Mixing the very ordinary world with the supernatural – An interview with Charles Busch

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.

Charles Busch and his musical director Tom Judson on stage at the 2015 Theater J Annual Benefit

Charles Busch and his musical director Tom Judson on stage at the 2015 Theater J Annual Benefit

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.

Charles Busch

Charles Busch

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….

Charles Busch in Die Mommie Die

Charles Busch in Die Mommie Die


An Interview with Tanya Barfield

Jacqueline Lawton is the incredibly talented DC-based playwright whose play The Hampton Years premiered here at Theater J in 2013. Recently, she sat down with Tanya Barfield, the author of The Call, to talk about Tanya’s writing process.

Jacqueline Lawton

Jacqueline Lawton

JACQUELINE LAWTON: I’m curious, other than being a playwright, what other forms of writing have you done? Were you always drawn to the theater? If so, why? If not, what brought you here?

TANYA BARFIELD: I was drawn to the theater in elementary school but I didn’t dream I could be a part of it until my junior year of high school. In elementary school, the advanced English class, of which I was not a part, did a production of Macbeth. Perhaps, I was the only youngster in the audience that watched the show. I was riveted. It was storytelling and poetry like I had never heard. I went on to a very small high school with no theater department. With intensity only a teenager could muster, I lamented over the fact that we had no theater department. So I decided to put on the school’s first play. I chose the only play I had ever read, Macbeth. Indeed, I staged it and it was performed. Everyone that auditioned was cast, and Macduff was played by a girl because not enough boys tried out. I saw my first professional production of a play at the age of 17 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After that, I was hooked on theater. Looking back on it, I think the only reason I studied acting instead of playwriting was because I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a living playwright. In terms of other writing, I’ve recently made the foray into TV-writing.

Tanya Barfield

Tanya Barfield

JL: Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?

TB: I often write at insanely early hours in the morning when everyone in this time zone is asleep. Even farmers. But, now, I am expanding to longer stretches of time. After an early morning session, I often go on a “writing dates” in which a writer-friend and I will write in silence in the same space. This can occur in an apartment or coffee-shop.

JL: Describe for me all the sensations you had the first time you had one of your plays produced and you sat in the audience while it was performed…what was different about the characters you created?

TB: The first time I heard my work, I had butterflies in my stomach. I was tremendously happy and about to be sick. I’ve always been drawn to working with people that are interested in collaboration. To me, this is the most exciting aspect of theater. Of course, writing is a solitary activity and I’m not interested in “writing plays by committee.” But I do enjoy the exchange between playwright and director; the actor’s input and how they bring the script to life; the way in which the designers contribute to the storytelling; and finally the audience. I’ve seen shows, my own included, change drastically dependent on the audience reaction. Funnier moments can become funnier, sad moments sadder.

JL: What do you hope to convey in the plays that you create–what are they about? What sorts of people, situation, circumstances, do you like to write about?

TB: I like to write plays that feel both intimate and wide in scope that can be viewed within a larger social context. The play’s lens should feel both macro and micro focus.

JL: What inspired you to write The Call?

TB: The play is about adoption which is of personal interest to me. But, I actually see the play as being more about lifelong friendships, marriage and midlife. On a macro-level, it’s about global interconnectivity and a call to courage.

The Call at Theater J Joy Jones & Tessa Klein Photo by Stan Barouh

The Call at Theater J
Joy Jones & Tessa Klein
Photo by Stan Barouh

JL: What was the most challenging part of writing The Call? Which character’s voice or situation was the most difficult to capture?

TB: Annie was the easiest to write and the hardest. Her voice was very clear to me from the beginning. But, she’s a complicated character because she voices the audience’s darkest fears and reservations. Without giving too much away, she’s an easy character to judge – but not that many people would “jump in” the way they expect Annie to.

JL: One of the most compelling lines of the plays comes from the most intriguing characters. Alemu says to Annie, “You want a child from Africa but you do not want Africa.” Can you talk to me about this?

TB: Like most parents, Annie and Peter want a baby more than anything that they can love and raise as their own.  But, they don’t want a child with history. They want an empty slate. They don’t want to also adopt a continent in turmoil.

JL: If there is one thing you want audiences to walk away knowing or thinking about after experiencing The Call, what would that be?

TB: Courage.

JL: What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?

TB: I tend to be of the belief that you should write what you know as long as it doesn’t bore you. I’d say “write what you know – turn it into fiction – and then make yourself uncomfortable.”  Writing a play should be enlivening but not easy. You should feel uncomfortable in the same way that one might feel uncomfortable when giving a confession. Your words should be both familiar and unfamiliar. People often assume that my work is more autobiographical than it actually is. I used to feel the need to clarify that I write plays not autobiography. Now I don’t bother correcting people. I just take it as a compliment.

JL: What next for you as a writer? Where can we follow your work?

TB: My most recent play, Bright Half Life, opened at the Women’s Project Theater here in New York. It’s making its way around the country.  And I just joined the writing staff of The Americans on FX.

The Call is onstage at the Atlas Performing Arts Center now through May 31. Tickets are on sale here.

Tanya Barfield’s plays include: The Call (Playwrights Horizons & Primary Stages), Of Equal Measure (Center Theatre Group), Blue Door (Playwrights Horizons, South Coast Repertory and additional theaters), Dent, The Quick, The Houdini Act and 121º West. She wrote the book for the Theatreworks/USA children’s musical: Civil War: The First Black Regiment. Tanya was a recipient of a 2013 Lilly Award and the1st Annual Lilly Award Commission. She has been commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, Center Theatre Group, South Coast Repertory, Primary Stages and Geva Theatre Center. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild Council.

Jacqueline E. Lawton was named one of the top 30 national leading black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute. She received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin (Hook ’em Horns!), where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. She participated in the Kennedy Center’s Playwrights’ Intensive (2002) and World Interplay (2003).  Her plays include: Anna KBlood-bound and Tongue-tiedDeep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet WaterThe Hampton YearsIra Aldridge: the African RosciusLions of Industry, Mothers of InventionLove Brothers SerenadeMad BreedNoms de Guerre; and Our Man Beverly Snow.

Hints to Our 15-16 Season

We are thrilled to be announcing our 15-16 season next week! But we couldn’t wait until then to share a couple of hints of what it will hold.

We’ve been working with an new illustrator, the incredible Donald Ely. Can you guess any of next season’s titles just by looking at close-cropped versions of some of them?

This play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist

This play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist

This play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist

This play was inspired by a true story

This play is the work of a renowned Jewish female playwright

This play features three sisters

Can’t wait to share all seven titles next week!