1978 - 1984
After I graduated from Northwestern University, I remained in Chicago for the next two years. I made an attempt to start a theatre company that ended in a bitter squabble. I returned to New York in 1978 and decided to create a career for myself as a solo performer. It was a lot less complicated than dealing with the egos and demands of an ensemble. I took the notes I had written for a play and turned them into a solo piece that I called “Hollywood Confidential”. It was a pastiche of story elements and moments from Hollywood movies about movies such as “Sunset Boulevard”, “A Star Is Born” and “The Legend of Lylah Clare” as well as real life Hollywood scandals. I played a young reporter who investigates the mysterious life and death of screen legend, Lola Lame. Along the way he meets her ex-husbands, a gossip columnist and other flotsam. It wasn’t the most original of source material but I was young and energetic. I was introduced to a talented director named Patrick Brafford who helped me shape the three hours of material into a forty five minute act. We took performance techniques of Readers’ Theatre, that I’d studied at Northwestern and then came up with our own methods that allowed me to instantly switch from one character to the next and do dialogue back and forth between multiple characters. Among my influences was the extraordinary solo work of writer/actor Jeff Weiss.
I first performed “Hollywood Confidential” at a very small cabaret in the village called “Scene One”. It wasn’t the most discriminating of talent showcases. I think they’d book pretty much anyone who convinced them that they had enough friends to fill the joint for a night. I was determined that the great Charles Ludlam would come see me perform. My college roommate, Ed Taussig and I had briefly met Ludlam when he was performing in Chicago. If he remembered us at all, it was as a pair of daffy co-eds. I don’t really know what I wanted from him. I didn’t particularly want to be in his troupe, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. I guess, I just wanted him to think I was talented. He was, after all, my idol. I went on quite a campaign; plastering flyers all around his theatre and giving a stack of flyers to one of his actresses, Black-Eyed Susan, to bring inside the theatre. My scheme worked and indeed, one night, Ludlam and his lover, Everett Quinton, showed up! But then when it was over, they didn’t come backstage. I wouldn’t leave it alone. I read that Ludlam was receiving an award from something called the New York Comedy Awards. I dragged my sister, Meg, to the presentation, and we found ourselves sitting at the next table beside Charles. I introduced myself and thanked him for coming to my show. He was very complimentary and, well, I couldn’t believe this next part, he offered to let me perform my act as a late show at his theatre!
I played “Hollywood Confidential” Friday and Saturday nights at midnight for the entire summer. It was the first time I was reviewed, not particularly well, and not in major publications but at least my name was in print. It was a start. Charles Ludlam continued to be very supportive and helpful to me till his death in 1987. I even had a chance to work with him very briefly when an actor playing a small role in his play “Bluebeard” dropped out at the last minute. I came on at the end of the play as Hecate, the Goddess of Hell and got to play a two minute scene with my idol. I’ll never forget the image of his intense cobalt eyes peering at me through the colorful stage smoke.
In 1979, I put together another solo show, three pieces in different theatrical styles, that I called “Vagabond Vignettes”. One was a short piece that I had cut from “Hollywood Confidential” which I called “That’s Show Biz”, one was a more traditional series of monologues titled “People on a New York Bus” that was very influenced by my listening to the recordings of the legendary queen on the monologue, Ruth Draper. The third was a very complex, and somewhat undecipherable piece called “La Marquesa”. It was an impressionistic portrait of the notorious Marquesa Casati, a fabled muse to many great artists in the first half of the Twentieth Century. I performed most frequently at a club in the Village called The Duplex. It had a great reputation in the Sixties but by the late seventies, it had fallen into disrepute. Finally, two schoolteachers from Cincinnati, Erv Raible and Rob Hoskins, bought it and brought it back to life. They developed a stable of unique performers such as Ira Siff and Julie Kurnitz and I was flattered to be included among them. I played at the Duplex frequently throughout 1979 and 1980.
