This month’s Creative Minds Interview is a little different; today I am featuring a creative team. I first met Hope Cartelli and Jeff Lewonczyk when, back in my acting days, I was cast in a production of PIPER MCKENZIE PRESENTS THE TINKLEPACK PATROL IN THE CURSE OF COUNT MORPHEUS. I had a blast working with them in what I can only describe as a comic-book style adventure laced with interpretive dance, true crime and Abraham Lincoln. The team behind Piper McKenzie was Hope & Jeff. That was too many years ago to count. Since then, I have had the pleasure of attending many of their creative endeavors—many of them at The Brick in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where they have worked as writers, producers, directors and actors. Today, they join me to discuss their latest project, THE PAPER HOUSE.
Hope and Jeff with their son Dash. A Brooklyn-based creative family.
Hope and Jeff, along with their son Dash, are a Brooklyn based arts family. Their latest project, The Paper House, opened last year on Governors Island in NYC, and it is scheduled to open back up next weekend. Last year, I attended The Paper House, “an interactive installation for anyone who’s ever been a kid,” last year with my family, and it was truly a magical experience. It is difficult for me to try to describe The Paper House, so I am particularly pleased to have Hope and Jeff tell us about it here today!
Thank you so much for joining me this month on Not Even Joking. I am so excited that THE PAPER HOUSE is returning to Governors Island this month. I loved visiting there last year with my daughter. I can’t wait to bring her back this year. How did THE PAPER HOUSE idea come about?
Hope: I was approached by our good buddies at Dysfunctional Theatre Company–after successfully programming a mini-season of performance and art for one of the houses out at Governors Island a couple of years ago, they gave themselves the challenge of doing it again, but for a much longer stint, increasing from a few weekends to a whole summer in one house. They asked me and a slew of other companies and artists if they wanted to put something up at the house and I basically replied in the affirmative in ALL CAPS before even knowing what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to incorporate the house, not just do a performance in one of its rooms. Then, in talking it over with Jeff, we realized how lovely it would be to have our son, who was 4 at the time, be part of it, be there with us–why would we take this awesome opportunity and then just keep him home with a sitter when he could participate in it as well? Then boom! It became clear all at once that it could be this immense arts and crafts opportunity/installation–a kids’ playhouse made by kids (and their attending adults) in real time during a whole month, using the existing house’s structure as a base. Jeff and I along with friend and fellow artist Iracel Rivero figured out the parameters, rules, and what excited us aesthetically, and then we started to approach other artists and the whole thing snowballed into one beautiful, ever-growing and changing thing.
Jeff: Yeah, Hope pretty much nailed it, but I’ll build on her point about “attending adults”: Instead of just creating something that was specifically kid-centric, the idea ended being to create something that could be enjoyed by EVERYONE. Kids and their families set the bar for that, certainly, but we wanted anyone who stumbled in on this place – a group of 20somethings, a middle-aged couple, an elderly solo visitor – to feel welcome and invited to contribute. And to do this, we used childhood as a lens – everyone was a child at some point in their lives, and the intention was to evoke that feeling again, through the anything-goes interactivity and simple creative materials and opportunities we provided, and through a setup that allowed everyone to see something grow and change over time, right before our eyes. Luckily, it worked!
I imagine it was really awesome to watch THE PAPER HOUSE grow and change last year as people visited and contributed. What were some interesting surprises?
Here’s the cat that my daughter Bailey fell in love with. (thepaperhousenyc.com)
Hope: A HUGE, beautiful Chinese dragon puppet showed up the second weekend (courtesy of Jeff’s awesome mama and aunt)–that was one amazing visual surprise! The kids who just came in and camped out for a solid amount of time–something I hoped for, but was so happy to see actually happen. It was great to see a group of little ones hunker down and get to work creating all sorts of things–a family constructed for us a whole birthday cake to “serve” in our party room, some kids drew characters to inhabit our little fairy houses and I remember your daughter Bailey adopting the House’s little cat puppet and touring the house with it! Also a big surprise to me was how many teenagers and young adults loved setting up scenes with all of the props and set pieces at hand and trying on our masks and costumes, and taking plenty of selfies and staged shots. And how much people interacted with all of the rooms and materials in general. The immediately warm reception to the whole endeavor from everyone who came through was just great.
