Interview With the Vampire
Charles Busch on his fabulous career and the benefit event that will feature a performance of his camp epic Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.
THEATERMANIA: How did you come up with the idea for Vampire Lesbians of Sodom?
CHARLES BUSCH: In 1984, my friend Ken Elliott and I went to see a friend perform at a very strange little after hours bar/art gallery/performance space on Avenue A, called the Limbo Lounge. I was so enthralled with this very avant-garde, edgy, decadent space that I immediately asked the owner if I could put on a show there. He booked me to a weekend three weeks later. I was working as a temp receptionist and quickly wrote this short sketch that I called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Because I had no money and didn't want to spend any, I set the play in ancient Sodom so we could just wear G-strings and high heels and bits of tulle netting; and in 1920s Hollywood, which would also be easy to fake. I called up various friends who I knew wouldn't be too proud to appear in something so slapdash, and Ken directed the play. We did it for one weekend. I never expected to do drag any longer than that, but it took off and we ended up calling ourselves Theatre-in-Limbo. As our cult of admirers grew and grew, we decided to produce the show ourselves Off-Broadway. We had to raise $55,000, which to us was millions. Somehow, all of our friends and family chipped in and we opened at the historic Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street. We got a rave in The New York Times and, miraculously, the show became a hit and ran five years. It's one of the longest running non-musicals in Off-Broadway history.
TM: What was the first show you remember seeing? Did it inspire you?
CB: The first time I was in a real theater was when my father took me to the old Metropolitan Opera House to see the great diva Joan Sutherland in La Sonnambula. I was seven years old and almost delirious being in that magnificent, 19th century, gilded jewel box, seeing this extraordinary, red-haired diva perform. I've never recovered.
TM: Do you have a favorite show?
CB: My favorite show at the moment is Doubt. Everything about it is so brilliant. It's inspired me to want to work harder.
TM: What prompted you to write The Tale of the Allergist's Wife? Is the central character, Marjorie Taub, based on you?
CB: The play started out as a six-minute monologue that I performed as part of Flipping My Wig, a solo show I did in 1997. I played a lady named Miriam Passman, who had great longings and creative frustrations. For several years afterward, I thought about writing a play about that kind of lady. Then I wrote the book to a musical called The Green Heart for MTC and established a relationship with its artistic director, Lynne Meadow. Even though the reviews for that show were less than stellar, Lynne said that she'd like MTC to be my artistic home and that she'd produce my next play. I was so touched by her demonstration of loyalty that I was determined to finally write a play about Miriam Passman. Along the way, her name changed to Marjorie Taub and the play ended up being The Tale of the Allergist Wife. I never had any desire to play Marjorie; I wrote the play for Linda Lavin and she gave the part great stature and depth. I'm very grateful to her.
TM: Who is your favorite playwright?
CB: I guess my favorite playwright is Tennessee Williams. I love the great humor and wit that his characters express even in the most tragic of situations. I love the romantic, decadent atmosphere of so much of his work, and his way of using poetic imagery in a realistic setting.
TM: What's your favorite movie?
CB: I have so many favorite movies, but most of them wouldn't be on any critic's 10-best list! I love the 1938 movie Marie Antoinette, starring Norma Shearer; she gives a beautiful performance with great range. I saw it first as a kid. It inspired me to want to learn more about the French Revolution, and that prompted my interest in history.
TM: Did you have a mentor?
CB: Not really, but the great writer-director-actor Charles Ludlum was a big influence on me. He gave me a big break by letting me perform my first solo show at his theater on Sheridan Square in 1978 as a late show after his own play. That was the first time I was ever reviewed.
TM: Of the shows that you've written, do you have a favorite?
CB: One of my favorites is Red Scare on Sunset. It played in New York in 1991, and it's my most complex piece. It's set in Hollywood during the blacklist period. I wrote the play as a parody of a right-wing nightmare; I played a movie star named Mary Dale, who to her horror discovers that her husband, her best friend, and her director are all involved in a communist conspiracy to take over Hollywood. I think some people missed the point of the satire and thought that I was actually advocating blacklisting, which was rather bizarre. I would love to do that play again; the political atmosphere today would make it very relevant!
TM: You play women so well. To what do you attribute that?
CB: My performances are filled with a lifetime of observation of women and actresses. It's less about dressing up and more about channeling the details of the women I've known and loved. It's all rather effortless now. Sometimes, photographers want to take my picture while I'm getting made up, as if it's this big transformation, but I could just as well play these female characters without makeup and costume and have the audience imagine me however they'd like.
TM: Do you ever feel like a woman trapped in a man's body?
CB: No. I'm all guy! However, I was raised in a matriarchal household and there are times when I feel the presence of my late mother and Aunt within me, so playing female roles is a bit of a comfort to me. It's as if they are still alive. That sounds a bit Norman Bates-like, but it's hard to express.
TM: What roles do you want to play next?
CB: This past November, I played Dolly Levi in a staged reading of Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker in Boston. I loved Dolly because she's very different from the other characters I've played, and I'd love to do a full production of The Matchmaker. It could happen! I did a number of staged readings of Auntie Mame over the years and finally, last summer, I got to do a full production for a summer stock tour. So you never know.
TM: Any new plays in the works?
CB: I do have a new play that's likely to be done at MTC next season, but I can't really talk about it right now.
TM: Tell me about Taboo.
CB: It was a very difficult, emotional project. Rosie O'Donnell took a lot of heat for it that she didn't deserve; she's a great gal and she so believed in that show, but it seemed like the critics felt this need to punish her for unspoken crimes. It was a very flawed show because of various compromises we had to make, but it certainly has its share of admirers. Certainly, it was a daring show to do on Broadway. I think Rosie has dreams of continuing to work on it but, at this point, I'd rather just move on to something new.
TM: What can audiences expect from Charles Busch and Julie Halston: Together on Broadway?