Grand Dame of Drag Charles Busch Discusses Thirty Years of Performing
Charles Busch, the "Grand Dame" of drag.
Playwright, actor and "grand dame" Charles Busch has been commanding the stage for more than thirty years. A last-minute campy show he wrote and performed in the East Village of New York City in 1984 catapulted him to fame, and since then Busch's plays have been performed on Broadway and turned into movies. Busch is best known as a female impersonator, though, and next week he'll perform Hit the Lights, his cabaret show, at the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater in Colorado Springs, which is also showing his Psycho Beach Party movie. Busch will be speaking at the theater on Sunday, October 26; in advance of his visit to Colorado, Westword caught up with Busch to discuss dressing in drag, cult classics and his cabaret show.
See also: The Ten Best Local Drag Queen Names
Westword: You've had a successful career as both a playwright and a drag queen. How did you first become involved in the theater?
Charles Busch: Well, I've always had the dream of being on a stage. When I was a child my sister and I would do impersonations to entertain each other. But I always had a kind of flair for impersonating fabulous women, like Bette Davis. I guess you can say I had a good ear for it.
What made you make the jump from acting to writing plays?
Well, when I went to college, I was having trouble getting cast in productions. I knew I might have trouble in the professional world, and I remember thinking, 'If I can't get a part in other people's plays, I'll just write my own.'
I was always writing plays ever since I was a kid. So I just sort of thought: If the door is closed, then you just build your own. So that's how I really got into it. By my senior year of college I knew I wanted to just write plays for myself and give myself opportunities to perform. I just felt I had something to offer and I was going to give myself the chance to show it off.
Did you start doing drag at the same time then?
Actually, initially I wasn't in to drag. I started my career just traveling around and doing my act in just a shirt and a pair of pants. My solo material back in the '80s was just solo plays where I would play all the characters and use props. The idea was to give the audience an illusion that they were seeing different characters, but really it was just me standing on stage.
What made you decide to throw on a dress and do female impersonations?
Well, I didn't really like playing the male parts too much. My imagination really took flight when I was playing female characters.
When did you first appear in drag?
I went to see a friend of mine perform in a very dicey little neighborhood in the lower East Side. It was dotted with various art galleries and dance clubs and even Madonna came out of that neighborhood.
I was so fascinated by the ambiance of the atmosphere that I asked the owner of the Limbo Club if I could perform there. I wanted to do something really outrageous, not the act I'd been doing. So three weeks later I showed up with a sketch called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and I was dressed as a glamorous lady vampire.
What was the significance of this first play?
Well, literally we didn't spend one penny on it and we all just had a lot of fun. And suddenly, I was in drag and that was sort of interesting. I was playing one part and had the cast play the other parts that I didn't want to play, like the male characters. I finally looked like the character I was playing, and from there everything sort of took off. I've heard that this play really launched your career. How did all of this happen?
I was really in the right place at the right time. This lower neighborhood had birthed Madonna and Keith Haring, so the press was taking notice of everything going on. People and New York magazine were doing pieces on this crazy performance arts scene. And Lesbian Vampires of Sodom got enormous publicity because the title was good copy. Soon every few weeks I was writing a new show and I moved Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to an off-Broadway theater and my career as a playwright and a drag queen just took off.
Charles Busch performing his cabaret act.
Do you have a drag queen persona?
I've never quite had a drag queen persona; I'm very different than what you'd see on RuPaul's Drag Race. I usually play the female lead, but I always do it as me, Charles Busch, playing a woman.
What's your favorite female lead you've written and played?
The Lady in Question was a play I wrote that was like a 1940s anti-Nazi melodrama, and I got to play a very glamorous American concert pianist who had to rescue a prisoner from a Nazi camp, so that was fun for me.
I also enjoyed playing the lead in a play called The Divine Sister, which was a play that paid homage to movies that Hollywood made about nuns.
Can you talk a little about Psycho Beach Party, since it's showing in Colorado Springs during your time here? Psycho Beach Party was the second play that we did with Theatre-in-Limbo. When we first started doing these shows in the Limbo Club, we didn't have any money for publicity at all, we just had a mailing list. To help convince people to sign their name and address to the mailing list, I would do a curtain speech and try to make it funny.
Sometimes I would improvise on the spot and say things like, "Join us next week, we'll be doing Gidget Goes Psychotic!" Gidget was a movie about a '50s girl surfer that was turned into a TV show with Sally Field. I had no intention of actually writing this play, but years went by and we had already moved Vampire Lesbians to another theater and my manager told me that maybe we should just do the play since we've been promoting it for so many years.
Even though I'm not crazy about those beach party movies and Gidget was an all-American teenage girl who never really fit my persona, I decided to make her have split personalities that would be more my range. And people just loved it. It ended up being made into a movie in the late '90s and released in 2000.
Your weekemd in Colorado is jam-packed with events, including Psycho Beach Party and your cabaret performance. What can audiences expect at your cabaret show?
It is a hilariously amusing cabaret act about my life and career, complete with beautiful songs. It's kind of like being in my living room for an hour and entertaining you all.
Charles Busch will be joining the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 26 for the Prologue Lecture series. He will be performing his cabaret act, Hit the Lights, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, October 27 and 28. Psycho Beach Party is showing at the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater through November 9. Tickets for all of the Charles Busch events in Colorado Springs can be purchased here.
Follow Lauren Archuletta on Twitter at @laureneverytime.
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