When I was hanging around the Ridiculous, I met a very talented young man named Peter Napolitano. He had a very clear idea of what my strengths as a performer/writer were and where there was room for improvement. He was an excellent editor of theatrical material. I suppose today we’d call him a dramaturge. In “Hollywood Confidential” and “Vagabond Vignettes”, though I wore a rather androgynous neutral costume, I added all sorts of costume pieces, wigs and hats to differentiate the male and female characters. Peter felt that that those pieces were distracting and unnecessary. The magic of what I was attempting to do was to create characters so vivid that the audience could costume them in their imagination. Our first piece together was called “A Theatrical Party”. I played all the guests and all the servants at a glamorous 1920’s party in London thrown by a great fictional theatrical star, Anton Troy. He’s searching for a leading lady to play opposite him in his Shakespearean repertory. Naturally, I played all the actresses vying for the job. There was also a mystery in the plot. A young man crashes the party claiming to be Troy’s illegitimate son. Ultimately we learn that this young “Hamlet’s” mother is Dame Beatrice, the aging has-been star and Troy’s former love. I think this was probably my most successful solo piece and I performed it frequently during the next four years. My most prestigious booking for “A Theatrical Party” was at the Performing Garage in Soho. I was desperate for someone to run the lights and Charles Ludlam’s lover (and ultimate successor) Everett Quinton, volunteered to run them for me. Many nights Charles would meet Everett at the theatre and it was such a thrill to hear his distinctive laugh in the back of the house. Like I said, they both were awfully nice to me. In “A Theatrical Party”, I played all the characters, male and female. Charles suggested that in the future I only play female characters. At the time, I scoffed at the notion. But he was right. My male characterizations were often rather desultory. My imagination was really only fired up when I played the female roles. Eventually, when I led my own theatre company, I only played the female lead. Charles was really very insightful.
Peter and I did another short piece called “Welcome to Corona” that was a spoof of 1970’s horror movies but set in Queens.
It was getting harder and harder to get my friends to come back time and again and pay the cover charge. My audience didn’t seem to get any bigger. Well, for one thing, I had no money to advertise. I decided to change strategy and booked myself at small non-profit theatres around the country. They would produce the show, advertise it and pay me a flat fee. My first out of town gig was performing “Hollywood Confidential” at the Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago. That was sort of a disaster. The critics haaaaated me. It was something fierce but I got my Equity card out of it. My first success was doing a full evening of my solo pieces called “Charles Busch Alone with a Cast of Thousands” at the Source Theatre in Washington, D.C.. I got raves in the Washington Post and numerous other publications. It was my first taste of success and made me feel I was on the right track. I returned to the Source Theatre for the next few years each time with a new repertoire.
My next director was a fellow named Ron Vigneau. He was an excellent acting coach and was very helpful in ridding me of a number of awkward physical mannerisms I had developed and getting me to slow down my too rapid delivery. We did a very interesting solo piece called “Welcome to Camp Kitchiwammee”. It was about three misfit kids at a summer camp in North Carolina. In the woods, they stumble across an old woman who tells them a horrifying campfire story about a young girl years ago in those parts who hatchet murdered her family. I played the three kids and the old lady and in flashbacks, the girl and her family. At the end of the piece, it’s implied that the old lady was the young murderess.
Ron and I also did a short piece called “Chili Pepper” which was the Rumplestiltskin story updated to the music industry. It was cute but showed me that contemporary satire wasn’t really my forte. I think one reason my solo career didn’t really take off was that I was constantly experimenting with different styles. This was my apprenticeship. Every piece I did was radically different from the next. I was learning so much about plot construction, characterization, economy and exposition. There were other problems as well. Mainly, that I had never had any management and was booking myself around the country and I was never the most organized of self-promoters.
A great coup for me at this time was getting myself booked in San Francisco. My friend, Debra Crane, was living out there, and she managed to get Theatre Rhinoceros to give me their space for free for one night. I flew out there and we invited members of the Golden Gate Gay Businessmen’s Association and various theatre and club owners to see me perform. The one nibble I got was from a fellow named Donald Montwill who was managing a club called Valencia Rose. It was a Spanish mortuary near the Mission that they had renovated (well, really, only partially renovated, the embalming room was still there) and turned into a Gay and Lesbian arts center. I returned there in 1981 and had a great success. It really was thrilling. The San Francisco Gay community discovered me and made me feel like a part of the scene. I lived in a room above the club, feeling very Sally Bowles. Other young performers who played the Valencia Rose were Lea DeLaria, Marga Gomez and a talented young woman who hasn’t gone very far named Whoopi Goldberg. Donald Montwill created a wonderfully fun atmosphere to work in. I played there for around six months, off and on during the next three years.
