NCTC celebrates Charles Busch

  • by Sari Staver
  • Wednesday August 22, 2018
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The New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC) will honor actor, playwright, director and cabaret performer Charles Busch at the theatre's annual gala on Saturday, August 25, and will open their 2018 season with the regional premiere of his play "Red Scare at Sunset."

A drag legend as well as an accomplished novelist and screenwriter, Busch has a long list of credits on his bio. He is the author and star of "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," one of the longest-running plays Off Broadway, and of the films "Psycho Beach Party" and "Die Mommie Die," which won him the best performance award at the Sundance Film Festival.

"I am so thrilled that the theatre has decided to honor Charles Busch, whose work I have admired for decades," said NCTC founder and artistic director Ed Decker in a telephone interview with the B.A.R. Over the years, NCTC has produced many of Busch's plays, said Decker, "and he is simply one of the finest artists I have ever known."

The Aug. 25 event promises to be a "spectacular party," said Decker. The gala will be held at the theatre's headquarters at 25 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco, in various spaces throughout the spectacular Art Deco building. While Busch will not be performing that evening, the event includes pop-up performances in the lobby lounge by local artists who have performed at NCTC. Local restaurants have donated food and beverages.

Decker recalled the first time he met Busch. "As a young gay artist," said Decker, "I was really drawn to Busch's work." When he founded NCTC, "I hoped I would one day know this person and have an opportunity to work with him." So on his next trip to New York City, where Busch has lived most of his life, Decker invited the young playwright to tea. "Much to my surprise he accepted," said Decker, "and we became fast friends immediately, as if we'd known each other our entire lives."

Decker believes the upcoming production of "Red Scare at Sunset" will be "immensely appealing" to local audiences. "It's a comedy and spoof of the McCarthy era in this country," he explained. Given the current scandal over Russian interference in our election, "the subject couldn't be more timely."

Busch credits San Francisco with a starring role in launching his career, he said in a telephone interview with the B.A.R. He first performed in San Francisco in 1982 at "a wonderful, legendary place," the Valencia Rose Cabaret, located at 744 Valencia St. It is believed to have been the world's first gay comedy club, although it closed after only three years in business.

"This began a very important chapter in my life," said Busch. San Francisco audiences were very receptive, "and this was almost the first time I had experienced any kind of success as a writer and performer."

Busch had started his performing career after college, "booking myself into different places in New York." His earliest shows consisted of "solo performances where I'd write complex pieces with male and female characters. At first I got terrible reviews," he recalled. "But I was a very driven young person, and my big dream was to perform in San Francisco. It seemed like a magical place, but I couldn't figure out how to get the opportunity."

After Busch's many failed attempts to book himself into a club, a friend from New York began working in San Francisco and got him a one-night gig at a benefit at Theatre Rhino, where a number of people in the entertainment industry saw him perform. Six months later, he was invited to perform at Valencia Rose.

"I considered it a miracle," Busch said. "I was just starting out and was not well-known at all. Somehow, the press took to me. I got rave reviews in the [San Francisco] Chronicle and Examiner, who treated me as if I was an important person from New York, which was crazy. And I could see that the gay press wanted to support me, which gave me the confidence to believe I had something to offer. I knew I was on the right path."

While continuing to write and act in his own plays, Busch recently began to hone a cabaret act in which he did not perform in drag.

"I thought it didn't make sense personally to be in drag, because I'm introduced as Charles Busch, and tell stories about my life. A year ago, I decided to try it out of drag, and it just felt great, and I have been performing that way since."

Cabaret is one of the few forms of entertainment "that hasn't changed over the years," said Busch. "The concept is the same: people sitting in a room where they can eat and drink and see an intimate performance. It's not very different from 1920."

Now in his fourth decade performing, Busch said he "hasn't slowed down" at all. "Every month, I go somewhere," he said, in addition to performing in New York City.

One discouraging part of the entertainment business, he said, is the shrinking of newspapers, which has meant less coverage of the arts. For example, he said, The New York Times recently discontinued their coverage of cabaret. The former critic reported "there weren't enough digital clicks" to continue the reviews.

But demand for his work is still strong, Busch said. "And of course I'm really excited to be coming to San Francisco" to the gala, he said. "I love a good party, especially when it's about me!"

Tickets for the NCTC gala ($150):