Victoria Villier (she/her) is a multidisciplinary artist and actress based in New York City. She’s interested in productions that center what it means to be a Black person, most specifically a Black woman. In addition to her work within the theatre community, Victoria is a poet, recently participating in an interdisciplinary poetry residency at Ken Kesey Farm in Oregon. She is also working on a zine that celebrates natural hair, having created original collage work for her publication by using archival images from The Pictures Collection.
You describe yourself as a multidisciplinary artist and actor. How did you get started with your practice?
I didn’t like the structure of school, and I liked doing stuff that I wanted to do, which were always after-school programs. I didn’t get myself together until after high school, and then I went to community college, transferred, and got offers to do paid production outside of school.
Can you tell me more about the mediums you work in?
I’m an actor, dancer, and costume designer. Through costume design, I was trained to do these eight-figure renderings with watercolor, so that was my medium for a while, and watercolor is hard, so it took me like three years to make a pretty rendering. From costume construction, we had to make our own clothes, so that’s another one. Right now, I’m doing collage, so that type of multimedia art is nice, and honestly, it’s a little scary because I didn’t go to school to study fine arts, so I’m constantly dealing with imposter syndrome. Sometimes I think I don’t know what I’m doing or I don’t know about form, but that doesn’t matter because I’m not trying to prove to myself that I’m the best artist. This is what I want to do, and it’s ok to switch over and teach yourself.
Having received critical praise for your work in productions such as Michael Gorman’s “Chasing the New White Whale” and Gethsemane Herron-Coward’s “Blanks,” what are the roles and productions you’re most drawn to?
I’m interested in productions about what it means to be a Black person and being a Black woman. Gethsemane’s Blanks is a production I hold close to me because it was a cast of predominantly Black women—there were five of us and one Black man. The design team were all Black women and so was the producer. So far, in my career, which is relatively early, I’ve never had that experience in the theatre arts being surrounded by Black people. It was refreshing to have these conversations, and it was also a play about Black literature, so we got to talk about Black writers and the progression of Black womanhood from Lincoln Era till the present day. Just something about that play was really beautiful! I felt safe, nurtured, and I want to have that experience again. In Chasing the New White Whale, there wasn’t a race associated with my character, which was nice.
I just want to be safe within a production, and it’s nice to feel supported by the playwrights, the directors, the cast—those people you’re spending time with every day for at least eight weeks. Once the production is over, everyone says bye, but it doesn’t have to be that way, and it hasn’t with some of my cast members and designers because we still talk and support each other. I think I’m looking for a project calling for a deep analysis of what it is to be a Black woman because that’s who I am.
What is your dream role or dream production that you would like to be a part of?
I’m reading Adrienne Kennedy, a playwright working around the same time as Amiri Baraka in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She’s apart of the theatre of absurdists, which focuses on characters going through existential thoughts and crises, so I just finished reading a short, one-act play called Funnyhouse of a Negro. I wouldn’t want to be in this specific play of hers, but I think her deep analysis of blackness within society and also the internal struggles she has is very honest. She’s a great American playwright who should be taught in schools. I didn’t know about her in college, but I know about her now, so I’m doing my research and reading her work! Adrian Piper’s work also coincides with Adrienne Kennedy’s, so those two women have been on my mind when it comes to experimental work.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
I’m a big fan of Terence Nance, the co-creator and one of the writers/directors of HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness. There’s Stella Meghie, she’s a writer/director who came out with The Photograph and The Weekend, and I like that she’s giving us a contemporary, nuanced view of blackness and relationships such as friendship and motherhood—she’s great! I like Arthur Jafa’s work, N.K. Jemisin, who’s a sci-fi writer, I like this DJ named Bambii, and Eartha Kitt is one of my favorite actresses for sure. Solange and her creative agency Saint Heron are amazing! I enjoy this jazz ensemble based in New York called Standing on the Corner—it’s great to see them in concert and to see all of these talented Black and brown people beautifully playing music.
Being based in NYC how have you been dealing with the impacts of COVID on the theatre community?
It’s been a process! We’ve realized how catastrophic this is, and the theatre has now caught up to what’s going on and starting to adjust. There’s a lot of virtual readings and just doing everything on Zoom. I don’t think the virus is a great thing, but it’s done something for theatre and the arts where it’s been way more accessible than it has before. The fact that it’s on Zoom requires you to have a computer and internet, but it‘s free, and as many people can come on and watch. It’s also hard because when you’re doing a scene with someone in theatre, you’re doing it with the person right in front of you so you can feel their energy. There’s something about a person’s aura and the dynamics played in a room that’s important. It’s difficult to play it on a computer, so it’s not the same at all. There’s something about being live where you can tune into the audience and get an audible reaction, and I miss that. I miss going to a rehearsal room, and it will happen eventually, but certain dynamics are missing being in-person and being live. You have to adjust and use the camera as it’s the person you’re having a conversation with.
