- Tommi Parrish
From the TELEPHONE Interview Series.
Tommi Parrish: So, can you tell me a bit about your art practice? I’ve often thought of you as this magical person that can just—I know it doesn't feel this way to you—but from the outside it seems like you just decide you’re going to do something and then you just do the hell out of it. You just make stuff, make opportunities happen. What’s your relationship to that? Does it feel that way to you? Like things just organically roll in.
Maya Peniazek: Of course it doesn't feel that way. I’ve gotten that from people and I appreciate it, thank you. The other side of that is, I think, that I have my foot in many doors. Ultimately it can create this confusion for me because when people ask, “What is your artistic practice?” there’s always a pause because I don’t know how I’m going to communicate what I do. It’s also really cool. It means I've been able to connect with a huge variety of artists and, ultimately, I know after thinking about it really really hard for a long time that I’m a storyteller. It’s looked like different things at different times, and right now it looks like masks and puppets and performative objects and learning how to tell stories through movement and objects. And that’s my journey right now, in the past it was playwriting and that was my journey. It’s always keeping music in my life and keeping my connection to storytelling in my life, it’s always keeping writing in my life. So, even now, I’m making masks and objects. I spend a lot of time in the studio by myself. I’m just keeping connected to every form of storytelling I've been involved in and listening to whatever feels most important right now for me to do.
Do you think that this is a difficult thing for you to come to terms with? With feeling out and trusting what the next thing is, knowing that your practice is going to change, maybe radically, but that it’s always based in storytelling. It’s always seemed to me that your art is also essentially based in connecting people, even if it’s just connecting people in experiencing the thing you have created. I feel as though puppetry and mask-making is such a connector; it’s such an active art-form.
I’m not really sure what your question is.
Is it hard for you to trust yourself in the process of going from one form of expression to another?
Oh yeah, I think I’ll always have inter-art-medium jealousy. I get really involved with writing a thing and then my hands are like, what the fuck, you haven't used us in forever! I get in my head about not working certain muscles. That’s what my insecurity looks like in terms of art. It’s this question that all of my friends are always asking themselves: Why am I doing the things that I’m doing? Should I be doing something else? Would I be happier or more successful if I was doing the other thing? These questions are raised for me with different mediums. Even for friends of mine who work very strictly in one medium experience that doubt. I think what you said about collaboration and connecting people is how I got past that insecurity, because I love curating and organising and producing shows. Whatever I’m doing, I will find the intersection between that and 40 other people so we can make something happen together. Right now I’m organising a cabaret to raise money for a shelter in Tijuana. I just went and clowned in Mexico.
Yeah I wanted you to talk about that a bit, because it’s incredible and I don't know anyone else who has done it.
I’ll get back to that for sure
Yeah yeah sure, go on
So I’ve been doing this cabaret; I’m going to install a bunch of puppets and maybe do a quick act. There will be clowns and puppeteers and burlesque dancers. I’ll bring in some speakers from the community that will talk about the issue. That’s one way I found to bring people together while raising funds and awareness about the humanitarian border crisis.
I’m doing puppetry right now; I’m not performing much, not doing theatre, and not writing things. Whereas, a year ago, if I was curating an interdisciplinary group show, I would be the person that was writing short pieces of theatre and then casting actors to do them. I think that has given me security. Whatever I’m doing, I’ll find ways to bring a group of people into a room.
So can you tell me a bit about France and a bit about Tijuana? You've been back for a little while now but you've had a big couple of months.
Well, I went to France in August with a puppetry company called Dragon Dance Theatre. It was amazing! They do tour/residency stuff all over the world, mostly in Central America. They reach out to puppeteers of all kinds and then they work together for like a month. They will come together in a community and do a lot of skill exchange and then put on a public puppet show. It was really hard—I really learned a lot. Then I got home, I was in Montreal for a week, and then I went to Tijuana to clown for a circus troupe called the Emergency Circus. The group goes to under-circused areas and clowns for migrants and refugees and people that are waiting on hurricane relief—just anywhere that could be considered under-circused. The group also travels locally in New Orleans to shelters and soup kitchens.
And now you’re in your cave of solitude in a studio in Montreal
Totally. Actually, it’s really funny, on my way back from Tijuana I stopped in Philadelphia. I was asked to do a poetry gig at the Kimmel Center, which is this performing arts centre. I had this moment where I was like, what the fuck is this, this is amazing. I just did puppetry, now I’m clowning, now I’m doing poetry at this performing arts centre. And, in the moment, I was like, OK I’m exactly where I need to be. And then, of course, I get home, I get a studio, and my first thought is: I'm all over the place, I don't know what I'm doing, my path is unclear. And so I think it’s also constantly a journey of convincing yourself that reflecting in retrospect on the way things have looked is probably a bad idea. And just to trust and give credit to the part of you in the moment that says yes. This is the right thing to be doing regardless of how it plays into everything else.
Maya Peniazek is a Latin American artist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She grew up with an adoration of theater and music. The rich and diverse theater scene in Philadelphia gave birth to her playwriting practice, and her work has been produced in a number of independent theaters and festivals. Her time spent living in New Orleans, Louisiana, inspired her entry into the world of mask-making and clowning, and she has since been working in immersive theater/installation art/puppetry, finding modes of interdisciplinary storytelling that highlight the intersection of written word, performance/performing objects, music, and activism. She is currently based in Montreal, QC, where she works as a freelance costume design consultant and events organizer. She has worked as a teaching artist with a number of youth-centered organizations such as Yes!And Collaborative Arts and Philly Young Playwrights. She works now inside of the realm of humanitarian clowning/puppeteering, and immersive group shows to raise awareness and funds on behalf of migrants/asylum seekers.