Grand Dame of Drag Charles Busch Discusses Thirty Years of Performing

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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.

Keep reading for more from Charles Busch.

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Lauren Archuletta is a contributor for Westword's arts section, covering Denver's health and wellness scene. Follow her work for tips on cheap workouts and which yoga classes include mimosas and beer.