BWW Interview: Charles Busch Recaptures 'That Raffish, Anything Goes Feeling' With CLEOPATRA
"There's always going to be a young person with a lot of drive and originality and they'll find a way. It's harder now because of real estate, but I'm always hearing about young people finding some odd space to put on a show, and they make it happen and their careers take off. I always tell young people, it's not about who you know that's well known. It's about who you know that's talented. Surround yourself with talented friends. It's very hard for one person to do it alone, but if you're with a group of people who all have the same goals, amazing things can happen."
Charles Busch was a young person with a lot of drive and originality back in 1984, when he and his talented friends saw amazing things happen with VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM, an outlandish drag farce he wrote on company typewriters while he was office temping as a receptionist.
"Everything is circumstance. Nothing is just a decision out of the blue," says Busch, who wasn't setting out to become one of American theatre's most famous drag artists when he booked a weekend to perform at a makeshift storefront theatre in one of Manhattan's most dangerous neighborhoods.
While known to Broadway playgoers as an author of works performed by others, such as THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE and the book of TABOO, the star bearing his name outside the Lucille Lortel Theatre, signifying him as a member of the Off-Broadway Playwright's Walk Of Fame, was already earned with comedies like PSYCHO BEACH PARTY, RED SCARE ON SUNSET and THEODORA, SHE-BITCH OF BYZANTIUM, where he played leading lady roles with the majesty of Broadway's great women of the stage and the elegance of old Hollywood's most glamourous stars.
The Lower East Side has changed quite a bit in the last thirty years, but still, Busch describes his engagement in his new play, CLEOPATRA, at Theatre For The New City on First Avenue and East 10th Street as "very much recapturing that raffish, anything goes feeling."
That anything goes feeling was encouraged at a young age. "I was raised by this extraordinary woman, my aunt. After my mother died she kind of adopted me like an Auntie Mame. She was so in love with my creativity that nothing I did was wrong. I didn't grow up with a sense of 'What will people think?'"
His creativity was then swayed by two people he calls the greatest influences in his life. The first was a woman he never even met.
"I was a misfit stage-struck adolescent when I read Sarah Bernhardt's biography. She was an actress/manager who owned her own company, created her own destiny and changed the perception of what beauty is to fit her eccentric looks. Her example influenced me to believe that you could be anything you wanted to be. People will see you as you wish if you insist upon it hard enough."
The other great influence would be an artist he would be compared with for much of his career, the great Charles Ludlam, who created the Ridiculous Theatre Company and wrote plays to showcase himself in great female roles.
"I think I was a senior in high school when I first saw Ludlam perform and here was this actor who had his own company like Bernhardt and doing these outrageous complex camp parodies that invoke old Hollywood films and opera and 19th Century theatre. He had this extraordinary frame of reference."
Busch was a drama major at Northwestern, graduating in 1976, but he didn't find the same encouragement there.
"I was never cast in a university play. I was too off-beat, too gay. But taking inspiration from Ludlam and Bernhardt I figured if the roads were closed to me I would just dig up my own trails."
One of those trails led him to a place called The Limbo Lounge.
"I grew up in New York City but I'd never been to that Lower East Side Alphabet City area. Only the deranged would go there. A friend of mine that I met at a Renaissance fair was doing her act in some strange place called The Limbo Lounge. I was a little scared to go. I was living in the West Village, so it was like going to Oz."
"It was a very scary neighborhood. A lot of buildings had been abandoned or burned down. You literally saw crack vials on the street. But it was so undeveloped and abandoned that the rents were very low, so naturally artists started moving in and every once in a while there'd be a little oasis of an avant-guard art gallery or a dance club. That's where Madonna and Keith Herring emerged from. As soon as I walked into this storefront art gallery performance space I was so enchanted with the audience; all these young people who were sorta gay/sorta straight, a lot of piercings and kinda punk/kinda Goth. It was all very exotic. They didn't just hang paintings. They were installations. Strange things hanging off the walls and the ceilings. Even the toilet was an artistic exercise. It was fantastic. I felt like I was in Berlin in the 20s."
