Juan Miguel Severo: ‘This is the time to hear stories that normalize queer love’

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The writer and performer talks about his forthcoming projects (including a gay rom-com) and why we should question the motivations of our work. Photo by CZAR KRISTOFF

Creative's Questionnaire is an interview series where artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives talk about their work, the challenges that they face, and their inspirations.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “I write and perform,” that’s what Juan Miguel Severo likes to tell people when he’s asked about the work that he does. Severo is what you usually call a multi-hyphenate: he’s a poet, a writer, a screenwriter, a playwright, and an actor. But Severo feels that distilling his work into two categories (writing and performing) is more straightforward and, uh, perhaps less obnoxious.

He says, “I used to be very specific about the stuff I do but it can be limiting and I feel like an ass sometimes when I enumerate them so ‘yun na lang. I write and perform.”

Severo is a “guy who regularly bares his soul onstage”; his spoken word poetry transcend performativeness. Perhaps that’s why he’s garnered such a massive audience since the time one of his pieces, “Ang Huling Tula na Isusulat Ko Para Sa 'Yo,” went viral on YouTube.

These days, Severo is busy. He’s prepping a queer rom-com series for Globe Studios — starring queer actors. He’s also working with other artists and writes poetry. In fact, he’s writing more these days.

“The government’s incompetence has made me prolific,” he says. “Typing angrily and chanting in the streets don’t have the same vibe but we have no choice, e. So type and type na lang.”

In this interview, Severo talks about the challenges of his profession, especially during the pandemic, questioning the motivations of creative work, and why works for queer people by queer people matter.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

Recurring self-doubt and just enough guts to birth works despite it! (Laughs) Seriously though, there’s a Martha Graham quote I always go back to about how it’s not our business to determine how good our work is; our business is to remain open to the urges that motivate us and to share our art to honor those urges no matter our self-doubts. So that, and I guess empathy. And by empathy, I mean an awareness to what’s happening around us. Mas mabigat at mas malaman ang sining kapag hindi lang ‘to tungkol sa ‘ting mga sarili.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

I saw an Instagram story recently from Direk Tonet Jadaone from a recent Zoom conversation she did with fellow female creatives where she highlighted four questions she asks herself about everything she writes. I’m paraphrasing but I think every writer and performer should ask themselves these questions, too: (1) Does it need to be told? (2) Does it need to be told right now? (3) Does it need to be told right now by me? (4) Will it contribute something to society?

A lot of creatives tend to forget to ask themselves numbers 2 to 4, I think. If your answer to all that is a yes, then go do it. I always say that art/media and reality mirror each other, so we should be very careful with the truths we choose to tell in our art because we can either reinforce the status quo or help destroy it. I say we destroy it.

And how does that relate to your current project?

I’ll answer these with Direk Tonet’s questions as my guide: (1) I’m writing a romantic comedy between gay characters because the LGBTQ+ community needs more representation in the media. (2) That the BL genre has enough following in the country while the SOGIE bill’s fate is still hanging makes this the most opportune time to hear stories that normalize queer love. (3) I, the series creator and writer, am a gay man. We’re hiring gay actors. My core team is composed of members of the LGBTQ+ community and an ally. So yes, this is our story to tell. (4) How does this contribute to society? If one queer kid watches this series and becomes unashamed for who they love, then we’ll have done our job.

Aside from “Gaya sa Pelikula,” I’m still writing poems. I just finished writing something for the UN Population Fund which is performed by Ria Atayde. I’m also doing this small thing with Sir Gary Granada where I just talk to different spoken word artists about their craft live on Facebook every other Tuesday.

Do you look back at your past work? Why or why not?

Yes! Because I’m a Leo and we like looking at ourselves! (Laughs). But my Sun aside, I look back at my past work no matter how cringey they are as an act of self-love: Oha! Gumaling ka na kahit paano! At saka, ang dami kong naiiwasan nang mga bad habits sa pagsusulat at pagtatanghal ngayong malay na akong ayaw ko pala sa kanila.

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

I can’t particularly say na I have one mentor, but for every scene that I chose to enter I definitely have people who made it easier to navigate. Direk Dan and Tonet and Atty. Joji Alonso sa film and TV, for example. Sir Rody Vera and the rest of The Writer’s Block for screenwriting and playwriting. Words Anonymous for spoken word.

Having a mentor can be very advantageous, sure, but nothing beats consuming your craft. If you want a mentor to gain an “advantage” as in an easy way into the scene, forget it. Be in it to learn. Also, why not treat your peers as your mentors? I learn more about art from my peers than from any “revered” artist anyway. Actually, yes, sige, I have mentors nga. My peers. The people I grow up with in the art scene.

How important is social media in your work?

I went viral one time and I owe this career to it. (Laughs). Social media and the internet in general has changed a lot for artists. It has made it easier to share our work, yes, but it also makes us more accountable for the art we put out! Criticism is just as accessible now and this is a good thing. We must listen to them. Like I said, we either reinforce the status quo or help destroy it. Those who do the former need to be aware of what their expression is capable of.

What skills do you wish you had?

I really wish I could dance.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

About spoken word: It’s not just about failed love. May hugot sa pagmamahal sa bayan!

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?

Whoever chooses vulnerability chooses strength.

What kind of changes do you think are essential to ensure the kind of work that you do can thrive, while still protecting the people who do it?

I’m already seeing the signs of an emerging form with more and more content utilizing virtual space. I’m not surprised because artists will definitely find new ways to do what they do. The kind of changes we need more of must come elsewhere.

I wish for an audience that is willing to pay for art when they have the means to do so. I wish for a system that doesn’t leave artists behind. I wish for a government competent enough to let us flourish without fear of going hungry or being silenced. I worry that the amount of jobs artists lost due to the pandemic will create another generation of parents that will discourage their children from pursuing art.

I know I said I honor the motivations of my work but I don’t see art as all that important compared to collective action, yes, but we must not be left out. We’re trying to tell the truth here. Especially these days, that should count for something.