The last time Charles Busch was in Colorado, he was making his own gigs and forcing a stage career when it meant long, lonely nights.
"When I was just starting out, I was a solo performer for seven years, in kind of an avant-garde, performance-art-pretentious kind of way, and I was a very driven young person," he recalls while on the phone from his hometown, New York City.
Busch performed at the University of Colorado Boulder, and remembers enjoying the weekend thoroughly. But it would be a long time before he broke through with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, the 1985 off-Broadway play he wrote and starred in. And from there it'd almost be another three decades before he'd return to Colorado — as a 60-year-old coming this week to Colorado Springs. He'll appear at multiple events, including a lecture on his 1987 play Psycho Beach Party, which will open Thursday in a partnership between TheatreWorks and the UCCS theatre department.
Of his work, New York Times critic Ben Brantley has written, "Mr. Busch should never undervalue what he does best: transforming vintage-movie love into irreverently reverent theater ... Sure, New York has known a hefty share of Hollywood-inspired drag queens. But few have matched Mr. Busch in packing decades of celluloid dreams into an hour or two of stage satire."
Legendary actress Julie Andrews put it this way in an interview with Busch in 2004: "I have to say you are still the subtlest and most brilliant of all drag artists I've ever seen."
"Subtle" would seem to go against the drag tradition. But that's because Busch isn't a RuPaul's Drag Race kind of lady. He performs his cabaret simply as himself, just "more glamorous."
"I find it's very easy to locate the kind of feminine part of me," he explains. "It's an attitude shift — I can't even quite explain it, except there's not that much difference between me on stage and me off stage. It's just a slight shift, like an old TV set, you just turn up the color a little bit."
Doing drag for 40 years means he's got his makeup routine down to 15 minutes. He doesn't wear any falsies under his gowns, and he recognizes that his 5-foot-7 frame and delicate features (sans a bushy beard) make showcasing that feminine side quite easy.
As with lots of creative types, Busch is expressive in as many ways as he can be. Acting aside, he recently picked up painting (not for the first time), and also sings and writes. The past decade or so has been highlighted by his penning masterworks such as 2000's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, and appearing in film — a 2003 adaptation of his play Die Mommie Die — and TV, as a death-row inmate on HBO's Oz.
His apartment in Greenwich Village, famous for its purple lampshade overlooking Abingdon Square, reflects his artistic diversity with lavish colors and an old-school dressing table rimmed by naked bulbs. In fact, it was the topic of a New York Times article in 2006 (title: "Where Aubergine Meets Lipstick Red").
Busch's work is often defined as camp, and he doesn't mind the term, but he notes that it can be limiting. Take Psycho Beach Party, a send-up of beach movies of the mid-century and slasher films. In it, the Gidget-like Chicklet begins to experience blackouts and multiple personalities, to fatal consequences.
To do Psycho right, you've got to balance the silliness with the earnestness of the story. His plays are highly stylized, but that can't preclude them from delivering genuine moments.
Busch has found that not all theaters can walk that tightrope. But he feels confident in Kevin Landis, assistant professor and theatre program director at UCCS, who's directing Psycho. Landis reached out to Busch a few years ago, and now the two meet often when Landis is in New York.
"It's not enough to just be making fun of old stereotypes," Busch says. "I think it's nice to give the audience some emotional content, to get swept into the story, to ... be a little suspenseful: 'What's going to happen next?' And then think, 'Oh, this very stylized story about a girl who's got split personalities. Maybe we can all identify a little bit with the fact that we serve different people in different parts of our life.'
"I think it's easier," he goes on, "if you have a playwright who's just known for doing serious drama or has a certain kind of pedigree, people look for layers in their work. And for those of us who work in light comedy, often people just don't look for it so they don't see it, and yet it's there. So sometimes that gets a little frustrating, 'cause you think, 'I'm actually smarter than you might think I am. Why don't you give me credit for it?'"
This goes back to his cabaret, too, which has moments of laughter and tenderness. It's no easy feat for any performer to oscillate between the two, but Busch has learned to do it well.
"The audience is on a roller coaster and they've got to go with me, and fortunately they seem to. It takes a certain amount of skill and experience to guide an audience, to take all those quick turns, because if you don't give the audience the right clues, then they might still think you're being funny when you're singing a sad song."
Following his performances here, he'll take his show to Europe for the very first time, first to London, and then to Paris — at "this just adorable, terribly, impossibly chic, little, tiniest little night club, jazz club."
"Yeah, I can't believe it! Can't belieeeeeve it!" he nearly squeals. "It's just a fantasy of mine, my whole life, to perform in London. It just seemed like, about every seven years there's some nutty producer in London who insists he's going to bring me over [for] one of my plays. [Adopts a British accent.] 'Oh darling, you're going to be fantastic! Brilliant! You're brilliant, just brilliant, and we're going to do this brilliant production of your brilliant play!' And then when they figure out how much it's really going to cost, it becomes not so brilliant, and so it never happened."
Though the cabaret is a throwback to his early days in the spotlight, today Busch sees it in a new way. After years of collaborating onstage for plays, he's finding that through his cabaret — and to his great surprise, Facebook — he's been able to interact with people directly. And he loves it.
"So the act is another way, like drawing and writing prose, of me just being unguarded and honest and having fun entertaining the audiences as if they're in my living room."
A living room, naturally, in lipstick red.