SassySays.com -Drag History Month-January 14, 2012 Charles Busch
Charles Louis Busch (born August 23, 1954) is an American actor, screenwriter, playwright and female impersonator, known for his appearances on stage in his own camp style plays and in film and television. He wrote and starred in his early plays Off-off-Broadway beginning in 1978, generally in drag roles, and also acted in the works of other playwrights. He also wrote for television and began to act in films and on television in the late 1990s. His best-known play is The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (2000), which was a success on Broadway.
Busch was born in 1954 and grew up in Hartsdale, New York.
Busch attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. He majored in drama at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and received his B.A. in 1976. While at the university, Busch had difficulty being cast in plays and began to write his own material, such as a play called Sister Act about siamese twin showgirls, which succeeded in drawing interest on campus.
Busch has usually played the leading lady in drag in his plays. He has said, “Drag is being more, more than you can be. When I first started drag I wasn’t this shy young man but a powerful woman. It liberated within me a whole vocabulary of expression. It was less a political statement than an aesthetic one.” His camp style shows simultaneously send up and celebrate classic film genres. Busch has said, however, “I’m not sure what [campy] means, but I guess if my plays have elements of old movies and old fashioned plays, and I’m this bigger-than-life star lady, that’s certainly campy. I guess what I rebelled against was the notion that campy means something is so tacky or bad that it’s good, and that I just didn’t relate to.” Busch “toured the country in a non-drag one-man show he wrote called ‘Alone With a Cast of Thousands.’ ” from 1978 to 1984. By 1984, Busch’s performance bookings grew slim. He held various odd jobs, such as temporary office assistant, apartment cleaner, portrait artist “at bar mitzvahs”, phone salesperson, shop manager, ice cream server, sports handicapper and artists’ model. He thought that perhaps his last piece would be a skit put on in the Limbo Lounge, a gay bar in the East Village in Manhattan. The skit was a hit and became Busch’s most famous Off-off-Broadway play, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (1984). When it was revived the next year at the Provincetown Playhouse, The New York Times described it as having “costumes flashier than pinball machines, outrageous lines, awful puns, sinister innocence, harmless depravity. … the female roles [Busch] creates are hilarious vamps, but also high comic characters … the audience laughs at the first line and goes right on laughing at every line to the end”. Busch stated that it was the longest-running non-musical in off-off-Broadway in history.
Busch and his collaborators soon created a series of shows, mostly at the Limbo Lounge, such as Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium (1984) and Times Square Angel (1985, Provincetown Playhouse).The company called itself “Theatre in Limbo” and attracted a loyal gay following. Other early plays include Pardon My Inquisition, or Kiss the Blood Off My Castanets (1986), in which Busch “played both Maria Garbanza, a prostitute, and her look-alike, the elegant Marquesa del Drago.” and Psycho Beach Party, which ran from July 1987 to May 1988.”In his latest incarnation, Mr. Busch is a pigtailed ingenue who wants to become a surfer in Psycho Beach Party, which opened last week at the Players Theater.” Other works include The Lady in Question, which ran from July to December 1989 at the Orpheum Theatre (originally produced by the WPA Theatre),and Red Scare on Sunset, which ran from June to September 1991 at the Lortel Theatre.
His play Die, Mommie, Die! was first performed in Los Angeles, opening in July 1999 at the Coast Playhouse. The Variety reviewer wrote that “Die! Mommy! Die!” is Charles Busch’s funniest, most accomplished and, without question, raunchiest work… And, as always, he wears a parade of wigs and pumps with considerable grace and understatement.” and was made into the 2003 feature film of the same name. According to the New York Times reviewer, “The candy-hued camp comedy Die Mommie Die! presents the latest variation of the playwright and drag performer Charles Busch’s long-running and very funny alter ego, a swiveling red-haired diva whose exaggerated graciousness and noblesse oblige embody the ne plus ultra of Great Hollywood Ladies….The film, directed by Mark Rucker from a screenplay by Mr. Busch, is at once all plot and no plot at all.Although the supporting performances are carefully shaded caricatures, Die Mommie Die! is really Mr. Busch’s show. Within the cramped limitations of drag, he exudes a genuine screen charisma. That star quality as much anything should earn the film a niche in camp heaven.”
Busch’s early film appearances include Ms. Ellen, a fortune teller in drag in Trouble on the Corner (1997). Busch has twice appeared in film versions of his own plays: Die, Mommie, Die! (1999) and the comedy horror Psycho Beach Party (2000, as Capt. Monica Stark, a policewoman trying to solve the mystery). He co-wrote, starred in and directed the film A Very Serious Person (2006), which starred Polly Bergen and received an honorable mention at the Tribeca Film Festival.He is also the subject of the documentary The Lady in Question is Charles Busch (2006).
Busch had a recurring role in the HBO series Oz from 1999–2000 (the third and fourth seasons) as Nat Ginzburg, an “effeminate but makeup-free inmate on death row, certainly a departure from his usual glamour girl roles.” He also wrote television sitcom pilots and movie treatments as a source of extra income while he was a cult performer. He sold three pilots to CBS that were not produced.
Busch’s style is based on movie star acting rather than naturalistic femininity.Busch later said that he was described as “too thin, too light, which is the euphemism for gay. I was never cast at Northwestern for basically these reasons, and finally, I thought maybe what’s most disturbing about me is what is most unique: my theatrical sense, my androgyny, even identifying with old movie actresses”. He specializes in femmes fatales. “I’m an actor playing a role, but it’s drag. A lot of drag can be very offensive, but I like to think that in some crazy way the women I play are feminist heroines.”
Busch said, “I’ve always played a duality. I guess I’ve always felt a duality in myself: elegance and vulgarity. There’s humor in that. I’ve always found that fun on stage, as well. It’s not enough for me to be the whore. I have to be the whore with pretensions or the great lady with a vulgar streak. It’s the duality that I find interesting.” Busch generally writes without a political agenda, and he predominantly portrays characters who are white, middle class, gay, and between 20 and 40 years old.
Busch was inspired by Charles Ludlam, a drag artist who founded The Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967 and wrote, directed, and acted in the company’s exaggerated, absurdist camp productions. Busch presented his one-man show Hollywood Confidential in a theater owned by The Ridiculous Theatrical Company in July 1978 at One Sheridan Square, New York. He also appeared for several performances in the company’s production of Bluebeard as Hecate, also in July 1978. Busch said of this experience: “If I had ever entertained a fantasy of working with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, doing Hecate got it out of my system.”Busch has said that he was also inspired by seeing Joan Sutherland and Zoe Caldwell perform when he was a child. Busch recalled: “When I was about 13 years old, around 1968 or ’69, I went to see Zoe Caldwell in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’ I was so dazzled that I don’t think I’ve ever recovered.”In 1991, Busch was performing in his play Red Scare on Sunset. He said that he had difficulty connecting with the audience at one of the performances. Caldwell went backstage after the performance to give him some advice: “You are so beautiful. But you were pushing too hard. You’re much better than that. …It’s the best lesson I’ve learned from a famous person.
For more: www.CharlesBusch.com