BWW Interviews: Tony-Nominated Charles Busch

By: Jan. 22, 2011
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Charles Busch is one of Broadway and Off Broadway’s genuine stars, a highly acclaimed actor whose performances as the leading lady have earned him critical praise. As a writer of everything from the Tony Award-nominated Tale of the Allergist's Wife to his homage/parodies of the golden era of Hollywood including Die, Mommie, Die and The Lady in Question he has received high praise from both critics and audiences alike.

For 25 years he has entertained and enthralled audiences both on stage and screen whilst remaining true to his downtown roots from his early 80s hits such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party. Actor, Playwright, Screen Writer, Novelist - he’s managed to put his stamp on all aspects, it’s no wonder that his latest hit The Divine Sister that has extended its run twice so far has been so well received, a new play by Charles Busch is an event in itself.

This year my fringe Production Company Vertigo Theatre Productions have the great honour of performing two of his Off Broadway smash hits, ‘Psycho Beach Party’ and ‘Die, Mommie, Die!’ both for the first time here in the UK. To say it’s a thrill for all involved is an understatement and we know that the special magic that Charles Busch plays have will thrill UK audiences as much as it has done in the US.

I got to ask the great man himself some questions about his plays, movies, friendships and what UK audiences should expect from his work.

Hi Charles, how are things going over at The Divine Sister?

Extremely well. The run keeps getting extended and the audiences have been wonderfully affectionate and enthusiastic. It doesn't get better than that.

You and the wonderful Julie Halston have had a long standing friendship, how does it feel to be back on stage with her again?

Julie and I have been performing together for twenty-five years and it's just the most comforting experience being onstage with her and offstage as well. In a certain sense, the whole point of my writing The Divine Sister was to allow me to spend more time with Julie. I find her endlessly amusing, generous, sweet and smart and outrageous. I couldn't love her more.

Old movies have been a constant theme running throughout you career, from the beach movies in your play Psycho Beach Party to the melodramas in Die, Mommie, Die!, what draws you to the Hollywood golden era for inspiration and could you see yourself paying homage/parodying any recent movies or other genres?

I guess I'm something of a film historian and I'm always fascinated by the way movie genres illuminate the times in which they were made. It's not quite enough for me just to spoof an old movie. For instance, Die Mommie Die is my version of a mid-1960's suspense movie starring an aging actress like Lana Turner or Susan Hayward, but I like to think it also says something about a period when Hollywood was terribly confused about how to adapt their usual formulas to a radically changing time. All of the older characters in the play are in a kind of limbo, out-of-date and desperately trying to be relevant.

Your Aunt Lil was a huge influence in your life; can you tell us about her and her influence on you?

My mother died when I was seven and my father was something of a free spirit. I was extraordinarily fortunate that my mother had an older sister who adored me and adopted me and took me to live with her in New York City. She was a woman of remarkable insight and a genius intellect. She appreciated everything that made me unique and cleared every road to allow me to express my creativity.

As someone who works in fringe theatre myself and tackles the issues those fringe venues can bring I find your days at the Limbo Lounge so fascinating. What are your fondest memories of those days?

I have to admit that over the years I've romanticized that period of my life to a great degree. In fact, most of the time, we were in fits of hysteria trying to put on plays in a grunge art gallery/bar. You couldn't depend on anything. There was always a last minute catastrophe. However, there was a magic to it. In that pre-internet time, it was amazing how quickly word spread and our little troupe really did adore each other. It's a fantastic feeling being discovered.

So many of your plays are such standouts (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Red Scare on Sunset, Times Square Angel etc), since getting to know you and your work I can't get enough, one of my favourites (along with Die, Mommie, Die! and Psycho Beach Party of course) is The Lady in Question. If you had to pick one of your many plays as a favourite which would it be?

I think Red Scare on Sunset is my most complex play but I enjoyed performing The Lady in Question the most. Gertrude Garnet is a very glamorous role. How many plays are there where the leading lady shoots a Nazi Baron and escapes across the Alps on skis?

As someone who has seen New York and the downtown theatre scene through the 80s to the present day which era was your favourite and what's the biggest difference staging an Off Broadway show today than back then?

I was fortunate to have begun my commercial theatrical career in the eighties. All of my plays that started in non-profit theatres transferred to commercial runs Off-Broadway. That wouldn't happen today. In fact, the late eighties was sort of the end of that era. I just made it. Today, a commercial Off-Broadway transfer almost never happens. My producer, Daryl Roth, is just about the only Broadway producer who has a solid commitment to producing Off-Broadway.

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife was another high point and we got to see a Charles Busch play on Broadway (for a fantastic 777 performances); how was it having a show on the great white way?

Everyone in the world should have a hit Broadway show! It's a glorious feeling. Seeing your name and the title of your play on the marquee of a famous old theatre, and hearing a thousand people every night laughing at the same lines. Making all that money!

Many people here will be surprised to know that you actually starred in the TV series OZ, tell us about your memories of that and what it was like working on such a series?

I didn't star in OZ. I had a recurring role for two seasons. But I had a couple of very good episodes. I don't really pursue an acting career. I have a terror of auditions. I don't put myself through that anymore. But every few years, I get offered something and the role on OZ was written for me. It was all so realistic; the set, the actors. Sometimes I really did feel like I was going to prison for the day. One day, I had nothing to do in the scene but lie in my cell on death row. I fell asleep and then someone woke me up and told me I was done for the day!

The movie versions of Die, Mommie, Die! and Psycho Beach Party are brilliant and here in the UK are what you are best known for. How difficult was the process of taking your own stage play and adapting it to the big screen?

