Actor, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, director, and drag legend Charles Busch alit in the Hudson Valley this month on the national tour of his cabaret show That Girl / That Boy. He had lots to say about acting in his own plays, mastering Sondheim lyrics, and overcoming anxiety around memorization.
Brent: For someone who performs in his own plays and interprets the works of others, memorization must be an integral part of your life.
Charles: Memorization is always a bore and a chore. I'm not that fast although I do find that it becomes easier the more often you do it.
Brent: It must be less of a chore when you act in your own shows, though.
Charles: One would think that memorizing a role in a play you wrote would be easier. It's easier to get the gist of the role because you understand where it came from. The difficult part is not being lazy and paraphrasing and justifying it by thinking the new words are better. Ninety-five per cent of the time they are not.
Brent: How do you ingrain the dialogue into your head?
Charles: I have two friends who are very skilled at running lines with me. It's a real skill. That person must be tough but encouraging. Meticulous, but know when to nitpick and when it's better temporarily to get the essence of the line. I usually have at least three sessions with this person. I like going into rehearsal totally off book, so I can try and work on more important things, such as relating to my fellow actors and learning blocking and stage business. I don't think rehearsals should be about learning dialogue.
Brent: Makes sense to focus on the relational dynamics. How do you approach song lyrics?
Charles: Song lyrics are hard for me. I can listen to a song five hundred times and not pick up a word. I type out the lyrics and study them like a monologue.
Brent: You’ve begun incorporating Sondheim into your cabaret set. His lyrics are known for being especially dense and challenging.
Charles: I've always been afraid of Sondheim's lyrics, but recently I learned two ballads of his and found it remarkably easy. The thoughts flow so logically and the rhyming is, of course, so deft that it leads you to the next phrase. Mind you, I've never had to learn any of his patter songs. I don't think I could ever learn “The Worst Pies in London” and all the business with the rolling pin. That would send me to a sanitarium. However, as I said earlier, it's comforting that the more you have to memorize, the better you get at it. It's like a muscle that needs to be exercised.
Brent: I couldn’t agree with you more. One more question: has your mind ever gone blank in the middle of a set, and how did you recover?
Charles: I'm terrified of forgetting lines. In my cabaret act, I've had to let it go and just hope that I can come up with some gobbledygook replacement lyric and pray no one will notice. And my act is so casual, sometimes I just stop, make a joke about it, ask my accompanist to help me out, and start the song again. The audience seems to get a kick out of it.
Brent: Smart move—stay in character and make it an opportunity for humor. Mistakes can be gifts. What about in a play?
Charles: I rarely go up in a play, but I have, and I get furious at myself. It seems to happen if I'm distracted by something an actor is doing that makes no sense to me. Or if the action has me rushing out onto the stage talking. I've gone through terrible periods of anxiety about forgetting lines, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because you're not focused on the situation and life of the play.
Brent: Right, it’s critical to stay present. Thank you, Charles, for being so generous with your time and words.
Charles: A pleasure!
Visit Charles’s riotous website to see if he is performing soon at a venue near you.
It’s no surprise that distractions from the audience, too, can rattle the performers on stage. That’s what recently prompted Patti LuPone to liberate a cell phone from the hands of a theatergoer who had spent the entire first act texting. We love you, Patti! Read all about it at this link.