BWW Interview: Richard Skipper Mesmerizes in An Evening With Richard Skipper: From Conway to Broadway at St. Luke's
Richard Skipper has spent many a night on a cabaret stage. Once the pre-eminent impersonator of the legendary Carol Channing, Mr. Skipper has spent recent years presenting other artists that he believes belong in the light. With his cabaret series "Richard Skipper Celebrates", this entertainer, raconteur, theater historian uses his platform to put a spotlight on others, whether he is interviewing them on a stage, on a red carpet or in print on his website, where his prolific blog covers a range of show business topics as wide as The Grand Canyon, befitting because, like The Grand Canyon, Skipper is one of the wonders of the world.
And now it's Richard's Turn.
On August 5th, the recent Artist in Residence at the Laurie Beechman Theatre took the stage at Midtown Manhattan's St. Luke's Theatre, not to interview Lesley Ann Warren or Anita Gillette, not to chat with Tippi Hedren or Marilyn Maye; the person standing in the light with the award-winning emcee and host was Richard Skipper himself.
An Evening with Richard Skipper: From Conway to Broadway tells the story of a precocious 13-year-old South Carolina-an who decided on August 5th, 1974 that he would move to New York in five years, to the day, and try his hand at show business. Sure enough, come August 5th, 1979, equipped with a one-way plane ticket and five hundred dollars, 18 year-old Ricky Skipper kept that promise to himself, and forty years later he is still nurturing, daily, his unquenchable thirst for the business of show: "The show business bug did not bite me, I bit it - and I bit it hard. I wanted to be in show business before I even knew what show business was."
The musical autobiography that Mr. Skipper presented was a true celebration of a gifted entertainer and a resilient human being - and it was an absolute delight. The standing-room-only audience was a veritable who's who of cabaret luminaries, all on hand to hear Skipper's tale, and it did not disappoint. Armed with only a few songs and impeccable comic timing , Richard spent most of his time on stage regaling with stories that anyone could relate to - especially anyone with a childhood dream of going on the stage, anyone who had been a small-town misfit, anyone from the south, or anyone with fond remembrances of New York of the 70s/80s. The over-forty crowd was so captivated by Skipper that only one person was seen tiptoeing out for a restroom break, an unheard-of feat in a two hour evening of theatre. Skipper's ability to paint a picture with words brought to life characters one might easily find in the writings of Willa Cather or Armistead Maupin, and it didn't matter that the characters weren't famous enough to give the audience a frame of reference because the true star of the night was the story being told. Oh, there were famous names, make no mistake: it would be impossible for Mr. Skipper to speak about his life without some delicious name-dropping, but it wasn't essential, except in the case of Carol Channing, for obvious reasons. Skipper's audience hung on his every word, riotous laughter and uncontrollable vocal response ringing in the air, and while much credit goes to his director, Jay Rogers, it was clear that the time for Richard Skipper to be celebrated is now.
In the days before this most personal presentation, I spoke with Mr. Skipper about what it's like to, finally, be the person standing center stage.
This interview has been edited for time and content.
Richard, From Conway to Broadway is your own story - you've spent much of your career focusing on telling other peoples' stories; what made you decide to turn inward and get so personal?
The anniversary: the fact that this is forty years to the day that I came to New York, that I will be doing this show. And it's very interesting because the show has gone through various incarnations. When you're doing a one-person show, what do you decide to tell? What stories do you want to share with everyone? Everything hasn't always been a bed of roses and it hasn't always been cherry pie -- there are dark aspects to my life. But there's enough of that outside, don't you think? So when people come to the theater I want people to ... My hope is that people leave in extreme pain, and the pain that I want them to leave with is that they've been smiling non-stop for ninety minutes.
What has been your emotional response to writing so intimate a piece of theater?
It has been like being in therapy for a year. A lot of things that I'd forgotten are coming up. Memories. It's funny because I don't work with a script, believe it or not; I work with an outline that is divided into various sections. There's the South Carolina portion, there's how I got to New York, there are my early days in New York, and there is the Carol Channing part of my life. All of those sections have a throughline to them. So when I meet with Jay Rogers, my director, every nine days, I come in and I just tell these stories. We started out with just the two of us sitting and having a conversation, and I would start to tell these stories and as time has gone on some stories resonate stronger than others. So we've circled around all of that, as the show is evolving, and the missing ingredient is the audience! There are certain people who are going to be sitting in the audience - my high school drama teacher is flying up from South Carolina, one of my best friends in the entire world is coming in from San Jose, she has remained a close friend for forty years! With her sitting in the audience it will take on a resonance that it doesn't have when I'm just sharing it with Jay.
How are you able to get anything done at rehearsals, working with the funniest man in the business, Jay Rogers?