Screenwriting doesn't come easy to me. My plays are so dialogue driven and screenwriting really should be about telling a story in images. Bob King, who directed Psycho Beach Party, was very helpful to me in adapting that play. It was his idea to make it more of a real thriller. The play is much more gentle. I loooved making the movie of Die, Mommie, Die. To actually star in an old fashioned women's picture was just fantastic. I don't think I've ever been more engaged creatively, emotionally, physically. I truly appreciated every single moment of every day that we filmed that movie. When we finished shooting, I went through a terrible period of withdrawal.

 As one of New York's best loved stage actors you have won many awards in your career but two that stand out are the nomination for Best Play at the Tony Awards for Tale of the Allergist's Wife and a Sundance Film Festival Award for your performance in the screen version of Die, Mommie, Die! Can you tell us what that was like?

Being nominated for a Tony Award was thrilling! I knew I didn't have a chance of winning, but it was a great year to be nominated for Best Play. That year each of the nominated playwrights had a scene on the telecast and the playwright got to introduce it! And the Sundance Award meant a great deal to me. I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder that because I play female roles, I'm not considered a real actor. So to have this prestigious jury at Sundance, which included Tilda Swinton and Steve Buscemi, think I gave a great acting performance, well... I had to get a new personality. I couldn't have that chip on my shoulder any longer. Or at least not for a month or two.

I get the feeling that you are very much a perfectionist when it comes to your writing, would you say that writers are never fully satisfied with the end project and always want to change things?

I don't think of myself as a perfectionist but I love editing. I always want to cut things. Even during this long run of The Divine Sister, I'm continually cutting lines here and there that fall flat. I like keeping things moving. The published versions of my plays are always somewhat different from the original production. I try to correct things that I learned during the theatrical run.

 Your directorial debut was with the movie A Very Serious Person (which you also starred in), how did you find directing?

I love directing movies. I've never directed a play and I don't think I'd like that. Once the play starts, the actors can do what they want. I love in a movie getting it exactly the way you want it. And it was wonderful in A Very Serious Person having the chance to play a realistic role in a very minimalist cinematic way. The movie never received a theatrical release, but truthfully, it looks better on a small TV screen. It was done on a very low budget. I'm very proud of it and the summer we spent making the movie was very, very special. I simply haaave to make another movie!

Carl Andress is a brilliant director and has directed many of your works from Die, Mommie, Die! to your current hit The Divine Sister, what draws you two to each other?

Carl understands me so well, as a writer and actor. Nothing needs to be explained. We're always in synch. He knows all of my eccentricities and strengths and weaknesses and protects me in every way possible.

Playing so many Diva roles on stage one could be forgiven thinking you have a little diva in you yourself, however getting to know you over the past few months you are one of the nicest people in this industry I've ever had the pleasure of talking too, what or who keeps you grounded?

Well... sometimes I can be a little diva-ish. I've had my moments. But they don't come too often and occasionally it is necessary to make a loud noise. But I really pride myself on ultimately being sensible and I have a very tough code of professionalism. I'm not a kook or a mad artist. I'm a solid pro who delivers. Although my Aunt has been dead over ten years, when I get worked up over silly things, I still hear her voice in my head telling me to cool it and not be an "ass---e."

You have worked as a book writer on a few musicals including the cult hit ‘Taboo' (which I'm obsessed with), would you ever like to do another Broadway Musical?

I've had bad luck with musicals. Being the book writer on a musical, I think, is a very thankless task. If it's successful, you don't get the credit and if it's a flop, you take the blame. There are so many more people involved than in a straight play. I don't think I ever want to get closer to a Broadway musical than row D, center.

If you had to pick one famous leading lady from Hollywood's golden era to sit down and have lunch with who would it be and why?

Hmmm. I think it's best not to get to know your idols. I'd rather get to know my favourite authors. But if I had to pick, perhaps I'd choose Bette Davis. I think we'd hit it off. I really do believe that her performance as Baby Jane is one of the most audacious, fascinating and complex film performances ever put on film.

My company Vertigo Theatre Productions are bringing two of your classic plays to the UK for the first time, how do you feel knowing that UK audiences are finally going to get to see some of your brilliant and hilarious stage plays and what can they expect from your work?

It's unfortunate that in thirty years I've never performed in the UK. Every few years a production is about to happen and then it falls through. I hope my humor translates and it all seems fresh. What I hope UK audiences will see is that behind the campy laughs and film references, there is a core of emotion in both plays. I love narrative and I always want the audience to lose themselves in the story as well as enjoying the outrageous elements.

You played Angela Arden and Chicklet Forrest in Die, Mommie, Die! and Psycho Beach Party respectively, in our productions Dale Vicker and Brad Stoloff are our leading ladies, what advice could you give them on playing these roles?

The tendency of most actors when they play a "drag" role, is to go very broad and exaggerated. My approach to playing female characters is actually to be constrained. Physically, a woman is more protective of her body and there is a tension in the way she holds herself, even facially. I think it's also very important to do your homework and really study the movies that these plays reference. Really study the movie Gidget and really study actresses like Susan Hayward and Joan Crawford. There's a way of looking and a way of seeing. Don't just try and play mannerisms but truly understand why that actress is making that particular choice. Understand it intellectually and emotionally and within the context of the time that the film was made. It ain't easy.

The UK Premiere Productions of Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! open March 16th at the fringe venue Taurus Bar on Manchester's famous Canal Street in the heart of the gay village. Tickets are almost sold out so book now to avoid disappointment.

Book tickets online

Or by phone on 0843 208 0500





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