Jeff: Yeah – even though we were hoping for the Paper House to be appealing to all ages, it was always a delight when it actually worked out! My “home base” for the whole month was a library-themed room on the second floor, and that yielded some really fun stuff. I covered the walls with rectangles of construction paper to evoke book spines on shelves and invited anyone who came in to give them titles – kids and adults alike really got into that one. I would also spend time folding little eight-page books out of single sheets of paper, and showing anyone else who was interested how to do it. Between me and the visitors, we ended up amassing a nice little library of a few dozen books, some of which I’ve posted online. One group of four millennial women came in and took it very seriously – they sat down carefully writing and drawing their stories, and then passed them around in a circle so each of them would get a chance to read them all. They even included their Twitter handles on the backs in case anyone wanted to reach out to them! One final series of surprises came on the last day – we were always determined that, throughout the final weekend, anyone who visited would be invited to take some of the art home with them, so as to throw out as little as possible. There were many Orthodox Jewish families on the island that day, and it was a wonderful experience to see them gleefully taking home a lot of this weird but innocent work created by quasi-hipster artists. But my favorite was a family visiting from Austria, who took one of the gorgeous “fairy houses” created by our wonderful contributor Lauren Maul. When we described what it was, the parents told us in broken English that their 3-year-old daughter loves fairies, and the little girl couldn’t believe her luck at finding a fairy house in the wild, on the Island! She was just so delighted to bring it back home to Europe with her.
You both often seem to have some awesome creative project in the works. What else is going on artistically for you?
Hope: I’ve been flirting with finally taking an honest-to-god filmmaking course–I’ve had fun in the past few years with experimenting with shooting some stuff and have a few project ideas I want to work on, but I’d like to finally wrap my brain around some real tools and learning, especially editing. I also keep going back to this bizarro fake movie history project I concocted with Jeff and that includes many a friend of ours–it exists as a tumblr and we’re figuring out how to make it more of a book. You can see what I’m talking about here: www.missingcinema.com. I also keep a few toes in acting, most recently in a great homage to old soap operas, It’s Getting Tired, Mildred at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg. And, preparing for, hopefully, Paper House 2017–I needed a real break from theater producing, but producing this project, gathering all manner of artists to bring the House to life has given me nothing but pleasure!
Jeff: After stepping away from theater producing a few years back, I’ve dived back into one of my earliest passions – drawing. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on my illustration and design skills, and the Paper House has been an amazing element of that journey. I’m doing a lot of design work for my friend Esther Crow’s rock band for kids, Thunder & Sunshine – who will be performing with us at the Paper House! I’m also doing a movie podcast called Unreel with a friend from my day job (which is also giving me an excuse to make some fun drawings), and I have a few more collaborations and other projects up my sleeve. And yeah, Hope and I are definitely continuing to work on Missing Cinema and exploring additional ways to return to some of the larger-scale storytelling we enjoyed as theater creators – so stay tuned!
What else gets you up in the morning? What are you passionate about? And how does this influence your creative life? (or does it?)
Hope: Okay, this is idiotic perhaps, but someone’s going to empathize: my travel routine has changed and I am now able to read SO MUCH MORE on my daily commute and it is the best thing ever and I’ve blown through three huge novels in just about that many weeks and it’s life-changing and I am very passionate about it! Also, lately, whatever I can readily share with Dash, our son–it is so invigorating and inspiring to be able to work on a little art project, read a book, walk through a museum, watch a great old cartoon, or even just fall down a rabbit hole of cat videos with him. We all love music videos and comics art in our house–we’re particular in our tastes, but we take a lot of design and storytelling cues from them in developing our own works. And taking full advantage of living in NYC with a kid is something I’m always vocal about being the best thing ever.
Jeff: Yeah, I’m with Hope – raising our kid and reading books are my favorite things to do beyond making artwork. Well, and movies and TV too. And listening to music. And enjoying the city. Trying not to get too depressed about politics, which is a full-time job in itself. And working to be a decent human being through it all. So more than anything, I’d say what keeps me going is that elusive balance – the challenge and satisfaction of keeping as steady as I can through the constant push and pull of all that we love and fear. As the dinosaurs forced to work as living appliances in the Flintstones’ kitchen used to say, “Well, it’s a living!”
What advice would you give to a young person who would like to live a creative life?
Hope: Keep working at it, explore all the different ways of creating your art, and don’t beat yourself up. There are going to be so many opportunities to measure yourself against others and it’s never once worth it–make yourself happy, first and foremost.
Jeff: “Don’t beat yourself up” is HUGE – I spent YEARS doing that, to little avail. Hell, I still do it, though the older I get the less I give a crap. (In a good way!) And don’t be afraid to evolve – it can feel safe to stay in a niche and let that define you, but that’s not how you’re going to grow. The main thing is, don’t look at it as work – it’s just part of who you are. If you accept that, you can weather the periods when other concerns take over, because you know the impulse will always be with you.
Oh, what wonderful advice. I beat myself up WAY too much, and it just stinks. I have to stop doing that! Thank you, thank you, thank you! You are both an inspiration. I am looking forward to seeing you at THE PAPER HOUSE soon!
The Paper House will be open on Governors Island from August 6 to 30. Learn more about it at www.thepaperhousenyc.com