Set for Ptown Award, Charles Busch Looks Back and Forward

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday August 13, 2020

Charles Busch
Charles Busch  

Speaking with Charles Busch it is difficult not to get a case of the giggles. The playwright and actor has a talent to amuse, something audiences have known since he first attracted attention in the far reaches of the Lower East Side's Alphabet City in the early 1980s. It was there in an art gallery/turned theater, the Limbo Lounge, that his hilarious parodies of Hollywood movies and the female stars in them became an overnight sensation. In 1984, his double-bill of "Sleeping Beauty or Coma" and "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" with Busch in the lead moved to the Provincetown Playhouse in the West Village, where it ran for five years and established Busch's reputation as the theater's pre-eminent curator of drag and camp.

Right before the pandemic hit, Busch completed a run in another of his parodies, "The Legend of Lilly Dale," in a theater not far from the Provincetown Playhouse. (He hints that it may be his last stage appearance.) Between "Vampire Lesbians" and "Lilly Dare," Busch has written and starred in numerous plays; had a Broadway hit ("The Tales of an Allergist's Wife") and one flop (the musical "Taboo"); made films (including the cult classics "Psycho Beach Party" and "Die, Mommy, Die"); written a novel based on his "Vampire Lesbians" experience; taught and lectured at schools and universities, and toured his cabaret act throughout the country.

On August 15, the third annual Provincetown American Playwright Award (PAPA) will be presented to Busch for his outstanding contributions to the American Theater. He will receive the award in a 30-minute virtual online "show." It will be given him by last year's winner, Paula Vogel. (The inaugural award went to the late Terrence McNally). The ceremony will be streamed on the Provincetown Theater's website. For more information, visit the Provincetown Theater's website.

"I wasn't sure if we were zoomin' or just talkin'," he said at the beginning of a conversation about the award, the new film that he co-wrote and directed set to shoot this fall, and how he may not be returning to acting on the stage when theater returns.

The First Lady of Zoom
Charles Busch in a publicity shot for "Die Mommie, Die!"  

The First Lady of Zoom

EDGE: Have you been doing much zooming in the past few months?

Charles Busch: OMG. I have done so many zoom play readings, it is like the early days of television and I am the new Faye Emerson -- the first lady of Zoom television. That and I am going to be co-directing a movie in the fall, which I am so excited about. My collaborator, Carl Andress, and I have been all these Zoom interviews with designers and dps and editors. It's been crazy?

EDGE:Do you have any tips to a successful zoom presentation?

Charles Busch: I have been learning the more I do them. I upgraded my lighting for a starter and got a 19" ring light; then I pile up all kinds of coffee table books to get the camera at a more flattering angle. I am doing pretty well. I have a pretty slick look. I have to be careful because before with the light from the laptop, I looked like I was a leprechaun staring in my crock of gold.

What I've learned from doing these Zoom play readings — the most positive aspect of them — is that they are like shooting an entire movie in close-up. I hope that when the pandemic finally ends, the zoom play reading will go by the wayside, but the zoom meeting is here to stay. I thought these interviews to fill the staff positions for the movie were very successful. They make it is easier for the subject, not having to schlep on the subway and wait nervously in a waiting room. They are more comfortable in their own home speaking directly in close-up - that is a positive thing.

Someone's cranky aunt
Charles Busch in "The Legend of Lilly Dale"  (Source: Carol Rosegg)

Someone's cranky aunt

EDGE: But don't you miss the human interaction?

Charles Busch: No. Highly overrated. In a way, it is more awkward interviewing someone who is in the room and you realize they're not right. When they are there in person, it is harder to gracefully end the situation.

EDGE:Do you regret not going to Provincetown for the award?

Charles Busch: Well, first of all, it is lovely that David (Drake, the Provincetown Theater's artistic director) thought of me for this PAPA Award. PAPPA makes it sound like I'm someone's daddy when I am closer to someone's cranky aunt. I am very touched and honored to be in the same league as my predecessors, Terrence McNally and Paula Vogel. I only started to perform in Ptown a few years ago when I did my cabaret act there. After that, for a couple of summers, my sister, nephew, and myself would go there for long weekends. So I certainly would have gone there if it weren't for the pandemic. And I would love to visit my great friends in Ptown. But I will be zooming in my acceptance speech.

And I really admire what David has done with that theater. It is such a community theater. He brought it back to life. He's ambitious, audacious and talented. With those three qualities, it does lead to success. He has done wonderfully well in a short amount of time.

Meeting David Drake
David Drake and Charles Busch at a party to celebrate the 1786 performance of "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom"  

Meeting David Drake

EDGE: What do you plan to do in your video presentation?

Charles Busch: I may be very ambitious. We will have to see. I don't know if you remember but I think it was in the 1960s, Mary Pickford was given an honorary Oscar and you saw the camera go into her legendary home, Pickfair. You saw the camera weave through the front portal through the living room, up the stairs and down the hall into her bedroom where there was elderly, frail Mary Pickford post-stroke. I would do a pre-recorded thing of the camera going through my building's lobby, then up the stairs and into my apartment where I am discovered withered and huddled in my chair. We will see how ambitious I am.

