Out-Takes of a B-Movie (1975)
My very first play. When I arrived at Northwestern, I had every intention of being a force to be reckoned with in the theatre department. It was not to be. I learned very quickly that the Theatre Department of a large university was very much a microcosm of show biz. I had a terrible time being cast. Being rather pragmatic, most of the time I agreed with the people who didn't cast me. It was an extremely painful period for me. I was desperate to be in the theatre but didn't know where I could fit in. Fortunately, Northwestern was fairly flexible and I was able to take a number of writing classes.
Out-takes of a B-Movie was a crash course in playwriting for me. I tore it apart and sewed it back together a million times and learned not to be sentimental about my own writing. In the theatre you have to be craftsman as well as hopefully, in time, an artist. The play is a very downbeat naturalistic story, more than a little influenced by Lanford Wilson, about a group of misfits who gather every day in a memorabilia shop in Greenwich Village. The protagonist, Max, is a confused and rather androgynous young man, who runs the shop and is desperate to change his life. This role I intended for myself. My interest in writing began as a way to give myself an opportunity to be onstage. The closest I ever got to a production was when a reader from Joseph Papp's Public Theatre briefly became enthusiastic. He tried to get a staged reading together but somehow it was fated never to happen. Everyone has to start somewhere and "Out-takes of a B-Movie" was a great educational experience for its very young author.
Sister Act (1976)
I wrote this one-act during my senior year at college. I wanted the experience of writing, directing and starring in a play and so I wrote myself a vehicle. Actually, it was a vehicle for my best friend, Ed Taussig and I. We had become so extraordinarily close. We were known on campus as "Chuck 'n Ed." I wasn't even aware that Sister Act, a play about a pair of Siamese twin showgirls in conflict about whether or not to separate, was frankly autobiographical. The play takes place in the dressing room of a traveling freak show. The star attraction, the twins Hester and Esther, work out their personal and professional dilemma with the help of their colleagues, the fat woman, the bearded lady and a Swedish masseuse.
(l to r) Charles Busch, Ed Taussig
We put the play on as a midnight show in a slot where they usually showed cult movies. Earlier in the week, Ed and I gave our first interview to a young reporter from The Daily Northwestern. The day of the show, the campus paper came out with a lurid photo of Ed and I in our Hester and Esther drag with the headline Decadence Reigns at Midnight Madness. Needless to say, we were sold out. I don't know if the play or the performance was any good but it was a watershed experience for me. It was my first time as drag star and playwright and it felt really good. I came away from the night with the sense that perhaps there might be a place for me in the theatre.
Myrtle Pope, the Story of a Woman Possessed (1977)
While I was living in Chicago, I appeared as Orestes in a strangely homo-erotic production of Sartres' The Flies. In the cast were a number of people who seemed to share my interest in starting a theatrical ensemble. My fantasy was to emulate The Ridiculous Theatrical Company with myself as a North side Chicago Charles Ludlam. I was to learn that the rest of the troupe had a very different fantasy. Our first and only production was another short piece of mine entitled Myrtle Pope, The Story of a Woman Possessed. It was a pastiche of a slew of Hollywood women's pictures. Myrtle starts out as an old maid reminiscent of Bette Davis in "Now Voyager," becomes glamorized and accidentally kills her twin sister right out of A Stolen Life. Like Madame X, Myrtle lives a life of exile and on the way becomes a Dietrich-like cabaret singer involved in a bi-sexual three-way with overtones of Deception. True to the plot of Madame X, she becomes a drunken whore in Tijuana, murders a blackmailer and dies in the arms of the son who doesn't know she's his mother. All this in forty-five fast paced minutes.
We performed Myrtle Pope all over Chicago, in gay bars, bathhouses, straight beer drinking pubs and movie theaters after the last film was shown. Naturally, I played Myrtle and it was a great chance for me to learn to adjust my performances to different kinds of audiences and well, to explore my own comic potential. There were a couple of performances of Myrtle Pope where I truly felt I was on the right path. Unfortunately, that epiphany was not shared by the rest of the Imitation of Life Theatrical Troupe. They felt I was hogging the spotlight and ruining their opportunity of establishing themselves as a viable theatre company. It all ended very badly and prompted my returning home to New York. At the risk of sounding bitchy, I don't believe the others in the troupe did much acting after Myrtle Pope. I'm grateful that the collapse of this early dream gave me the incentive to work even harder and with greater discipline to pursue my dream of a career in the theatre. How interesting that this bitter experience would so mirror the loving and beautiful one that I shared seven years later with Theatre-in-Limbo.
Before Our Mother's Eyes (1982)
In the early Eighties, I had performed short solo pieces at Theatre for the New City's Halloween festivals. The artistic director, Crystal Field, suggested that I do a full engagement at the theatre. While I probably should have used the opportunity to showcase the solo work I'd been touring around the country, instead I decided to write a full-length play. I had read in the newspaper a small item about a pair of twin teenage boys in a small Italian Village who were so close that when their mother tried to separate them, they jumped off a bridge to their deaths. The theme of twinship has always fascinated me. In my own life, I have felt a number of intimate "twinships" with people I've loved. The newspaper item was a springboard to writing a play in a sort of Peter Shaffer-like theatrical style. I played both boys, David and Andreas, and employing the techniques I'd worked on as a solo performer, I performed scenes with the two boys talking to each other. It got more complicated when the kids were in the same room with the other characters in the play. I never quite figured that one out.
Like many comic writers who decide to "go dramatic," I did so with an anvil. Oy, was this play humorless. Although the play was stylishly directed by Peter Napolitano, we got mostly bad reviews. However, I appreciated that one critic, commenting on my nude scene where the incestuous twins make love, wrote that I was one actor who looked better with his clothes off than on. For a skinny kid who hated gym class, that was praise of a high order.