Co-op Member Joseph Varisco Brings the Personal to the Stage with JRV MAJESTY Productions

Co-op member Joseph Varisco can connect much of his current work heading the production company JRV MAJESTY Productions—which works with LGBTQ artists—to personal experience.  Often, he said of his projects, “It’s about me trying to find answers.”
After being diagnosed with HIV a year and a half ago, Varisco “hit a wall” in his search for media and resources that reflected his own experiences.
“Having worked with so many different artists for so long, I thought, why don’t I turn to my community and ask them to show me what their experiences are through performance work,” Varisco described of the founding of the performance series Queer, Ill and Okay, which he first staged at Links Hall in September 2013.  Queer, Ill and Okay performers share their relationships to their illness through dance, burlesque, video art and other media.
“For me, it was really cathartic and allowed me to continue to explore what this experience is and [how] different levels of stigma complicates living with chronic illness, and how that itself is really an illness,” Varisco said.  The positive response to the production—attendees continued talking and swapping stories more than two hours after the show—has led Varisco to plan a reprisal this July at Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery.
Varisco’s work in the queer artistic space falls under the umbrella of JRV MAJESTY Productions, which assists Chicago-area TQILBGA and gender non-conforming artists with curation, documentation, event planning and PR, among other services.  Most recently, he programmed workshops for the Drag and Burlesque Educational Werkshops, held April 25 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Varisco sees the types of conversations held at the SAIC as vital to the discussion of queer identity in the Chicago community.
“[T]here are still a lot of individuals that I know of or that I’ve worked with who are trans-identified but have come up through a showgirl, burlesque [and] drag world where they began to explore their gender differences,” Varisco said.
Varisco credits his company’s success with several projects the he took on early in his freelance work.  The first, a local zine known as Chicago IRL, introduced him to the many queer Chicago artists who contributed to the digest over its four-issue run in 2011 and 2012.  He’s continued collaborating with other Chicago-area artists with Queer Lexicon, an oral history series that profiles “leaders and luminaries” and is featured in the national visual arts exhibit “Strange Bedfellows.” 

Co-op Member Joe Varisco’s JRV MAJESTY Productions
curates many multimedia productions across the city.

For the past two years, he’s also curated Beauty Bar’s Salonathon: Lexica, held the last Monday of each month. It’s a show—that much like Varisco’s work—defies categorization; he describes it as “cabaret-style…with dance, burlesque, poetry, puppetry, film, [music] and everything and anything that fits within and beyond those categories.”
“That’s where JRV MAJESTY really was born,” Varisco said of the effect of these early projects on his work, which led him to pursue other opportunities to document, curate and publicize the projects being completed in Chicago’s queer community. 
Varisco’s participation in the CIW Co-op is a natural extension of the collaborative work he’s been pursuing in Chicago over the past several years.
“The idea of collaborating with other people and sharing resources and knowledge seems to me [is] a that is really Chicago, and something that I am deeply invested in on a regular basis with my own community,” Varisco said.  “So, finding ways that I can connect with larger communities and start to connect folks to one another seemed a really great option.”

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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