EDGE: In your statement about the award you said you are touched by the symmetry between the Provincetown Playhouse, where "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" ran and ran, and the Provincetown Theater. But there is also a connection there with David Drake...

Charles Busch: It is fitting in a wonderful way. My big break has an actor/playwright was doing "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" in 1985 at the Provincetown Playhouse. And that is where I met David. When I was about to go into my next play, "Psycho Beach Party," we were desperately finding someone to replace me. I had never been in that place before and wasn't sure what I was looking for. It was like finding Scarlett O'Hara we saw so many people, but we didn't know what we were looking for. Then in came this kid who kind-of looked like me. And he had seen the show so many times - he was a friend of our publicist - he could totally imitate me. I don't think he had done that much before. He was very young. So we cast him, and he played the role I think longer than I did. That established our friendship. There is this wonderful symmetry with being honored by the Provincetown Theater.

Making a screwball comedy
Charles Busch evokes Marlene Dietrich  (Source: Michael Wakefield)

Making a screwball comedy

EDGE: You mentioned you are making a film — what is it?

Charles Busch: I am so excited about it. Even though my career has been mostly in the theater, the experiences that have been the most exciting and challenging have been the few films I made. The last time I made a movie was in 2006, "A Very Serious Person," a little film I directed and acted in that went straight to video. It's my lost film. Anyway, I was convinced I would never do another movie. But somehow circumstances have come around and we were able to put the financing together. Carl Andress, my great collaborator for the past 20 years, co-wrote this script and we are co-directing it. I am going to star in it with my long time stage buddy Julie Halston, and Margaret Cho and Brenda Vaccaro. Those are the people we have so far, but we are still casting.

It's a wacky, screwball, caper comedy set in the world of movie memorabilia collectors. I play a charming, if disreputable movie dealer who discovers this rare, lost silent film that is worth a lot of money to the right person. The movie gets stolen, and I search to get the movie back, and madcap hilarity ensues. We start shooting on October 5, which is crazy considering what is raging around us. Carl and I wrote the movie with a low-budget in mind and set it in apartments mostly in our neighborhood. But due to SAG COVID-guidelines, it is best to shoot all the interiors on a soundstage about an hour away from New York. It is very exciting. It is kind of like doing a movie at Warner Brothers in the 1930s. People are responding well to the script. All the people we've sent it to are taken with a movie that is dialogue-driven and has funny lines. Guess they don't see that too often. It also reminds me of the tone of those wonderful British comedies from the 1960s where a group of misfits that get together with some scheme, like "Make Mine Mink."

EDGE: You come from the tradition of camp, which is both ironic and reverential at the same time. But that sensibility seems to diminish over the years. Do you think camp is over?

Charles Busch: I guess we are not living in a camp age. The Trumps would have been camp figures, but things are too serious to look at them in that way. It is interesting that when we are interviewing a lot of young people for our movie, they clearly don't know what we are talking about. Even mentioning "Rosemary's Baby" or a Woody Allen movie from the 1990s, you get a blank stare back at you. So do get a frame of reference, they say, "sort-of like 'Knives Out?' Which I enjoyed, but... (pause) I am from the Joan Crawford school. I won't say anything controversial, but I don't think we are living in an age where irony is cherished or encouraged.

Busier than ever
Charles Busch in a publicity photo for "The Divine Sister"  

Busier than ever

EDGE: Are there any camp movies you would recommend for pandemic viewing?

Charles Busch: There's a friend of mine who is staying in Provincetown who is asking me about movies to watch. He had never seen one of my favorite comedies "Ball of Fire" with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. And I mentioned he watched Mae West in "I'm No Angel," which is a perfect comic film. Not a single frame wasted. What is marvelous about the classic film making is the economy of narrative. In the early days of talkies, filmmakers came from a newspaper background so they were used to writing narratives that weer quick and succinct. So I try to get some of that quality in the screenplay I've written. It is not languidly told. The name is currently "The Sixth Reel." That is the working title.

EDGE: How has the pandemic impacted your career?

Charles Busch: To be honest, I did a play called "The Confession of Lily Dare." We ended our limited run on March 5, so it was just kind of perfect. For me it may be my last play. I am not so grand that I would make an announcement, but it may be. Playing 8-shows a week has lost its appeal to me, and the queasy nerves that I think all performers get before going on stage, I don't feel like experiencing that anymore. But when the theater comes back, I may not be a part of that. But that is why I am so excited about this movie because even if I stop writing and acting in plays, I would like to have a creative outlet. I have a lot of energy. I finished a book - a memoir. And I am looking for an agent. So I actually been busier during this pandemic than I have been in a long time. These 5 play readings, and putting this movie together; and I am on somebody's podcast just about every week. I am afraid I am going to be overexposed. I am afraid I am going to turn into a poisonous hybrid of Bette White and Billy Porter. I don't want people saying, "Not him again!"

EDGE: Your first novel, "Whores of Lost Atlantis," was something of a memoir that would make a great television series...

Charles Busch: That would be wonderful. I see six seasons, like "The Crown." And there will be three different Charles. I will play the last one. Timothée Chalamet can be the first one, then Cate Blanchett would take over before me.

Watch Charles Busch in clips from "Die Mommie, Die!:

Watch Charles Busch perform "A Parade in Town" and "Sail Away"

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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