BWW Interview: The Lady In Question! Charles Busch Brings His Iconic Cabaret To The COPA Palm Springs 10/16-17
CHARLES BUSCH, author and star of such plays as Psycho Beach Party, Times Square Angel, The Lady in Question, Red Scare on Sunset, You Should Be So Lucky, Shanghai Moon and The Divine Sister brings his iconic Cabaret stylings to The COPA Palm Springs for two "sure to be sell-out" performances, October 16 and 17 at 8:00 pm. His most recent plays are Judith of Bethulia, produced at Theater for the New City in 2012 and The Tribute Artist, which reunited him with Julie Halston, produced by Primary Stages Theatre Company in 2014. In 2003, Mr. Busch received a special Drama Desk Award for career achievement as both performer and playwright and was honored with a star on the Playwrights Walk outside the Lucille Lortel Theatre. I had the chance to catch up with Mr. Busch as he was preparing fort his cabaret performances this week in San Diego and Palm Springs. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation:
DG: Let me start by saying I very much admire you and your work.
CB: That's great. Some guys interview me and don't have a clue who I am. (He laughs)
DG: You've done it all. Actor, author, director, cabaret artist - and have been described and defined in the media in so many ways. How do you define yourself?
CB: I guess I would just say I'm an entertainer. That's really what I am. And old fashioned entertainer. As the song goes - "That's Entertainment" - all the things you've mentioned and all the things I've done could all be classified as entertainment. As far as what I am -- its tricky, you know. Everyone wants to be a little pretentious about not being defined as this or that. Well, for instance with drag. I'm from a generation where we didn't like being referred to as drag queens. We bristled and we thought it was a pejorative and a way of putting us down. Today, young drag performers embrace that phrase and revel in it. I've always shied away from "drag" being used to refer to me and, yet, at the same time - fifteen words or less you've got to define what you do. And I do dress in women's clothes on stage. You've got to call it somethin'.
DG: Tell me about where you're from and how your early life led you to a career in professional theatre.
CB: Hmm. Well, I was very fortunate. I'm actually from New York City. One of those rare people who's actually from New York City. I was exposed to the theatre since the day I was born. My father very much wanted to be an opera singer, and had a record store. But he always was doing summer stock and community theatre. My mother died when I was seven, and really the major figure in my life was my mother's older sister - my Aunt Lillian, who ultimately adopted me and I went to live with her --- very much like Auntie Mame - and, you know, she was very enthusiastic about everything I did. She thought I was genius and I was completely supported - if I hadn't had a career in theatre I'd have had no one to blame but myself. Because I was completely encouraged. I always wanted to be on stage and I always wrote - but it took me, I suppose, until I was in college when I finally figured out that I ws going to have a tough time with this as a regular traditional actor. That there weren't really going to be roles for me, being somewhat androgynous. And I didn't really want then either. I was a theatre major at Northwestern University and as much as I was disappointed at not being cast in different plays, there also weren't any roles that I was desperate to play. Fortunately, it was sort of the golden age of experimental theatre in New York, and so when I would go home on vacation from college I was exposed to the work of Charles Ludlam and all of the experimental theatre downtown artists - and I realized that I wrote and I acted and I should create my own kind of theatre. I always loved theatre history and I remember reading a biography of Sarah Bernhardt - the great French actress -- and how she, through great courage and against all odds, turned herself into this great theatrical figure. And that was my inspiration too - to be in control of my own destiny.
DG: And that's how you started your career out of college? The solo plays you created?
CB: Well, the thing was, I really wanted to star in plays that I wrote, but I was a completely unknown young person, and how do you do that? It was easier to write a solo show for myself that I could just try to get done somewhere. It's harder to get something done with an ensemble. I wrote a few solo pieces - and I was not in drag at the time - I was in just black pants and a shirt and I would tell stories and play all the characters in my narrative, both male and female, with no costume pieces of props, just storytelling. It was very hard, even being from New York, to start your career in New York. The pieces I was doing were so theatre-oriented they weren't really suited for a Cabaret situation, but I had to - I was never reviewed or anything and how many times can you get your friends to pay the cover and two drink minimum? So then I invented a scheme that maybe I could pawn myself off as a New York celebrity to small non-profits across the country that might not know better - (he laughs) - so the next couple of years I was able to convince a lot of very, very small non-profit theatres to book me --- and, so I was really learning and honing my craft all over the United States at different small venues - and I learned so much about characterization and exposition and all sorts of things. It took me ten years to finally earn a living in theatre, and they were rough years, but I was absolutely convinced that if I just pursued it with nothing stopping me, and if I continued to get better - if I continued to grow and learn - that it just had to work out. It's kind of deranged but I was just convinced it would.
DG: Do you prefer immersing yourself in a character in a more theatrical setting, or in doing the Cabaret performances?
