As the reigning camp queen of New York City, Charles Busch has long held a special place in the hearts of Gotham critics who have helped place him in the unenviable position as the heir to Charles Ludlam's drag parody theatrics. Few know as well as Busch how double-edged the pen of the critic can be. In a recent conversation, Busch laughed at his own frustration with theatre reviewers, "No one is a favorite with critics in New York, dahhhling," he said. "They've been very kind to me. However, on one hand I get criticized if I just do what I do, then when I try to stretch I get criticized for not doing what I do. Who are you trying to please? You finally want to please yourself and your audience."
Busch continues to please himself and his audiences, especially L.A. audiences with his current long-extended hit Die! Mommy! Die! at the Coast Playhouse. Busch, whose Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party have become favorites at regional theatres and colleges throughout the world, earning him a very healthy income in royalties, decided to do Die! Mommy! Die! only for Los Angeles. He felt the play was a bit too fluffy for New York tastes-but after the generous reception in West Hollywood, he may reconsider.
Beyond the joy of having his newest play embraced wholeheartedly by local audiences, Busch has another reason for increased presence in Hollywood. He's becoming a big drag movie star! For the past eight years his manager has been trying to get a film made from Busch's huge hit Psycho Beach Party. Busch thought the idea absurd at first and paid little attention to the machinations of his manager until the deal started to come together.
"I thought it was a nutty idea, it is such a little stage piece," said Busch. "But he kept pursuing it. Finally he got Robert King as a client. Bob is a young director who had a relationship with Strand Releasing. His short film Disco Years was a part of a trio of films called A Boy's Life. So we put it all together. I wrote the screenplay. It was a small play, so we had to turn it into a movie. We retained the best lines and the gist of it. But we had to make it a bigger story."
In the original New York and L.A. productions, Busch played the part of Chicklet, a wannabe surfer with a few too many personalities. "It was never really one of my favorite roles, so I didn't object to not playing it in the movie," he said. "Besides, we don't want it to be that stylized, so we have a real young girl in the part. I wrote myself another marvelous role." Busch created the fabulous role of Monica Sharp, a fearless, hard-bitten-but gorgeous-Malibu beach detective.
Busch has developed his own style with enormous success onstage, but he was concerned about how it would carry over to film. "The acting challenge was to be able to do what I do and be my stage persona, stylized, but also to fit in with the other actors on film," he said. "I think I did it. I watched the dailies. A few takes, there is too much eye-rolling. But Bob was good with takes, had me do extras and take it down a bit."
It wasn't all smooth sailing, however. Since King is a writer/director, he had a lot of advice for Busch-an artist not used to being told how to work on his own material.
"At first I was a bit bristly and defensive having this young guy giving me notes on Psycho Beach Party as if I didn't know it better than anyone," Busch confessed. "But I learned quickly. We worked closely and I grew to depend on him. He is such a perfectionist it drove me a little crazy at times, but he really did keep pushing me to make it better. On the set he was very good with me. They sort of depended on me as the touchstone of the acting style. So it was more getting other people to do what I do."
Now that he's been bitten by the celluloid bug, Busch plans to work on a screenplay for Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. But he won't give up theatre, which has given him so much. He's seen many of his plays done throughout the States, either live or on the videotapes people send him-often he is appalled at the changes made in the shows, but always thrilled with the audience reactions.
He never objects to new interpretations, but does have some advice for those working on his plays. "Slow down! I understand, particularly for young gay actors or directors, when they finally get a chance to do a piece with a camp sensibility they just want to cut loose and be wild," he said. "It's like when guys do drag for the first time at a party or Halloween; they don't want to look like Helen Hayes, they want to look like Dolly Parton. You want to cut loose and be liberated. However, artistically it gets a little shrill. I always say, Direct the play and still make it about people and emotions and story. You don't have to be so "creative.'"
In Die! Mommy! Die!, Charles Busch plays a former singing sensation, now retired and living off her producer husband, played with utter sincerity by Greg Mullavey. Mullavey, who gained national attention in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman two decades ago, has become one of the most stalwart stage actors in Los Angeles theatre over the past few years. He also travels around the country performing at regional theatres and occasionally appears on and Off-Broadway.
Somehow, though, in all his theatrical travels, Mullavey had managed to miss the Charles Busch phenomenon. He had no idea who the actor/writer was when his agents insisted he read for Die! Mommy! Die! Mullavey simply acquiesced and went to the audition where Busch read the part of his wife. Said Mullavey, "I thought, Why is this guy reading for my wife? It wasn't until a few days went by that I realized this guy was playing my wife! What have I gotten myself into? I was totally unaware of Charles Busch. My proclivities are elsewhere."
But being the enormously curious actor he is, Mullavey soon found his way into the production and is having the time of his life. "I am learning a lot," he said. "I have done farce before. I simply pretend Charles is a woman. After a while you don't even have to pretend. We were all told to be real. Charles would do the absurd stuff. The outlandish, farcical stuff. The "camp.' I don't think it has quite turned out that way, but that's what we were told. I think we've heightened it. That was the intent in the beginning."
He has gotten so used to the play now that he never sees it as absurd. "What's absurd is getting up early on a weekend to do a Shakespeare play in the morning," said Mullavey. But that is exactly what he did through most of July and into August. While playing Die! Mommy! Die! at night, he was spending Saturday and Sunday mornings at John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in a 70-minute mariachi adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. The production, a brilliant introduction of Shakespeare to young students, will be touring throughout the country.
Mullavey's early plans did not include performing onstage in mariachi Shakespeare or being married to a drag queen-his youth was spent captaining baseball teams. Then an Army injury ended his dreams of baseball and he turned to theatre. He began seriously in the Army's Special Services, then moved to New York and studied with a wide variety of teachers, from Meisner to Strasberg to Eric Morris. "It all works," he said. "Hopefully the technique disappears. Yesterday, for example-I am a veteran of the theatre, but I made a couple of mistakes because I was trying to be too careful. It's a real tough balance between trying to be right and being good."
Mullavey continues to be good. Though he has some television and film deals working, he sees much of that work as creating notoriety that will help him get more important stage work. Said the actor, "My love is the theatre and I will never not do that." BSW