Since the mid-eighties, Charles Busch has been the author, star, female impersonator, and the object of adoration of die-hard fans who have followed his Off-Broadway career, including his classic theater creations: The Divine Sister, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium, Red Scare on Sunset, and Die! Mommy! Die!
At age 63, and after a successful TV, film, and theater career, once again the playwright has written a new chapter of his life. In fact, in the last five years, the response to his cabaret show has proven to him that magical things can happen unexpectedly.
January 12, Charles Busch will kick off Palm Beach Dramaworks new series, OutStage@PBD. Meanwhile, get close and personal with the iconic Charles Busch.
On the subject of the small theatre venue, what are your thoughts about launching Dramaworks new series OutStage@PBD with your cabaret show? I am honored to begin a series that starts a conversation between the LGBTQ community and the theater. It will be a wide appeal for everyone, and I am pleased to be the beginning; I hope it is a good beginning. Quite a pressure on me to do a good job, don’t you think? It will work! [laughing]
In a recent interview, I read that this is a new chapter of your life. How so? Well, how long can you get away with saying it’s a new chapter? [laughs] It’s been going on for five years, and when you are as old as I am, for sure there’s only one chapter left. But, my career in showbiz has been a good one. I’ve been in theater most of my life, though I’ve also done a few films. A lot of the plays I’ve written have been material for my show. And I often play the female lead. Five years ago, I got a call from a cruise line wanting me to perform on their ship. I was like, well, I don’t have an act! I had done some cabaret work in the past, but at this time I didn’t have a musical director or anything. And then they told me how much they would be paying me. I thought, well, I better get my act together!
Literally! Yes, literally. I had three weeks notice, so I contacted Tom Judson, musical director, who has been a friend for over 30 years. He was thrilled to put this show together and we started rather quickly with some old material of mine. We had a ball doing it. Suddenly, the show had a life of its own. We’ve traveled over 25 cities with the show in places I never thought I would take it to, like London and Paris. And on Tuesday, we leave for Spain.
So, something so unexpected has turned out to be a magical thing. It has been a nice surprise. I mean, I had done a few musicals and I’ve sung in shows, but not like this. Tom keeps challenging me and pushing me to do more complicated productions. Last year, I took the drastic choice to take voice lessons and it’s helped tremendously. When you’re a performer you must challenge yourself and do those kinds of things.
Like most shows that last a few years, has it evolved in any way? Well, at first I began doing the show as a monologue. I was a bit insecure vocally so I talked through the show, but then I began to sing and paying close attention to the lyrics and the melody to tell the story.
What do you like most about a cabaret show? I love how personal it is. I like being on the spot and ad-libbing. It’s fun and it changes in every performance. I do a lot of storytelling, but I intentionally write down just the talking points, because I don’t want it to come out like a script. I like the spontaneity of talking to the audience; it’s how I like to tell a story.
Where may your fans see you next? After this show we go to Alabama, Los Angeles, San Diego and Palm Springs. We get around!
In 2000, you were honored with a star on the Playwrights’ Sidewalk outside the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street in New York City, joining an illustrious roster of playwrights, such as Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Sam Shepard and more recent writers such as Douglas Carter Beane and Paula Vogel, whose work has filled the theaters of Off-Broadway. Did that star change your life in any way? It’s not the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but it is an honor to have a star with your name on a sidewalk in New York City alongside such scribes. It’s really sweet. That section of 121 Christopher Street is near my house in Greenwich Village, so oftentimes I take a walk over there to make sure there’s no gum stuck to my name! [laughs] Sometimes when I walk over to the local theaters, there’s a tour bus looking at the area. And I feel propelled to point at my star. Those poor souls don’t have a clue of who I am.
So for years critics have walked all over playwrights, now the public can too? [laughs] That’s funny.
After finding success on Broadway, in Hollywood, on TV, what made you return to your Off-Broadway roots with The Divine Sister at the SoHo Playhouse? Well, I tell ya, this is a very cool and super historic Off-Broadway theater.
The theatre opened in 1962 as the Village South Theatre with the original production of Jean Erdman’s musical play The Coach with the Six Insides, which was based upon James Joyce’s last novel Finnegans Wake. A great organization that provided a platform for untested new playwrights to premiere their works. Yes, that’s right. After a 35-year relationship with them, I came to realize that this off-the wall theater is my alma mater. They produced my very first play in 1982. Every couple of years after that, when I felt discouraged and needed a boost, I would just go back to that theater, book it, and write a play. So, all these plays like The Divine Sister were never intended to have a long life or move to a commercial production. They were created to be in the city for a few weeks. And it was a success.
