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Brief Encounter With … Charles Busch

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American actor, screen-writer, playwright, author, dramatist and female impersonator Charles Busch has had huge success on Broadway and on the Fringe scene in the U.S. His camp classics such as Red Scare On Sunset and The Lady In Question send up classic movies as well as popular culture. Although this unique performer wants to perform here, he has never really been given the opportunity. But Northwest audiences will get the chance to see two of his cult hits, in the guise of Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommie Die as they are being staged by Vertigo Theatre Productions at Taurus, Manchester in March. We caught up with the man himself to find out a bit about his unique brand of humour.

Tell us a little bit about the show, The Divine Sister. What is the concept?
The Divine Sister is an homage to just about Hollywood film about nuns and religion from the 1940's (Song of Bernadette, The Bells of St. Marys) to today (Doubt, The DaVinci Code). I like to think it explores how pop culture's view of religion has evolved over these many decades. I'm not sure if concept is a good word for my work. It doesn't sound too funny and it's a very funny play.
Audiences here do embrace camp theatre, music and film. How do the American audiences take to your brand of humour? 
Thank God they've been taking to it for the past twenty-five years! However, I would say that I'm kind of a special exotic dessert in the cuisine of American theatre. I was fortunate that from the beginning of my career, the NY theatrical press has been very enthusiastic about my work. I didn't have to fight too many battles to become part of the theatrical community.

Vertigo are staging Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommie Die in Manchester. How would you describe these two to a newcomer to your work? 
I've worked in a number of different theatrical genres, but a major part of my career has been in theatrical parody. Both of these plays have fun with 1960's movies. Psycho Beach Party mixes the Beach Party movies of the sixties with Hitchcock thrillers and Die Mommie Die reflects the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford grande dame guignol suspense films of the sixties. I find Hollywood in the early and mid 1960's very interesting because it really was a crazy transitional period where the studios were trying to adapt to the radically changing times but didn't have the cinematic vocabulary to carry it through.
Which actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood do you admire the most and why?
I find Bette Davis very fascinating because she was on one hand the most theatrical and stylized of the pantheon of great female film stars but also the most psychologically acute and daring. She's celebrated for her explosive rage but those moments wouldn't be nearly so effective, if it weren't for the tight control and suppressed neurosis leading up to them. I'm also a great admirer of Vivien Leigh. I love her mixture of delicacy and strength.
Which one of your productions makes you the proudest and why?
Well, it was very exciting when a play of mine The Tale of the Allergist's Wife was a big hit on Broadway and ran nearly two years and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Very unexpected and absolutely thrilling! But I guess, my favorite production was a 1989 play I wrote and starred in called The Lady in Question. It was an homage to Hollywood anti-Nazi movies from the forties. I played a glamorous lady concert pianist who takes on the Nazis while on a tour through Bavaria. It was a wonderful production and a really fun role. I got to start out as a terribly selfish bitch but by the end of the play, I had become very noble and self-sacrificing. It's unfortunate that my plays are rarely done in the UK and I've never performed in London. Numerous times over the years, producers have attempted to bring me over but they never seem to be able to get the money together. If it doesn't happen soon, I'll be making my London debut in a wheel chair.
From what you know about the British sense of humour, what aspects of Die Mommy Die and Psycho Beach Party do you feel will go down well here?
Well, I've certainly enjoyed a lot of British comedy from the Ealing films of the sixties to Ab Fab and a million other things. I hope people will find these plays funny. They're bawdy and outrageous, but have a solid core of emotion to them. And I don't think there are too many references that are so specifically American. But I guess I'm not really the best judge of that.
The Vertigo cast are young, enthusiastic fans of your work. But what tips would you give them the week before curtain up?
I would tell them to never forget that both Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommie Die have stong narratives and they should never forget to tell the story. The emotional journeys of the characters need to be played very seriously, otherwise the plays just become noisy and silly. It's walking a tightrope between sincerity and the outrageous.  
Why do you think the West End and Broadway are filled with movie inspired pieces?
Human being have always loved to hear stories. A good yarn is hard to beat. That's why we have such affection for classic Hollywood film. They knew how to tell a story. We may find those stories today a bit contrived or formulaic or old fashioned but the best Hollywood films pre-1960 had an almost primal emotional quality that gives them great power. I hope my plays reflect some of that, even while we're having fun with the more outrageous conventions of those films.

Charles Busch was speaking to Glenn Meads.

He currently stars in The Divine Sister at the Soho Playhouse in New York.

Psycho Beach Party
and Die Mommie Die are both at Taurus in Manchester from 16 - 26 March. For more details, visit the website here.


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