Legendary drag performer Charles Busch will be coming all the way from New York City to London, UK to perform his show ‘The Lady in Question is Me!’ at The Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel, Piccadilly, London between November 11th and 13th (more details below). Frock Editor, Katie Glover, was very pleased to recently pin him down for an interview, as follows…
Katie: Firstly, could you just tell us who you are, where you’re from and what you do?
Charles: I’m Charles Busch. I live in New York City and for the past forty years I’ve been a playwright, actor, director, novelist, cabaret performer, painter and I’m getting exhausted just listing them all!
Katie: You are an accomplished writer and actor who’s appeared in many stage, TV and film productions. How did you get into drag?
Charles: Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to be on the stage. I realized very early on that my androgynous nature made me “uncommercial” in mainstream show biz. I felt I had a lot to offer and that perhaps what others found odd and eccentric about me, was what made me an original. Therefore, I had to create my own gate and walk through it. I began to write plays to give myself opportunities to be on stage and created female roles where my gift for celebrity impersonation and my empathy towards women and my androgynous appearance would be assets. I began acting in my own plays during my senior year at Northwestern University in discos, bars, movie theatres and immediately felt a connection with the audience. I knew I was doing the right thing. I knew that was who I really was.
Katie: I read your biography on your web site but there was not a single mention of drag. Why is that?
Charles: I began my career in the late 1970s and so I’m from an older generation of performer that had to fight to be taken seriously. I wanted to be reviewed as a theatre professional in the mainstream press. I wanted to be taken seriously by producers and investors and by my colleagues in the theatre. I resented being called “a drag queen” because it felt like I was being patronized and marginalized. I wanted to be considered as much as a professional as any other actor, even if I did specialize in playing female roles and even if it did come from a very deep personal profound place. However, today things have changed “somewhat” and I see that young drag performers have taken ownership of the term “drag queen.” I applaud them for it but I consider myself foremost an actor and writer.
Katie: You’re appearing in your own show, ‘The Lady in Question is Me!’ at The Crazy Coqs in London, UK for three nights from November 11th. How do you feel about appearing in London for the first time?
Charles: I’m absolutely thrilled to finally be making my UK debut. I can’t believe it’s taken this long! Cate Blanchette wasn’t even born when I first thought about performing in London. It’s been a dream of mine for my entire professional life. I’ve visited London many times and I’ve loved going to the theatre. Theatre history is a great passion of me and all my life I’ve studied the history of the British theatre and its great personalities.
Katie: Why has it taken forty years for you to visit London?
Charles: My dream was always to appear in one of my plays in London. Just about every seven years, some very flamboyant British impresario gets very wet-lipped about bringing me over in a production of one of my plays. It’s very exciting for a while. “Darling, you’re going to be brilliant. I’ll take care of everything. I’ll make you a West End star.” That goes on and on until the impresario realizes how expensive it will be and eventually I stop hearing from them. About two years ago, I began performing in cabaret again. I’d done it in the early nineties. This new career has been a wonderful gift for me and it’s allowed me to appear in London in a much simpler context. No need to bring along an entire cast and sets and costumes. Just my handsome pianist, Tom Judson, and me and a small suitcase. I don’t check anything. All the drag fits into one carry-on. I think my greatest talent may be in packing a suitcase.
Katie: Tell us a bit about what to expect from your London appearances.
Charles: The cabaret act I’ve been doing with Tom is a way for me to connect to an audience in a much more direct and honest way. Although I’m in costume or drag or however you want to put it, I’m very much myself. I’m like an old TV set. I just tune up the feminine part of me a tad. But who I am on stage is not very different from who I am off stage. In the show, I tell true (well, ninety per cent true) humorous stories about my experiences and I sing a collection of gorgeous songs by legendary songwriters such as Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and Michel Legrand and I try to sing them with emotional honesty and allow each song to create a story. I also do a short pastiche of a classic Hollywood film genre which gives the audience a chance to see what I’m like when I appear in one of my plays. I like the audience to feel that they’ve really come to know me and that it’s like spending an hour being entertained in my home and they don’t have to bring a gift.
Katie: What do you do when you’re not working? How do you switch off your showbiz persona?
