BWW Interview: Charles Busch Talks NATIVE NEW YORKER
Actor, playwright and cabaret entertainer Charles Busch's work includes Die Mommie Die, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. He's returning to London's Live at Zedel in June with his new show Native New Yorker.
Who first inspired you creatively?
I saw the 1962 movie of Gypsy when it first came out and I've never recovered from the romantic images of the shadowy backstage. The following year I saw my first Broadway show, a musical called Tovarich starring... Vivien Leigh.
I was a very worldly nine year old and I had already seen the film Gone with the Wind and was obsessed with Vivien Leigh. I remember it so vividly. She was incredibly glamorous and elegant. An indelible impression. Most likely, started my fascination with actresses.
I've read that you were shy growing up - was performing an expressive outlet for you?
It would have been, but I was rarely cast in a play. I think I loved it too much. I would be so enraptured at being on stage that I would forget all my lines.
When did you realise you wanted to perform as a career, and were your family supportive?
I always wanted to be an actor. My mother died when I was seven and I was raised by her sister, my Aunt Lil, who was widowed and had no children. She thought everything I touched was genius and tried to clear any obstacle that was in my way to fulfilling my creative life.
When did you start to write your own material - and was that to fill a gap for the kind of work you wanted to do?
I was very influenced by the work of an extraordinary playwright/director/actor named Charles Ludlam, who had his own troupe in New York called the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. He was a great inspiration to me and something of a mentor.
I had been writing plays since I was eleven; I don't know why it took me to the advanced age of 18 to figure out that I could write starring roles for myself. I've been blessed with a pragmatic nature and I knew from the beginning that I would have no success in the theatre unless I created opportunities for myself.
When you're developing a show, what's your starting point?
There's a large fantasy element to my work and my career. More often than not, my plays have stemmed from a daydream of mine such as "Wouldn't it be fun to be Bette Davis or Joan Crawford in a 1960s horror movie?". Out of that came my play Die Mommie Die. I count my blessings every day that I've been so fortunate to have had this eccentric career.
Do you set out to "shock" an audience, or test what you can do or say on stage?
I've never seen myself as a "shock" writer or performer. I hope it doesn't sound hopelessly sappy, but only recently I've come to see that my entire artistic life is based on love.
My love of classic film and theatre history. My love of actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. My love for the remarkably small group of directors who have worked so closely with me. Most of the roles in my plays have been written for specific actors, and it derives from my love for them and their talent.
I do enjoy the effect of a bawdy line, but it's never meant to shock. It's more of a shared joke.
Are you more naturally a writer or a performer - or does one inform the other?
I became a writer to give myself opportunities to act, but as the years went by, I derived more and more pleasure from the writing itself. I'd say I'm happiest when I'm in the throes of writing a new play. And yes, they do inform each other.
I know myself very well as an actor, both my strengths and my limitations. I write dialogue for myself with all of my line readings laid out. It makes rehearsals go by very swiftly. That said, I love when I play scenes with a wonderful actor whose spontaneity forces me to change those prepared line readings - in rehearsal and in performance.
How do you feel when you perform in drag?
Assuming a female role for me comes from a very profound place. It's so connected to my creative spirit. I'm very comfortable with both the male and female within me. I love them equally. There's no big sense of transformation. To go from the male to the female for me is as simple as walking through a door.
Many times I've played female characters in staged readings or recordings and I'm not in drag, and I still feel the same sense of female authenticity. It's a part of me. It's not about a costume.
There's been a lot of discussion recently about 'camp' entails (ahem, Met Gala...!). What does it mean to you?
It's a challenge to define a sensibility. Certainly one aspect of camp that amuses me as a spectator is the separation between how the performer or film perceives itself and what the audience sees. For instance, a classic camp film such as Valley of the Dolls was meant to be a first-rate examination of the vagaries of show business. The actors took themselves very seriously, but audiences - particularly gay men - viewed it as over the top and outrageous.
Was it a hard transition to performing out of drag, and doing other people's work?
Yes. In the Nineties, I had a recurring role for two seasons on the HBO prison series Oz. I played an androgynous murderer on death row, with a surprisingly lavish rack of gowns and a shelf full of wigs in my cell.
I thought I was a bit awkward and self-conscious in my male scenes, but full of confidence and authority when the character was in drag. It made sense. The "actor" had very little experience, while the "actress" had played thousands of performances.
In the past 40 years, I've rarely appeared in other people's work. Once in a while, because I think it's "good for me," but I'm much happier in my own world.
Tell us about Native New Yorker - what can we expect?
I've been performing in cabaret for the past seven years and it's been a wonderful chapter of my life. I work very closely with my musical director/arranger/ pianist/vocal duet partner, Tom Judson. For the first five years, I was in drag, because I felt that's what my audience expected and it was comfortable for me.
However, there was a disconnect. I would be introduced as "Charles Busch" and tell personal anecdotes and sing Sondheim and Joni Mitchell. I was sort of in my persona as a faux great lady, and sort of not. I made the decision about three years ago to remove Salome's seventh veil and be completely unguarded.
I love it. I think one of the great pleasures of performing in cabaret is being your authentic self. I like to give the audience the feeling that they are in my living room and I'm being a fun and generous host.
This particular show, Native New Yorker, is all about my struggles in the Seventies and early Eighties trying to establish a place for myself in show business. It was a rocky road. It's a funny story and I hope an inspiring one. Thank God it worked out! Tom and I are performing a lovely collection of songs from the Seventies from Broadway, film and pop.
Are you excited about bringing it to London, and do you think UK audiences will have a different response?
I hope not. This will be my second engagement at Zedel. Tom and I performed there four years ago and had a wonderful time. I really didn't find any difference in audiences. It kind of surprised me. Perhaps in another life I was a British music hall performer. I feel somehow connected to that tradition.
Has LGBT+ representation in the industry improved since you first started out? Are you proud to be part of that change? And what would you like to see happen in future?
A huge change. When I was starting out in the Seventies, there were virtually no roles for an androgynous young man. This was before "Torch Song Trilogy" or "Love, Valour and Compassion" or "Angels in America."
There is now something of range of gay male roles in contemporary theatre. However, lesbian characters are still appallingly underrepresented. In film and television, I would like to see more LGBT actors playing cisgender roles. It's beginning to happen. To me, that's progress.
Finally, if you could have a fantasy dinner party with three classic Hollywood actresses, who would you choose and why?
Hmmm, I think I would prefer to have at the table two of my favourite film directors, George Cukor and Billy Wilder, and my favourite creative producer, David O. Selznick. I find them and their work endlessly fascinating. They were all known for their charm and wit and would be full of stories about my favourite actresses. Now, you've really got me going.
Photo credit: Michael Wakefield