While in San Francisco, I was able to book engagements at Santa Cruz’s Bear Republic Theatre and in Los Angeles at the CAST Theatre. The latter was a disaster. No one showed up and the second weekend, when I arrived at the theatre, I received quite an unwelcome surprise. I had been booked to do late shows on the set of the main show. At first, it was an empty stage, which worked perfectly for my minimalist presentation. However, this week, without warning me, they had put in a new eight o’clock show and it was a very naturalistic play set in a automobile body shop. There was a car suspended from the ceiling! There was no way I could get an audience to block that out and imagine I was in an elegant British drawing room. I apologized to the few people who were waiting in the lobby, packed up my bags and headed for home. My solo career was filled with incidents like that. There was the theatre that insisted that a volunteer, who was stuffing envelopes, could run my lights. She did fine until the performance when unbeknownst to us, someone had changed the computer board and lights were coming up all over the place. I was literally running back and forth across the stage trying to find the spotlight.
In 1982, I booked myself to return to Washington, D.C. with a new program of pieces. My current director, Ron Vigneau, was busy. I didn’t know what to do. My only recourse was to ask my roommate, a struggling director named Ken Elliott, to help me out. This started a wonderful collaboration that continues to this day. Ken and I have worked together on so many shows. We can work very fast because we know each other so well that very little discussion is needed.
We did a very ambitious solo piece called “After You’ve Gone”. It was a contemporary film noir, about a young man wrongly suspected of murdering his wealthy father. (My repertoire tended towards the comic-grotesque.) The young man embarks on an odyssey searching for his father’s killer. Along the way he meets an black drug-addicted Jazz singer named Ardella Williams, an ex-Hollywood starlet named Anita Harlow, an elderly Italian Prince, the Proprietress of a Carnival fun-house, a young hustler named Chicken Joey and a host of other strange characters. It was my most elaborate piece. The climax of the play had many of the characters returning and being involved in a fatal shoot-out.
Another solo piece from this period was a short one I called simply “The Dream”. It was based on an actual dream of mine, a rather classic actor’s nightmare, where I was forced to go onstage doing Lena Horne’s one woman show. It was an attempt at doing something less narrative-driven and more surrealistic. Some critics thought I was trying to move into Robin Williams’ frenetic style. That wasn’t my intention but I will admit, "The Dream” wasn’t one of my finer efforts.
As I’ve said, Ruth Draper’s recordings were a major influence on me as a solo performer. After concentrating on complex narratives involving flashy transitions between multiple characters, my next two pieces were very much in the Draper tradition of playing one character who speaks to a variety of unseen people. The first, the most successful, was called “Apres Moi, Le Deluge”. It was a portrait of a Mid-western gay High School drama teacher named Erwin Lang. He’s been replaced as head of the Drama Club and boy, is he bitter. The piece takes place at the opening night of his successor’s first production and during intermission, Mr. Lang holds court to former students, colleagues and his aged mother. Ken Elliott was such a great help in developing the piece, improvising chunks of dialogue based on his own Indianapolis background, that I thought it only right to share the writing credit. We were both very proud of this piece. It got a wonderful response wherever I performed it. For years, I thought about writing a full-length play around this noble yet faintly ridiculous character. That is, until I saw the film “Waiting For Guffman”. Christopher Guest did such a brilliant job with a similar character, that I would never have the nerve to go near that subject. It’s too bad. I would’ve loved to have a crack at that.
The other Draperesque solo piece from 1984 was called Reed. It was a very dark monologue about an aging hustler from New York who, desperately trying to change his life, answers an ad to become a mail order lover to a farmer in Montana. It was an attempt for me to play a character close to my own physicality. It was effective but a little heavy handed, I suspect.
In 1983, I played one of my rare New York engagements. Journalists Terry Helbing and Terry Miller had begun a Gay and Lesbian Theatre in Chelsea called “The Meridian Gay Theatre.” It didn’t last long but they produced my solo show, which ran for a few weeks. It was nearly impossible to get any critic to review the show and thus nearly impossible to attract any kind of audience. However, I established a few very important professional and personal relationships out of this showcase. It marked the first time I worked with costume designer, John Glaser, who went on to design the clothes in “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and “Psycho Beach Party”. Most importantly, the stage manager assigned to the show was Kathie Carr. Kathie and I became great friends and over the years, she stage managed all of our Theatre-in-Limbo shows through “Psycho Beach Party”, and also has styled my wigs throughout my career. And now she’s the creator and webmistress to this website! The girl is very versatile. I love her very much. (I’d say that even if she wasn’t typing this.)
