Primary Stages sat down with none other than Charles Busch, the playwright and star of The Tribute Artist, to chat about inspiration, the origins of the play, and his work with director Carl Andress.
How did this play come to be? Could you tell us a bit about where you got the idea and how it has evolved to this point?
I love caper movies where a group of eccentric misfits band together to pull off a scheme. I’ve always wanted to do something like that with my long-time stage buddy Julie Halston. I’ve also thought for a long time about writing a play where I played a fellow who due to circumstances has to masquerade as a woman, as opposed to most of my roles where I’m simply playing a female role. I wanted to see if I could find a fresh way of bringing my own experiences to such a classic theatrical and cinematic situation. Primary Stages commissioned me to write a play for them and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to put these ideas together.
What has your experience been like as both playwright and actor? How much did you tweak or rewrite based on what you discovered in rehearsals?
Generally, my plays are in pretty good shape when we go into rehearsal. Carl Andress, who has directed so many of my plays, and I have worked on it so thoroughly for so long, that we don’t have too many surprises. However, some editing and a bit of rewriting always occurs. By the end of previews, we had trimmed ten minutes off the play.
Speaking of Carl, what do you look for in a director, and how did you come to be such a longtime collaborator with him?
I’ve worked with very few directors over the past thirty years. I love the familiarity of a close collaboration. The role of Jimmy was a very ambitious one for me, calling for me to find new colors in myself that I’ve never done before. I honestly don’t think I could have done this with a new director. Carl knows me so well. He knows my strengths and my weaknesses and where my confidence lies and where I’m insecure. I met Carl when he was in his early twenties and I’ve seen him grow as a person and as a great professional. He talked his way into a job doing wardrobe on a show of mine in the mid-nineties called Swingtime Canteen. I immediately knew this wasn’t an ordinary young kid. Very soon I began relying on his judgment and taste. It was inevitable that he would become a director.
Which costume is your favorite in the show?
Gregory Gale has designed some really spectacular gowns for this show but actually the costume I enjoy the most is when Jimmy, posing as his dead landlady Adriana, feels confident enough to just wear his own jeans and a man’s button down shirt. I love the complete androgyny of the look. It’s fun to see how far one can go and still be “in drag.”
Other than Julie Halston, what inspires you as an artist? What other artistic endeavors do you pursue?
From earliest childhood, I had a gift for drawing. I was an art major at the High School of Music and Art here in New York. During my early struggling years, I supplemented my income by working as a quick sketch pastel portrait artist. When my acting/writing career became steady, I didn’t draw or paint at all. However, in the past few years I’ve been doing it again and I’m loving this different form of creative expression. I really would like to take it further.
What’s the most outrageous thing that happened during rehearsals – or performances! – for The Tribute Artist?
There’s a crazy transition in the play in the second act, where Julie and I end a scene, and then in the blackout have to run offstage, do a split second costume change and then run back on screaming at each other. In the early previews, it was very hard for me compose myself during that blackout. I think it was the second preview where we ran on and I totally blanked and the only thing I could manage to do was look at Julie and scream “Braying! Braying! Braying! Braying!.” And that top notch comedy pro, Julie Halston, wasn’t terribly helpful getting us back on track. Somehow we were able to skip ahead. The rest of the cast thought it was hysterical but entre nous, I don’t think Julie thought it was so funny that the only word that came to me by looking at her was “Braying!”