Hahahahaha!! We laugh a lot. There's a reason I chose Jay Rogers: because he has that southern sensibility that I needed. I'm from the south. I came to New York in '79 and he came in '81. Different circumstances brought us to New York. I've known Jay for 30 years and we are two people who hug each other when we see each other and we respect each other tremendously, but we had never worked together! We never broke bread together. Spending a year with this guy, we shared a lot of stories, intimate stores that the rest of the audience will not hear! It has been an ongoing process, but we laugh a lot!
Do you share your creative process with (husband) Danny?
I've done a few salon-type evenings -- I've invited people for a very informal run through in my house, where just a few people come in and watch it; and Danny has sat in on those. Being with me for thirty years, he's heard a lot of these stories. The set design, because he's a landscape architect, is coming from him, but Danny has never gotten involved in that part of my life and career. He's never really weighed in unless he feels that I'm being pushed to a level that I should not be pushed to -- and then he's that protective person who will speak up.
With all of the many directions your work takes, how do you stay focused? Do you perform a daily meditation or anything?
I have an outline, and every morning I go through my outline. This may sound a little odd to you but I google New York City photographs on that date from 1979, taking me back to the look and feel of what New York City looked like, the day that I arrived in New York. It was a very different New York from what it is now.
With the popularity of social media, umbrage has become the national pastime, yet you succeed at remaining one of the positive energy forces online and in life - how do you manage to stay so optimistic in a world filled with negativity?
Blinders. I know who I am and I will tell you... Yesterday I did something... believe it or not, I unfollowed Donald Trump on Twitter. I unfriended him because I feel he is a cyberbully, this is my own personal opinion - I know this may turn some people off, but I feel that he is a cyberbully. To give adults who are leaders in this country, people who have been voted upon, to give them nicknames and to demean who they are, that is bullying. And we live in a culture that every aspect of -- I grew up as a product of 1960s/'70s television. The comedies that I grew up with were sitcoms. Comedies that are on television now are all put-down humor. When you think about reality television, every reality-based show is about one-upmanship. Someone's going to get kicked off the island, someone's cake is less than, someone's dress design is less than. You've got shows where they are tearing each other down instead of building each other up. I have reached a point where I do not engage, I try not to - I'm still a human being and I fail - I try not to engage in a discourse with someone I don't know. I do believe that everybody operates (for the most part) from a point of view from what they have been lead to believe their entire lives. What I have control over is what I choose to put into the world. And if every one of us operated from that point of view it would be a much different world that we live in.
You're one of the most fashionable men in the business, what's your favorite item of clothing to wear?
I'm very excited because I've got a new jacket that I'm debuting that night... and I wanted to find Ruby Slippers designed for a man's foot. There's a store in Rockland County called Via Roma and I found the jacket that I wanted and I found a pair of shoes. When I came back to pick up the jacket, I went to try on the shoes I was going to get and, lo and behold, out of the corner of my eye, I see a pair of Ruby Slippers! I went OH MY GOD and I put them on and they fit me perfectly. I cannot wait for the audience to see these shoes.
When you're writing does (your dog) Horace Vandergelder sit on your lap?
Hahahaha! Well, Horace Vandergelder very sadly is aging rapidly right before our very eyes. His legs are starting to go, he gets steroid shots when our vet comes to our house. He's lying in his bed looking directly at me as we speak. There are times when he comes and sits in my lap. We have a black Persian cat, he likes to sit on my desk and watch me. When I first got him his thing was to help type - he wanted to walk across the keyboard. But now he just sits there and watches me. Our four-legged friends are part of the sanity (keeping) me grounded.
Richard, what is your favorite song to sing in the shower?
Hahaha! Right now? The song that I'm singing in the shower is my opening song, and it's my closing song "This Minute"
What is your vision for An Evening with Richard Skipper: From Conway to Broadway after your premiere on August 5th?
My number one vision is to entertain. I want to be able to share my experiences of coming up against adversity, and that I always forged ahead. And that I never looked back. We had a next-door neighbor who always said "have something to fall back on in case it doesn't work out" and I always said to her "my fear is that if I have something to fall back on, I'll fall back on it". I've always forged ahead. Number one: I want the audience to feel as if they are at a party, sitting in my living room. I feed off of the energy of the audience. I'm hoping that the stories in this show are universal enough that I can take this on the road. I had a twenty-year remarkable career performing as Carol Channing, but it was always the hook of Carol Channing that brought a lot of people in to see me - that hook is no longer there. Carol Channing once said to me, I'll read it to you, I have it over my desk: "To my loving and devoted friend Richard: You are a great musical comedy star. You don't need to hide behind me, but you're fabulous as me. I love you right back, you know I do. Carol Elaine Channing." And the thing is that we were sitting in Carol's living room and she was holding my hand and she said "the world needs to know who you are" and I hope that those who do know me will have a better understanding of who and what I'm all about, and the fact that I AM optimistic. I try to go through life with a positive outlook. I want to be the antidote to all the negativity. That's why I call my business "Richard Skipper Celebrates" because I want to celebrate. Every day is worth celebrating.