CB: They're both very different, and they both have their plusses. For the past thirty years I've mostly been doing Cabaret work. This Cabaret thing has really suited my mood lately. Not wanting to have a mask between me and the audience and having it be unguarded and intimate. And. I'm so comfortable in drag at this point, after forty years, that my persona in my act is "me" - it's "here he is, Charles Busch" - except I'm looking like Greer Garson. (he laughs) But, I'm really me telling true stories - you know, my experiences - funny stories, my observations, and then singing a collection of very beautiful and eclectic songs - ranging from The Beatles to "The Rainbow Connection" to The Great American Songbook. I'm not the world's greatest singer, but I'm a good storyteller and I find songs that I can really act. And really relate to. And that's been very successful. And I've got a wonderful partner - Tom Judson - who I've known for many years and he's not only my musical director but we sing duets and it's almost - ALMOST - a double act (he laughs) - it's a very unique thing. At this point, the difference between the male and female of me has become so fluid that there's no great transformation. I just, kind of, dial up my persona a bit more. It's just me, and I'm loving that. However, there are certain elements about being in a play that I miss. And I think I'm ready to step in again - I have plans to do something in the spring. I miss the camaraderie of backstage life. And I miss playing things off of another person. I miss listening and responding to another person. I do. And the last play I did, The Tribute Artist, I really had a breakthrough about being in the moment and I'd like to take another crack at it. They both have meaning to me. In different ways.
DG: What would you consider your proudest career accomplishment, so far.
CB: Earning a living/ (he laughs) Really. I mean, it's very hard to earn a living as a performer. And I've done that for thirty years as an actor and a writer. And that's really an accomplishment. So, I'm really not being glib about it. As far a creatively - there are a bunch of things. You know, I wrote one novel called "The Whores Of Lost Atlantis" in the mid nineties and that was a huge achievement for me because I was so terrible in school - I was so completely un-scholastic -- so for me to write a novel - I couldn't even read a novel - but to write a whole book, just the discipline of that, and a book I am very proud of. You know, it's sort of a cult book and that made me feel really good about myself. I've kind of had to go through memory lane this past year. I've published my first anthology of monologues and scenes from my plays called "Outrageous! Monologues And The Odd Scene" and I've had to compile that and go through everything I've ever written - and I wanted to include some early stuff of mine, from my solo years - a well as a couple monologues from plays that were "in the trunk" that were never done - so it was interesting. A major institution wants all my papers and manuscripts for their collection, their archives, and so that's another example of how I've had to go through everything I've ever done. And it was painful and revelatory going through forty years of a creative life - and some even before that because I'm including some stuff I'd written as a child.
DG: Author. Actor, Director Playwright. Cabaret Artist.
CB: And I'm an artist too. I market my paintings.
DG: Which of those do you find the most challenging an which of those do you find the most comfortable?
CB: Hmmmm. (A long, long pause). Well, performing - there's a certain agony about it. It gets worse when you get older. I think. Whether it's a play eight shows a week or a Cabaret Act - there's a certain part of the day, or most of the day - many performers experience this - most, maybe - a nauseating anxiety - a nameless anxiety and it always hits me in my stomach. I always feel slightly nauseated for several hours before any show and you really wonder "what's the point of it all?" And I've gotten a little bit better lately, but you start wondering "what's the point?" Then you do the show - and you feel better when you're on stage - but it's like a tightrope - it's exhilarating and scary and self-critical - but then when it's over, it's such a big high that's it's addictive and you're ready to do it again. When I write I don't feel that. I'm just sitting home, comfortable. It's not emotional. And I must say, I'm happiest when I'm in the throes of writing something. It's drudgery when there's nothing there - when you sit there every day trying to crank something out - but once you really get going and you start re-writing and editing it's wonderful - it's almost an escape, in a way, rather than discipline. Five times a day I just want to get back to the computer to play some more. But I must say, with the Cabaret, singing has given me great pleasure and a challenge. I'm not really a trained singer and it's a mixture of talk and melody and shouting and feeling -- and it seems to work. And the more you do something the more confidence you get, And the more confidence you get the better you sound. I'm really, really fascinated by singing these days and by finding songs that mean something to me and that I can really share with an audience. It's a real pleasure.
DG: What a great answer.
CB: Well, I do go on a bit.
DG: One final question. What advice might you offer young, aspiring entertainers who might want to follow your path?
CB: Don't take anyone's advice. As far as "give up". If you really want it - it's so difficult - other people have said it, it's not an original thought - but if you have any doubt you shouldn't be doing it. It's a little like joining a convent. To me, I think it's very important to have a frame of reference and that young people should know what went on in the past. Watch TCM. Watch classic films. Read biographies of some of the great stage actors. It dismays me that so many people in the arts only have an interest in what's going on in their own life span. I think there's so much to learn from the past, as an artist.
DG: What a fascinating conversation with you. I thank you.
CB: I can't say I was terribly amusing but it came from my heart.