"I immediately found the young kid, Michael, who owned the place. They were all very young people. I asked him if I could do a show there. He didn't know me, but he just looked at the calendar and said, 'I'll give you a weekend three weeks from now.' Now I had to figure out what I was going to do. I had been a solo performer, wearing all black, but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do a play. Something outrageous. So I thought I'd do drag. I'd do drag for one weekend and that would be it. When I lived in Chicago after I graduated from Northwestern I put on some drag parody plays briefly but for the next seven years I hadn't done that. I was a serious performance artist wearing lots of black and playing lots of characters."
Three weeks later, VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM hit the stage for the first time. "I think I had just read 'Interview With A Vampire' so I had vampires on the brain."
"I just called friends of mine who I had collected over my whole life, including Andy Halliday who I had met in summer camp, and we just rehearsed a couple of times."
Halliday would become a fixture in Busch's plays during those early years and reunites with him in CLEOPATRA. For another Busch fixture, the hilarious Julie Halston, that first play was a life-changing experience.
"Julie Halston was working on Wall Street as a corporate librarian until I called her up and asked, 'Would you play the Succubus on Avenue C for a weekend?' After she too quickly said yes, I then asked, 'Have you ever acted before?' She played Nina in THE SEAGULL at Hofstra University. So when we were at the Limbo Lounge she was this corporate librarian by day and our glamourous Succubus by night."
"There was no budget. We just rummaged through what we had to put together costumes. We had a ball and it just took off. We just kept doing plays at the Limbo Lounge over the course of the next six months and while we were there the surrounding area started taking off. There was a lot of media attention about this crazy performance art scene in the East Village. People Magazine, of all things did a big story and included us. We just got amazing publicity for free. It got to the point where we decided to do the play Off-Broadway. We couldn't find a producer so we did it ourselves. We opened at the Provincetown Playhouse and got a rave in the Times. Overnight I went from an office temp to an actor/playwright making a living."
But the move to Off-Broadway meant the need to replace, Halston, who wasn't ready to sacrifice the security of her finance career.
"It wasn't just a job. They were grooming her for a real career. So do you give that up for a play that most likely will run one night? So she decided to keep her job and go from leading lady to understudy, and recommended her friend Meghan Robinson as a replacement. Meghan died of AIDS, very young, and as she was getting weaker, Julie started splitting the week with her."
With SLEEPING BEAUTY, OR COMA as a curtain raiser, VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM was a big hit, and during the run, Busch and company started returning to the Limbo Lounge for late-night performances of a new play.
"None of us had ever been in a long-running show. It had been well over a year since we opened Off-Broadway. We were getting kind of restless so we decided this crazy thing, to go back to the Limbo Lounge where we started in the old days - two years before - to do this crazy GIDGET GOES PSYCHOTIC. And it was nuts! We would still be in our makeup and wig caps and we'd all run outside on MacDougal Street and try to cram into taxis and off we'd go. The audience would already be in their place by the time we arrived. Just crazy but so much fun. A golden period of my life."
Retitled PSYCHO BEACH PARTY, the Gidget spoof would be another Off-Broadway hit. And while Busch considered himself to be more of an actor writing shows for himself than a playwright, circumstance turned him into one.
"I had done a solo show called FLIPPING MY WIG at the WPA Theatre. It was a collection of characters and songs. I had a character who was a Jewish Upper West Side lady of many frustrations and yearnings. It was a really good ten minute piece and one of the few things I had done that wasn't a reference to an old movie genre. For a long time I thought she'd be a good character for a play.'
After writing the book for the musical THE GREEN HEART for Manhattan Theatre Club, Artistic Director Lynne Meadow offered to produce his next play. Thinking their subscription base may not be interested is his usual drag offerings, he began writing THE TALE OF THE ALLERGEST'S WIFE for that Jewish Upper West Side woman. Instead of himself, the actor he had in mind was Linda Lavin, who he had seen in her Obie-winning performance in DEATH DEFYING ACTS. The play transferred to Broadway after its initial run, and Busch was now a Tony-nominated Broadway playwright.
Although many have called his work groundbreaking, Busch doesn't see it that way.
"I think the bigger battles were fought before me. When The New York Times took Charles Ludlam seriously that paved the way. I was compared with him a lot and in that sense I was lacking because I lacked his intellectual scope. I had to find my own voice. I'm very much in his genre but I like to think I've become my own individual."