Charles Busch, playwright of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, was recently on the Theater J stage performing his legendary drag act at our annual benefit. Shortly after that fabulous evening, he and our Acting Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky corresponded over email about the past 30 years which encompass Charles’ long and varied career.
SHIRLEY SEROTSKY: You’ve made updates to references in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife script before the Theater J production and also during this rehearsal process. Can you tell us about those changes and why you thought they were important to make?
CHARLES BUSCH: The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife was written in 1999 as a contemporary comedy. But now 16 years later, it seems wrong to make it a “period” piece because nothing in it seems rooted to that particular year. Therefore, every few years, I find I have to update the references as technology changes and cultural figures evoked in the play die. Also, to keep the characters’ ages consistent, I need to update their biographical details.
SS: You’ve said in earlier interviews that with The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, your idea was to take “these Jewish suburban characters and put them in a cryptic Albee or Pinter play.” Since we are at Theater J, can you talk a little bit about being a Jewish playwright and if that influences your work at all?
CB: There are two parts to that question. The character of Marjorie Taub originated in a monologue that was part of a solo show I performed in the early nineties. I loved the character of this raging Medea-like Manhattan Jewish woman and I wanted to write a play around her. All of my ideas seemed rather TV sitcom. But then I saw the wonderful revival of Albee’s A Delicate Balance with Elaine Stritch and began thinking about Pinter’s play about a ménage a trois Old Times and thought if I placed these very recognizable New York types in this kind of enigmatic world, it would allow me to take them into deeper waters. I also read the fiction of Cynthia Ozick where she mixes the very ordinary world with the supernatural. Part Two: I was raised in a somewhat bohemian household by my Aunt Lil, very much like the story of “Auntie Mame” and had no religious education at all. Any knowledge of Jewish history I’ve received is from Hollywood biblical epics. It is a bit of a cliché when agnostic Jewish celebrities say “I’m not a practicing Jew but I am deeply and profoundly Jewish.” All I can say is that I identify as a Jew. I have a great snobbism about being Jewish and the gravitas and depth that comes from the Jewish heritage. I like to think that the characters in all of my plays, even my campiest movie spoofs, benefit from that identification.
SS: When you started your career in theater, you were a solo performer. Many of the plays you’ve written include a role for yourself. Can you tell us a little bit how performance has influenced your writing and how your writing has influenced you as a performer?
CB: I was stage struck first and although I wrote plays as a child, it wasn’t as important as my desire to be on stage. I began seriously writing plays in college when I realized that I was an odd type and would most likely not be successful as a traditional actor. I was very influenced by the work of experimental theatre artists such as Charles Ludlam, which provided me with the courage to create roles for myself. The eccentric qualities that made me difficult to cast turned out to be the elements that have provided me with a long career. I think being an actor has certainly been a help in writing for the stage. I know from personal experience what an actor needs in a role and what dialogue will play well.
SS: What is the process of creating a play versus originating a character you will embody?
CB: There really isn’t much difference to me. The character always seems to come first. I’m not the kind of writer who comes up with a theme or issue and then tries to illustrate it. Perhaps because I started out as a performer, I get the idea of a character who intrigues me and then I come up with a story that contains that character. When I come up with stage vehicles for myself, there is a bit of a fantasy element to it – who would I like to play? Many of the plays I’ve written for myself have been inspired by classic film and so often I have thought about what kind of old movie would I like to be in.
SS: What is it like to be an openly gay writer-performer now versus 30 years ago when you were starting out?
CB: The greatest strides for gay writers and performers were made just before I made the scene. I have greatly benefitted from the toughness and determination of people like Charles Ludlam and even later, Harvey Fierstein. By the time I got it together in 1985, I did not have trouble getting reviewed in the New York Times and other mainstream publications or finding a varied audience.
SS: You have some stellar titles. How do you come up with them?
CB: I guess I am known to have come up with some wild titles and yet it’s the last thing I think about. It’s sort of an obligation I have to get through. Most of my drafts have what we call “dummy” titles. Just something to identify them. I drive producers and publicists a little crazy as they wait for me to settle on a title. The important thing is that a title sets up an expectation that can be filled, and with a comedy, something that has an ironic or comic twist but isn’t too silly. So says the author of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Oh well….