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Brief Encounter With ... Bette Bourne

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Bette Bourne's award-winning collaboration with Mark Ravenhill, A Life in Three Acts, returned this week to the Soho Theatre in a revised format (audiences can now see all three acts in a single evening).

The show paints an intimate picture of renowned actor, drag queen and gay rights activist Bourne over a period of momentous social change, from a childhood in the post-war East End through Soho in the hedonistic 60s, to the birth of Gay Lib and life in a 1970s Notting Hill drag commune.

In the 80s his story moves to New York, from where his revolutionary drag troupe Bloolips found fame on both sides of the Atlantic, and where he first experienced the heartbreak of HIV and AIDS. Nowadays, Bourne is firmly established as an award winning actor and one of "Britain’s Stately Homos".

Did it take you a while to 'find yourself'?
Yes, I was a really butch east-end kid!

When did you discover your inner cross-dresser?
Well I had a friend who came round my flat, we were going to a Gay Liberation meeting together in Notting Hill. And I said: “I have one of these fabulous frocks, scarlet and cut on the bias.” And he said: “Well why don’t you go and put it on for the meeting?” So I put it on with full make-up and long red hair. We totted over to the meeting and no-one knew who I was!

How did it feel?
It was wonderfully euphoric. We found this huge film studio and all lived there in our drag. We were all sleeping together, having sex together, talking together and dancing together. It was wonderful because it was right at the end of this cul-de-sac and it felt like our own cocoon.

Do you think we’re still quite buttoned-up in the UK?
I don’t know - I try to be as unbuttoned as I can! Thomas Jefferson said: “The price of freedom is constant vigilance.” And that’s absolutely right, you’ve got to keep pushing the cause and making sure they know there are lots of us. And I know David Cameron himself has said that he very interested in ‘the pink pound’ - I don’t think he quite understood before but now he’s saying that we’ll be alright with the Tories. You can believe that if you like!

How will you be voting in the next elections?
Politics is a complete waste of time.

How did A Life in Three Acts come about?
I was doing a workshop on Mother Clap’s Molly House at the National Theatre with Mark Ravenhill. And one day we were doing something and I said: “this reminds me of when I was living in the drag commune.” And everyone sort of tittered and looked at me as if I was from Mars, but Mark said, “can we all sit down and you can tell us all about it?” So I told them all about it, and the idea grew from there.

You have so many stories, is the commune one of your fondest memories?
All sorts of things took place in the commune and there was a general sense of euphoria. We genuinely loved each other and we thought it was going to be permanent. Eventually I left and went to work in a playground in drag looking after the children. If someone new came into the playground and started on me, all the other children would say: “you leave Bette alone, or I’ll thump you!”

You’ve done the show a number of times now. How do you keep it fresh?
I don’t stick to the script; sometimes I put in extra plums and cherries, just to freshen it all up. Mark follows with the questioning and we have a great time, we really love each other.

Mark's a great interviewer
They’re all his own questions. We did three long sessions, he recorded it and he and I edited it. Then we published it so you can get a copy at the theatre. The version we’re doing on stage is one and half hours. Mark is the master I’m just the player. He knocks me into shape; he bangs me around and comes out with some marvellous stuff.

Do you have any regrets?
Je ne regrette rien! Quentin Crisp used to say a wonderful thing: “Neither look forward where there is doubt, nor backward where there is regret; but look inward and ask not if there is anything out in the world that I want and had better grab quickly before nightfall, but whether there is anything inside me that I have not yet unpacked.” And I think that’s very good, it keeps you fresh.

Have you got anything left to unpack?
Oh yes, I hope so! I’m going off to New York, Colorado and Nevada. And then I have two projects coming up - you’ve just got to keep doing new projects.

What message do you have for any struggling actors/directors/writers out there?
For actors I say, “Keep it on the stage!” Because you can waste a lot of energy navel gazing. And I always say to a lot of young students that it doesn’t matter what you do in the early stages. My mantra for playwrights is, “write the whole thing till the end, and don’t revise.”

- Bette Bourne was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

A Life in Three Acts continues at the Soho Theatre until 27 February 2010.


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