Scans of Victoria’s collage art (2020)
The last time we spoke, I learned that you’re creating a zine about natural hair in the Black community. You’ve also made some amazing collage art where you’ve used archival images that celebrate natural hair throughout time. Can you share more about what this project means to you?
This project is something I feel like I need. It started in costume design, and all of the figures that my peers drew would always be white with straight hair. We needed to come to class with reference images for hairstyles, and it ended up being hard for me to find them on the internet, so I would go to The Picture Collection. When I found them [images], I was in a trance and amazed at how these people lived their lives and the hairstyles they did. It’s really something important to me, which is why it’s taken me so long to finish it. There’s no clear, clean-cut way of how to wear your natural hair, and I’ve been natural for about five years, and have only recently found a way to work with my hair. These images aren’t things you’ll see in mainstream media or magazines. The hair magazines my sister read always showed straight hair, and the women on the cover were always lighter-skinned, then when you would look inside you would see the dark-skinned hair models with beautiful braids. This is part of who were are as a people, and to see how other Black people throughout the diaspora handle their hair has so much beauty.
At first, I didn’t want to distort some of the images because I thought they were too beautiful and I wanted whoever would buy the zine to have this piece of art for themselves and do whatever they want with it. Then something happened, and I ended up having fun with the archival cutting and collage work. I want us to see how beautiful we are in our most natural state. Even though they’re images on paper, I keep them in a folder, and I had to get acid-free boxes to put them in because we need to preserve these images, these identities, and these cultures. It’s my favorite project so far!
What support systems do you wish were in place for black artists?
Mentorship—there isn’t much of it and I don’t really have a mentor that is a Black woman. I feel that to seek a mentor-mentee relationship you have to go to grad school to solidify yourself as an artist to a community of people in an institution. Emotional support, financial support, there’s a lot that isn’t available for Black artists. Last year I worked six jobs to finance myself, which I guess I’m proud of doing, and I survived without injuring myself while doing all these labor jobs, but it’s hard. I have friends that have to work two jobs, live by themselves, and have done so much, but they’re not able to go on these auditions or see these plays because they have to work all the time. The whole point of a theatre is that you get to see it—you learn about theatre, acting, and design by seeing and feeling what’s happening in the room, but if you don’t have the privilege to buy the ticket and take time out of your schedule for a two-hour play, it’s really hard.
I don’t know much about theatre, but I can imagine the reckoning happening in your industry in relation to Black Lives Matter. Would you like to speak about it?
Yes. There are a lot of theatre collectives, some of them anonymous, but they’re speaking out about the racism they’ve had to deal with. Being in Blanks was the first time I had an all-Black creative staff, and most of the theatre is a white space. It’s hard to act with authenticity and honesty when you are very uncomfortable in that space. Black creatives in theatre are speaking up and there are a lot of collectives and independent Black companies that are coming out of this. There’s finger-pointing towards white creatives, white designers, and white theatre people because they need to be checked, and it’s unfortunate because most theatergoers are white people which is really frustrating.
The college that I went to is having a conversation about theatre and racism, and I don’t want to be cynical, but this is kind of bullshit. I went to that school, and it was awful for me. Some of my peers are recognizing the decisions they made and the conversations they chose to be silent in, but they knew that systemic racism was in the institution, so they need to think about that. I’ve had professors talk about me as if I’m not even in the room in front of eighteen of my white peers. It’s gross, and it needs to be dealt with. They’re having conversations now on how to improve, and I should be happy, but I’ve had a weird cognitive dissonance this whole time with the pandemic and with BLM. It’s very strange.
To answer one of your other questions, from working with the playwright Gethsemane, I learned that I want to do most of my work with Black women. I really want to collaborate and cultivate art with Black women because we protect each other. Once I find a Black creative, it becomes a friendship and work relationship that’s important to me.
What inspires your practice?
Love and wanting to be seen and heard. We can have all of these identities, but we’re all human beings, we all want to be loved, we all want to be heard, we all want to be seen—it’s a unifying thing. I want people to hear what I have to say, and I want to listen to myself. The mind is so powerful, and we can have these negative thoughts manifest and make us into something we don’t want to be, and I don’t want that to happen to me.
Where do you see yourself and your practice in the future?
I can see myself in plays and still working as an actress. I would like to have a space for Black women artists to work in that would be similar to La MaMa, an old theatre company in the East Village that was created and ran by a Black woman named Ellen Stewart. Performing there was a big moment for me because a Black woman in vaudeville created that space. She had artists from the company working in the space, and they also had apartments to live in as well. I would love to have a space for Black artists to create, and if they need to take shelter, there would be shelter available. I would want to pay it forward to other artists who are struggling like myself.
Provide a few tips that may be helpful for young artists
Be kind to others and yourself. Don’t judge people. Take a bunch of classes and educate yourself—there’s more to learn outside of school. Do things with a smile on your face, even if you’re not having fun.