My last solo piece was another very ambitious multi-character play called “Phantom Lovers”. It was sort of an Irish Gothic-romance. It had elements of Dickens and Bronte. It was another tale of a young man searching for the truth of his past. In this case, a young man in Nineteenth Century Ireland, finds an elderly female novelist (sort of a literary Aunt Betsy Trotwood) living in the country, who tells him the tale of his parents ill fated love story. The most interesting character was a mysterious Countess who lived in a castle on the hill. At the conclusion of the tragic story, the Countess dramatically reveals that a witch’s curse caused her hands to turn into eagle’s claws. It was ambiguous whether that was literal or psychological. “Phantom Lovers” meant a lot to me because it was directed by my Northwestern acting teacher, David Downs. Although I was sort of a bust when I was actually in his class, (I was going through a very bad time in college, terrible stage fright. Oh, Honey, I was mess.) Anyway David later became something of a mentor to me. I had long fantasized that one day he’d direct me and then tell me that I was truly a talented actor. I convinced him to work with me on the play and flew out to Chicago for a month of rehearsals. We had a wonderful time and when we felt ready, we presented the piece to a number of students and faculty members. First, a little back story. If Northwestern has a great reputation as a theatre school, it’s because of the work of a famous teacher, a woman named Alvina Kraus. She made the school’s reputation in the fifties and sixties and inspired Patricia Neal and several generations of marvelous actors. My teacher, David Downs, was one of her last students and he absolutely worshipped her. Well, after our presentation, one of his colleagues said, I believe rather sarcastically, “That was certainly a David Downs performance.” And I heard David reply “No, it was an Alvina Kraus performance.” I thought I’d die. It was one of the few times someone tells you exactly what you’ve always longed to hear.
Before I premiered the piece in San Francisco at Valencia Rose, I tried out my new repertoire at a private performance in a friends loft. To my horror, my poetic gothic tale got all sort of inappropriate laughter. Particularly, the character of the Countess was greeted with boffo laughs. Afterwards, people were congratulating me on my clever spoof. I went back into rehearsal with Ken Elliott and we worked hard at cutting all the laughs we didn’t want. There was humor in the piece but not that much! It was fascinating. I learned a lot about getting laughs by discerning what wrong cues I was giving the audience. When I opened in San Francisco, there were still a few places where the melodrama was a bit over the top that sent the wrong message to the audience. I continued refining the piece throughout the engagement and by the final performance, I had the audience responding exactly as I had intended.
At the very end of my solo career, I played my most prestigious engagement at the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre. This was a first class regional theatre, and although I was in their smaller cabaret space, I considered it a prestige gig. My reviews were excellent and attendance was good but I did feel I was coming to the end of a certain period of my life.
The eight years I worked as a solo performer were essential to my development as an actor/writer but filled with loneliness and frustration. It was hard showing up alone in a strange city and forced to rely on the good graces of the mostly impoverished non-profit theatres that had engaged me. I longed for the sense of camaraderie that can be such a magical part of the theatre. I also had reached a certain level of professionalism where I received great reviews and could even sell out on a rainy Tuesday in Santa Cruz, but just couldn’t earn a living. Between sold out engagements around the country, I had to return to New York and scrounge around for a buck as an office temp, telephone solicitor of hot typewriter ribbons, giving out a gambling tips on a sports hotline, and most often as a quick sketch portrait artist. It’s awful having your nose pressed against the glass and knowing in your heart that you have so much to offer.
However, in April of 1984, just when I really was at low ebb, Ken and I went to see our friend, Bina Sharif, perform at a small after hours club in the East Village called the Limbo Lounge. It was such a fascinating, raffish environment that I had a mad longing to put on a play there. My strange career as a performance artist, garbed severely in black, left me anxious to do something truly outrageous and colorful. That something turned out to be “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and opened up a very different chapter of my life.
Other Plays by Charles
Plays 1976 - 1982 Plays 1984 - 1989 Plays 1991 - 2009 Musicals
Auntie Mame Little Me The Maids
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