Performer, impresario Nicky Paraiso keeps eyes peeled for squirts coming up
Everyone in Dixon Place’s nifty little black box theater also seeing “Hello, Cowboy” seemed to know Paraiso, 63, who is celebrating 35 years as an actor, arts administrator, gadabout, and guru in New York’s Off-Off-Broadway and dance communities. Ellie Covan, the artistic director and founder of Dixon Place calls him “omniscient and omnipresent… and omnisexual too, right?” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” auteur John Cameron Mitchell waved hello and Nicky got a shout-out from Terry, the angst-and-drollery songster It Boy of the moment, who was onstage at the piano.
“Nicky introduced me to Dane at ‘Springtime in Nickyland,’” the Obie Award-winning monologist Cale told me recently, referring to one of Paraiso’s seasonal variety cabarets at the Club space at La MaMa, where he is programming director. Cale and Terry will reprise a few of their songs at a fresh edition of “Christmas in Nickyland” on December 20 at 10 p.m. and the following day at 6 p.m., joined by downtown stalwarts like Split Britches’ Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, the Moth’s storyteller Edgar Oliver, choreographer Yoshiko Chuma, and others (74 E. Fourth St., btwn. Second Ave. & Bowery; lamama.org).
Next May will mark the 10th anniversary of the Paraiso-curated contemporary dance festival “La MaMa Moves.”
“Nicky is passionately and rigorously tuned in to what’s happening in the arts and particularly the gay arts,” said Cale. “It makes him the most knowledgeable presenter of young and emerging gay artists that I know of.”
Cale noted that Paraiso, appearing in Jeff Weiss’ “That’s How The Rent Gets Paid” at the Wooster Group’s Performance Garage, was one of the first performers he saw when he migrated to New York from Great Britain in 1979. Playwright and activist Sarah Schulman echoed Cale, recalling she first knew Paraiso as a member of Weiss’ extended theatrical family performing in those crazy, inspired theatrical extravaganzas that for many epitomized the spirit of the avant-garde theater of the ‘80s that refused to let the AIDS crisis darken its creative spirit.
“He brought a wonderful light into the room,” Schulman said.
In an email message, Terry said Paraiso “has a very magical trio of traits for an artistic curator — an “an informed and discerning taste, a capricious sense of adventure, and perhaps most importantly an uncanny intuition about people. He is our motherly hub. A password. A thing to have in common with true- hearted people.”
Mel Gussow, writing in the New York Times in 1984, said of “That’s How The Rent Gets Paid, Part IV,” “In common with most of the company, the appealing Mr. Paraiso plays a multiplicity of roles, from Mr. Piano-man to a bisexual policeman on a midnight stakeout.” Paraiso was particularly known for his rendition of the standard “Where or When” and a cheeky number called “Chinese Sex” that he co-wrote with Weiss.
Schulman also lionizes Paraiso for his special role as a mentor to new generations of theater artists, particularly queer ones. “He not only has the history,” she said, “but he’s very open to young people, very warm. He’s not slick. It’s an old school appreciation of people.”
Last year, Paraiso was part of the five-member panel that decided the recipients of the Obie Awards. Michael Feingold, Theatermania’s “Thinking About Theater” columnist and longtime chair of the Obies, said Nicky “is a godsend to the theater, and especially — as I know from experience — to any committee that sits in judgment on any aspect of it. He never stops caring passionately about the art, and he never stops seeking out new artists in every area and every aspect of the work.”
Performance artist Dan Fishback concurred.
“In 2012, I attended a public conversation at La MaMa, hosted by the legendary lesbian performance troupe Split Britches, and there was this moment where everyone was like, ‘Where are the new young queer artists these days? What are they doing?’ And I was like, ‘Well they’re not at La MaMa!’ So Nicky came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Well they should be. Why don’t you curate an emerging queer performance series here?’
“That was the birth of La MaMa’s ‘Squirts,’ which has become an annual festival,” said Fishback. “It’s become a major event in the queer performance world, and many of the young artists who’ve performed in ‘Squirts’ have gone on to great opportunities at La MaMa and beyond. And that’s all because Nicky is paying attention — not just to what he’s seeing, but to what he isn’t seeing. He knows where the gaps are, and he fills those gaps. He gets that art is about community.”
The third iteration of “Squirts” runs January 16-25 at the Club at La MaMa (lamama.org).
Also in January, Paraiso will be back on stage in Bessie Award-winning composer Mike Iveson’s “Sorry Robot” as part of Performance Space 122’s “Coil” festival ( Jan.6-17; 150 First Ave. at Ninth St.; ps122.org) . You can see a teaser video at ps122.tv/sorry-robot.
“The rehearsal process has been great,” Paraiso said. “I love Mike’s play. It’s so smart, funny, brave, eccentric, idiosyncratic, so spot-on about everything that’s happening in our world.”
Clearly, many of his peers in the downtown theater world think very much the same about Paraiso.