Performing Que(e)ries: Charles Busch and James Wilson

On November 13, 2012, Charles Busch was in conversation with James Wilson, CLAGS executive director. In this excerpt, transcribed by Ilyssa Silfen, Charles Busch describes the genesis of Theatre in Limbo, the company that produced busch’s early works, such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party, and The Lady in Question.

Charles Busch, renowned New York performer, playwright, director, and drag extraordinaire, participated in the second iteration of this new CLAGS series in the Fall. He discussed his astonishing career in the theatre and on film, as well as the changes he has seen in LGBTQ performance over the last four decades in New York and beyond. The conversation was moderated by CLAGS Executive Director James Wilson. Below you will find a partial transcript of the event. Video of the event will be made available soon at clags.org

In the early 1980s I was a solo performer, but I could never earn a living doing it. And it was very frustrating because I was getting better. I was really learning a lot. It was a wonderful education on characterization, exposition, and developing a relationship with an audience—and as a solo performer, that’s who you’re playing with. It was very frustrating that I could sell out on a rainy Tuesday in San Francisco, and I would get rave reviews in the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, and I had a following in each city, but then I would come back to New York, and I still couldn’t totally support myself. I had all these weird jobs. I draw well, so I worked as a quick sketch portrait artist, which I did a lot. I was a receptionist in a zipper factory. And it just seemed like things weren’t quite progressing. By the time I got to 1985, I just didn’t seem closer to that thing of earning a living, and that’s what you want, to earn a living doing what you love. It’s the most difficult thing, and you’re so blessed if you are a person who can do that.

And just when I was at the lowest ebb, I had a friend, a very exotic woman, Bina Sharif, who’s a performance artist, and she invited me to see her act at a place called the Limbo Lounge, between Avenue A and B. The East Village, Alphabet City, in the mid 1980’s was a very different place. It was really kind of creepy, and there were a lot of crack problems and blocks of burnt out buildings; it was really very Berlin after the War. But it was about the last place in Manhattan with cheap rents, so there were very interesting art galleries, and clubs would spring up. I went to the Limbo Lounge to see Bina’s act, and it was just this tiny storefront after-hours bar and art gallery with these very peculiar installations. I was so dazzled at the whole audience, which was this kind of punk-gay crowd, and I thought, “I’ve just gotta do a play here. I’ve just gotta do something.” I always thought it would be really cool to do a play in a real funky, weird place. I was never like, “Oh this is so humiliating.” I was more like, “Oh this is so cool!” And I loved it!

So I immediately went to see [Michael Limbo] the young man who owned the Limbo Lounge. It was so loose there, he just looked at the calendar and said, “Oh, we have a weekend in a month from now,” and I said, “I’ll take it!” I knew I didn’t want to do my solo act; my act was so minimalist. I wanted to do something decadent and outrageous, and I think I probably read Interview with a Vampire around that time and so I thought, “Oh, I’ll be a glamorous vampire actress.” I’ll be in drag, and it’ll be kind of [Charles] Ludlam-ish. And so I just asked different friends of mine, who were all basically unemployable, who were very discouraged completely with no place in the theatre.

And it really is true: we spent about $36. It was purely postage. Today we wouldn’t even have spent that. I wrote Vampire Lesbians of Sodom so we could do it cheap. I figured if I set it in the ancient world, we could just wear G-strings and heels. For the 1920s, I could sort of fake that silhouette easy. (You can’t do the 1890s and fake it.) We just put it on for one weekend, and we had the best time. Then we decided to do a second weekend. Then we decided, “Oh, let’s do another little skit,” and I wrote this other piece called Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium. Michael, who ran the Limbo Lounge, said “Why don’t you just be our resident theatre company?” And every three weeks we’d do another show. And so we ended up having a theatre company, which wasn’t the original idea. What was so sweet and moving about the whole thing is that while I had had an awful experience in Chicago, where I felt so betrayed and people didn’t seem to get me, here was this group of oddballs in New York who just all loved me and felt—I get really choked up talking about it—I had something to offer. It was a childlike thing since they wanted to play, and I could be inspired.

They were all such big personalities, you know, Julie Halston, Theresa Marlowe, Meghan Robinson, Arnie Kolodner, Andy Halliday, Robert Carey, and everyone was so defined. It was fun to write parts for them all. Each person had what we called their “trip,” which was something unique about them. It was like having my own old movie studio with contract players, and I wrote for them to sort of do their same trip but with a little more of a twist, so it was not the exact same play each time. But we did all these plays that just came out of fantasies of my own: “Wouldn’t it be fun to be in mod London in the 60s, or Spain during the Inquisition?”’ We were in the right place at the right time, and suddenly all the magazines, like People magazine and New York magazine, were doing stories on the crazy performance art scene in the East Village. And our titles, like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, were so outrageous they were a good punch line. We got so much publicity, and people were lined up down the block to see these little plays. It was just thrilling.

Ken Elliot, who was my roommate and who directed the plays, said maybe this is the commercial venture that had eluded us for a decade. We produced Vampire Lesbians ourselves because we couldn’t get anybody else to do it. We raised the money, and we opened at the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street and got a rave review in the New York Times. Everybody got mentioned—all these people who were so discouraged and felt so without worth in theatre—everybody got a rave review. It was a big hit, and it ran five years. And from that point on I could earn a living!

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