Every time I interview Charles Busch, I always learn more about what makes him tick and where his inspiration is drawn from. In this new interview, Charles and I let it all hang out as we discuss his new cabaret show Naked and Unafraid which will premiere at Pangea NYC on Saturday, March 4 at 7pm. Click here for tickets!
1. This March you are heading to Pangea NYC for your new cabaret show Charles Busch: Naked and Unafraid, where for the first time you will perform this show in "male" drag as opposed to your usual "female" drag. What made you want to create a show to be performed as yourself? The thing I love about performing in cabaret as opposed to being in a play is projecting a version of myself that is truly representative of who I am. A creative life seems to be a never ending journey of self-discovery and definition. After forty years of expressing myself through drag, I've become so comfortable with my own androgynous nature that the element of transformation means very little to me. In this performance at Pangea, I'm just going to push the androgynous meter a bit more towards the masculine. It's basically the same act, just minus one more veil.
2. In putting this show together, was your creative process any different than when you design your "drag" cabaret shows? How did your song choice differ with this show? A major part of my act is telling stories about my past and I have had quite a past, a full repertoire. At times I've decided against certain stories that placed too much of an emphasis on my being male. In this show, I'm not censoring myself at all. As far as songs, well, I'm doing some older material including a short ten minute piece as my character "Miriam Passman," to prove to myself and the audience that there really isn't that much difference. I can basically do the same show and it doesn't matter what I wear. Frankly, I haven't worn any falsies or foundation garments in years and in my regular act I've always worn pants.
3. Why did you choose to debut this show at Pangea? I asked a few of the out of town venues that I'll be performing in over the course of the next year if they'd mind if I did the show out of drag and they adamantly objected. They fear that my audience will be disappointed or worse, not show up. And it's a legitimate concern. I wanted to test the waters, and most importantly, see if I like it. I may not but I think I will. Pangea is a very safe place for me. I've known the owner Stephen and the talent coordinator Kevin Malony for many years. They were eager to provide me with a venue for this really rather mild experiment.
4. What do you hope audiences will come away with from attending this show as opposed to your previous cabaret shows? I certainly hope the audience will feel a greater freedom of expression from me and an even more honest experience of spending an hour in my company. And I really do hope they'll feel that it's not that big a difference. My persona in drag is so close to who I am in real life that it's not like they're gonna suddenly see me turn into Vin Diesel. It's basically the same persona.
5. What are you most excited about in presenting this show? What are you most nervous about? I'm looking forward to singing with greater power because without intending I think I lighten my voice a bit in subconsciously feminizing it.
I'm a trifle concerned that perhaps the audience and I will miss the trappings of glamour that drag provides. In my act I suppose I evoke echoes of some of the great ladies at the mic; Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich etc. But perhaps with my own short hair I'll still be unconsciously evoking Judy and maybe a little Elaine Stritch. All of those ladies' stage personas traded on their androgyny. Judy in her tramp outfit and Dietrich in her men's tuxedos and even Stritch with her simple white buttoned down shirt. The great theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Dietrich "She has sex without gender." That would be the highest compliment I could receive.
6. You will be joined once again by your long-time musical director Tom "Muscles" Judson. How will your chemistry with him differ with you performing as yourself? This should be interesting. Tom is a big good looking sexy guy and we enjoy singing romantic duets with each other. It's an element that I've never seen any other drag performer do in their shows. Not to my knowledge. Drag surprisingly can desexualize a performer. One of the things I've always admired about Rupaul is that he manages to be gorgeous, smart and sexy. Without the drag, it will be two men singing a romantic duet. I hope my seething blindingly muscular virility won't overwhelm Tom.
7. Many people have hang-ups about being completely naked and exposed, fearing they might be rejected or ridiculed. What has been your most terrifying naked moment? Well, very early in my career I wrote a play and starred in and for a rather extended scene was completely nude. I played incestuous identical twin brothers and well....basically in the second act...I fucked myself. My dear, it was a coup de theatre. I was less nervous than I thought I'd be, but it was a little weird knowing that every friend of mine and worse my two sisters had all seen me totally nude.
8. Since the show is titled Naked & Unafraid, when have you been naked and not afraid of what people thought? I was raised by a remarkable woman, my mother's older sister, my Aunt Lillian. My mother died when I was seven and Aunt Lillian eventually adopted me. She was my first great collaborator. She was involved in everything I did. Among the great gifts she gave me was a sense that every creative idea I had was worthy and should be encouraged. I was brought up without any sense of "what will people think?" Looking back now, I'm realizing that I don't think I ever turned down an experience. I have some regrets of things I didn't do, but never something that was actually offered to me. My entire career has been predicated on taking a chance, putting on a show in some bizarre venue for the sheer fun of it. Creating a drag role because it was a cinematic fantasy that I wanted to experience. Thank God, I never have concerned myself for one second on "what will people think." I think I've always been naked and unafraid.
9. Continuing with show's title, what is the most intimate fact about Charles Busch you would be willing to reveal in this interview? It's been so long since I've performed this activity, but all modesty aside, I think I'm a world class kisser. I wonder if the younger generation have technically improved on it. I'd like to find out.
10. On "Call Me Adam" I have a section called One Percent Better, where through my own fitness commitment, I try to encourage people to improve their own life by one percent every day. What is something in your life that you want to improve by one percent better every day? I would like to be a more thoughtful friend. It would be nice to be a little less self-absorbed. I actually am making an effort. I hope I don't let it go like I have all of those unused gym memberships.
Charles Busch is the author and star of such plays as The Divine Sister, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Tribute Artist and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, which ran for nearly two years on Broadway and received a Tony nomination for Best Play. He wrote and starred in the film versions of his plays, Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommie Die, the latter of which won him the Best Performance Award at the Sundance Film Festival. In 2003, Charles received a special Drama Desk Award for career achievement as both performer and playwright. He is also the subject of the acclaimed documentary film The Lady in Question is Charles Busch. He is a two-time MAC award winner and has performed his cabaret act in many cities including San Francisco, Provincetown, Palm Springs, New Orleans, Atlanta, Philadelphia, London, Paris and in New York at Feinstein's/54 Below. In winter of 2016, his show The Lady at the Mic premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center's American Songbook series.