And you would invite the critics? Yes, of course. [laughs] And then after the show ended, the cast and I would hang out and have a good time. It was so much fun and it was over so quickly. Actually, in April 2018, we are going back to do a play called Loui Dare, which is a character from the 30s.
What I love about your work is that you take something from film, like a character, and adapt it quite nicely into a theatre production, which is often done the opposite way—from theater to film. I think it comes from my daydreaming, as I think, wouldn’t it be fun to do Cleopatra, or a Mother Superior and then do that… I always wanted to do a part where I aged like forty years in the life of a character, so it gives me the opportunity to play a sixteen year old to an old crone.
You like to portray actresses from the golden age of cinema for shows you write and star in. So, as you watched movies and TV when you were a kid, what movies and actors influenced you the most and help you become the actor and writer you are today? My father was an old movie buff. My mother died when I was young, so my father hired a housekeeper to help take care of my sister and I. We had to give her my bedroom, and so I shared his room. My father worked most nights so when he came home at night he liked to watch the Late Show, and this was the perfect time for my father and I to spend time together. We would watch TV shows or films until one in the morning. That’s where I got my film education.
Didn’t that interfere with school? It did! That’s the reason why I was a terrible student. Fortunately, my mother’s older sister, my aunt Lilian, who lived in New York City, came into the picture in the nick of time and had us live with her. She was a great influence in my life. Any interest I had, she helped develop it. Being an adolescent in Manhattan was great because I was interested in the performing arts. It was the perfect place for me. I love all the actresses of the romantic era of the 30s and 40s—Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Greer Garson, Barbara Standwyck.
Some of them were a bit scary… Yes, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis for sure. [laughs]
In your twenties you booked yourself around the country in small non-profit theatres. How difficult was that and how did it help you become the iconic Charles Busch? My twenties were very frustrating. But, just like all young people, you go through a time of questioning this and that. I’m quite a pragmatic person. Even in college I was realizing that I was going to have a very difficult time if I was going to pursue a creative career. I thought of roles that I would be wonderful in, and then I started seeing more experiential theater in the 70s. I admired Charles Ludlam, a great actor, writer, director, producer.
He was the founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York City. That’s right. And after studying him, I realized that I could create roles for myself, and my own theatrical world. I didn’t have to audition for roles I wasn’t good for.
Was that when you first started to write? No, actually I had always had an interest in writing. I don’t know why it took all the way to the age of twenty to realize that. I was writing plays from the time I was ten years old. Now, looking back it seems strange how all the teachers that I had in grade school and high school, thought I had nothing to offer. I was so invisible to them. And while I was failing in their classrooms, on my own I was writing full length plays, movie scripts, and all sorts of things.
I was the same way, writing plays since I was seven years old. Yes, so you see, the passion for writing starts young. I guess my teachers couldn’t look past my grammatical errors and misspellings.
But later on you were committed to create your own work. Yes, but when I realized that it was going to be very difficult to put a play on with an ensemble, I created plays as a solo performer.
That takes a lot of drive… I went all over the country with it, creating plays with characters of the past. It was eight years of traveling, and I was convinced that if I just kept learning and getting better, and if I just kept pursuing this doggedly, then it had to work.
How long did it take you before you were successful at it? It took me about a decade. And during those ten years it was frustrating to see my friends from college getting into television and Broadway, or into advertising and making good money. And I was struggling, taking on all kinds of crazy jobs to be able to pay the rent. Fortunately, I draw well, so one of my jobs was as a portrait artist. Yes, it was a very difficult ten years and I grew up pretty fast and soon after that I started working full time as a writer/actor.
Looking back, are you impressed with that young man? Yes, very much so.
Do you see yourself first as a writer or as an actor? Well, that depends on my mood! [laughs] Originally, I became a writer strictly to write my own scripts. Then, the acting was less important. But, I draw such pleasure from writing. And I would say that I am truly the happiest when I am in the middle of a writing project—when I am re-writing, re-arranging and taking things apart. I just can’t wait to return to the computer the next day. I love it. I really love it. And like a lover, sometimes I feel betrayed by it, because I feel mediocre at times, but then I eagerly come back to it. I am 63 years old and I still love it.