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Friday, October 8, 2010

Deeper Dish with Charles Busch

I first became a fan of Charles Busch after reading his hilarious 1993 novel, Whores of Lost Atlantis, but it wasn't until 2000 that I finally got to see him perform in the film version of his play, Psycho Beach Party. He, of course, was thoroughly delightful as policewoman Monica Stark, who stole the movie whenever she appeared. The actor, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, director and drag legend has been entertaining audiences for many years - but the play that put him on the map was the story of a bitter rivalry between two bloodsucking actresses called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. First performed at the Limbo Lounge in New York City's East Village in 1984, the show became so popular that it was moved to Off-Broadway, where it ran for five years. Since then, Charles has written and starred in Times Square Angel (1984), Psycho Beach Party (1987), The Lady in Question (1988), Red Scare on Sunset (1991), You Should Be So Lucky (1994), Swingtime Canteen (1995), Flipping My Wig (1996), Queen Amarantha (1997), Shanghai Moon (1999), Die Mommie Die! (1999) - which became a feature film in 2003 - and The Third Story (2008).

In addition to acting in his own theatrical works, Busch has also found time for many other creative endeavors over the years. His film appearances include Addams Family Values (1993), It Could Happen to You (1994) and Trouble on the Corner (1997) as well as the 2006 drama, A Very Serious Person, which he co-wrote and directed. Charles appeared as Peg Barlow on the daytime soap opera, One Life to Live, in 2001 and as prisoner Nat Ginzburg for two seasons on HBO's Oz. He also rewrote the book for the 2003 Broadway production of the Boy George musical, Taboo, and his wonderful play, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife (in which he did not star), received a 2001 Tony Award nomination for Best Play and ran on Broadway for 777 performances.  He was even the subject of a 2006 documentary about his "drag to riches" life story entitled The Lady in Question is Charles Busch.

And the hits just keep coming for this brilliantly talented man, whose latest play, The Divine Sister, has received rave reviews since opening Off-Broadway last month. Ben Brantley of The New York Times says "this gleefully twisted tale of the secret lives of nuns — in which the playwright doubles as leading lady — is Mr. Busch’s freshest, funniest work in years". So I am thrilled and honored that the Mother Superior of St. Veronica's convent school has taken time out of "her" busy schedule to be here on the Dish to discuss Charles Busch's amazing career and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let’s begin with The Divine Sister. What inspired you to write it?
I was feeling a bit burnt out after my last few theatrical outings, and I thought it would be good therapy to do a play with a group of friends that I adore and make the emphasis of the entire experience be one of great fun - and hopefully that would translate to the audience. Also, I have always had a great passion for Hollywood films that express a fabulously phony reverence and spirituality. I'm just crazy about everything from The Bells of St. Mary's to The Da Vinci Code.

Do you remember the first time you put on a dress and realized you “enjoyed being a girl”?
My, dear, I don't enjoy being a girl. Trust me, I'm all boy and that's the way I like it. However, since childhood I have dreamed of being a great actress. I never dressed up in girls' clothes when I was a kid. The first time I did drag was in college. My best friend and I read about a drag party in Chicago, where I went to school. We got all dressed up and showed up and it turned out to be a heterosexual crossdressers support group. After the initial fascination with all the truck drivers dressed in prom dresses wore off, I got bored and uncomfortable. It got me thinking even at that early stage that I needed to have a script, a character to play and an audience.

Is it true that after you attended Northwestern University back in the '70s, you worked for two years in Chicago with a small company of actors who resented your writing and starring in all their shows?
Yes, it was a pretty devastating experience - but also kind of fantastic. During this time, I produced my play, Myrtle Pope, The Story of a Woman Possessed, and performed it all over Chicago in all sorts of peculiar places - movie theaters after the last screening, pubs, gay bars - and I began to feel a wonderful rapport with audiences and get the sense that I had found my place in the theatre, writing and performing my own work.

Were you surprised when Vampire Lesbians of Sodom became such a big hit? And did its success change your life?
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was such a miracle. When we first put it on for one weekend in a bar in Alphabet City, we never dreamed that it would eventually transfer to a real Off-Broadway theatre. And its success totally changed my life. Before it opened, I had to work as an office temp, an ice cream scooper, a receptionist in a zipper factory, an artist's model, and a quick sketch portrait artist - and the day after it opened, I could earn my living as a writer/actor and have ever since.

What is one of the funniest moments you have had while acting onstage?
I'm very good about not cracking up onstage, but if someone's wig slips or falls off, I'm off to the races. I have to hold onto the proscenium arch. I won't stop laughing. And you'd be amazed how often that has happened. Someone being shook and their wig flies off, or a long wig catching on another actor's costume, or the weight of the wig forcing it to slide back - I'm helpless.

Did you enjoy your trip to Oz (the HBO series)?
Well, I was a huge fan of the show. I was on the phone to my manager, Jeff Melnick, fantasizing how cool it would be to have a role on Oz. He immediately called the producer who thought it was a great idea and they wrote me in. That certainly has never happened before or since. I described to Tom Fontana, the creator of the show, the kind of character I thought I could play, and he made it happen. And it shot just a few blocks from where I live. It was a great experience.

How did you end up on One Life to Live? And have you ever been a fan of a soap opera?
I was a great devotee of Dark Shadows when I was a kid, but that's it. With One Life To Live, the producer called my manager and said they had a role for me as a lady who ran a modeling agency. I assumed that at some point, they'd want to pull my wig off and reveal that Peg Barlow was a man, but no, they just thought it would be cool casting. I was thrilled. I felt like I was in the movie Tootsie. But, boy, that's hard work. I'm very slow and insecure about memorizing lines, and even though my role wasn't big, I was a nervous wreck. I don't know how those soap stars do it.

What inspired you to write Whores of Lost Atlantis? And do you have any plans to write another book?
I had an agent years ago at William Morris who was chatting with an editor at Harper Collins and together they thought I should write a novel. It does seem like things just sort of happen to me - and they do. My life seems to be a series of flukes and miracles. But I guess I've placed myself in situations where luck could find me. Anyway, I jumped at the bait and loved writing a novel. It's such a pure form of self-expression. For someone who was so hideously unscholastic, completing a novel was an enormous achievement. I still can't believe I finished it. The book was highly autobiographical and now I can't remember what is the truth and what I made up. I'd love to write another novel. I hope I will someday.

If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
Take risks. Don't bother with "what will people think." Nobody really cares.

In high school I was:

My favorite comfort food is:
Ritz crackers with cream cheese.

When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
The Judy Garland Show.

If I could go back in time and see any Broadway show, I would see:
Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie.

If I could give an Oscar for any neglected film performance of the past, I would give one to:
Garbo in Camille.

Three of my favorite movies are:
Waterloo Bridge, I'm No Angel and Rosemary's Baby.

If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive (besides my partner), it would be:
James Franco.

If I could have anyone in the world - living or dead - be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Noël Coward, the director George Cukor and Adam Lambert.

What's next for Charles Busch?
I have a new play that will be produced by Primary Stages Theatre in the summer of 2011. It's somewhat in the vein of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, and I hope one of my all-time favorite actresses, whom I can't name right now, will be starring in it.

Thank you, Charles, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. Tickets to The Divine Sister at NYC's SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam Street) can be purchased either by phone (212-352-3101), in person at the box office, or online at And to learn more about Mr. Busch, check out his groovy website at and become a fan on Facebook.

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