Charles: My onstage persona is not that exaggerated, so it’s not really a question of switching something off. I’m always “me.” It’s just a question of degree. I do enjoy drawing and painting. That something I’ve done all my life. I stopped for a while but started up again over the past few years and it gives me great pleasure. I’ve actually started selling prints of my drawings online and that’s been a fun addition to my professional life. So much of my life has been in artistic collaboration. I’ve enjoyed those collaborations with directors and actors, but there is something very special and personal about creating a cabaret act or painting a picture that is simply between just me and the audience.
Katie: Is the drag stuff all put away when you’re not at work or do you ever dress just for fun?
Charles: My dear, the drag stuff is all put away. I enjoy and appreciate the masculine side of me as much as the feminine. And actually, both sides are always present. In my plays, I’ve often played women who wear pants or tuxedos like Marlene Dietrich. I sometimes like to challenge the audience by having them wonder at what point am I in drag? I feel so comfortable in my androgyny that I don’t really need the wardrobe to tap into my empathy for women. On the other hand, there is nothing more fun than working with a costume designer or wig designer and creating a fantastic new look.
Katie: You’ve worked with some big names over the years. Can you name a few here and tell us about your experiences with them?
Charles: I’ve always been infatuated with actresses and a number of stars have appeared in my plays. Linda Lavin, Valerie Harper and Michele Lee appeared in my play “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” I’ve learned so much watching Linda rehearse and slowly build a performance, rehearsing a comedy as if it were a drama by focusing on the emotional truth of each scene. Valerie has taught me to live life for the moment and find joy in small things. I’m not sure I’ve totally learned those lessons but I’m trying. And Michele is outrageous and fun. She came over to my apartment once when I wasn’t feeling well and insisted on giving me a massage. She’s a big gal. I’m a rather fragile little thing, and having that big dame straddling me on the sofa was instant slapstick. The celebrity I’ve been the closest to was Joan Rivers, although we never really worked together. Just great friends. She was such a magical part of my life. I spent every holiday with her. I still can’t quite believe that she’s gone. More than any other celebrity I’ve known, she was the most interested in other people. You wouldn’t think so because of her outrageous comic persona. But she was kind and generous and sensitive and was so passionate about the theatre, she saw everything and was fascinated by every detail of theatrical life. I’m still a bit in denial that she’s gone.
Katie: Where else around the world can we see you perform in the coming weeks and months?
Charles: The morning after my final London performance, Tom and I take the train to Paris and open that night at a very glamorous small nightclub called the Club Raye. We’ll be doing two nights there. I don’t speak French but I’ve worked for months, for months, trying to learn a very complicated Edith Piaf song in perfect French. It’s terrifying. I even found a rather peculiar ex-chanteuse to coach me. I can’t screw it up!
Katie: What advice do you have for anyone just setting out in the world of drag?
Charles: I think it’s important to have a distinct point of view as a performer that makes you special. Analyze what is unique about your perspective. Don’t be afraid of being personal and of letting the very human side of you come into your performance. I think in some ways, a distinct point of view is more important than great talent.
Katie: What other projects are you working on now?
Charles: I’ve always got a million ideas for plays, movies, drawings, new material for my act. The problem sometimes is just settling down to one idea. More than anything in my career, I’ve loved making movies. I’ve only written and appeared in few of them (Psycho Beach Party, Die Mommie Die and A Very Serious Person) and I am absolutely determined to make another movie. I sometimes feel like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”. There are a couple of movies in the works. One of my play “The Tale of the Allergists’ Wife” and also a play I wrote and performed in a few years ago called “The Divine Sister.” I played the noble but terribly glamorous Mother Superior of a convent in that one. I’m hoping to be “before the cameras” filming that during this next year. That would be fantastic! I’m putting in lots of flashbacks to before the Reverend Mother went into the convent, to give me more opportunities for costumes. A nun’s habit is nice but can be tiresome after a while.
Charles Busch performs his show The Lady in Question is Me! at The Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel, Piccadilly, London from November 11th – 13th. Tickets cost £20 and are available online: http://www.crazycoqs.com or telephone: 020 7734 4888
Model Chelsea Von Chastity was featured in Frock in January 2013 and adorns the cover of this very issue. But she has recently had to fight a personal battle with cancer. Read her story in the October/November issue of Frock Magazine at http://frockmagazine.com/frock/
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