Dallas — From the early 1990s through tonight’s opening of The Tribute Artist at Uptown Players, Coy Covington has played eight of the roles that Charles Busch wrote for himself in his famously gender-bending, camptastic plays. “Some of them I’ve done twice,” Covington says.
His first was Red Scare on Sunset, which he performed for the 1990s outfit Moonstruck Theatre Company, where he also performed in Sleeping Beauty or Coma; Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium; and Pardon My Inquisition. For Pegasus Theatre, he starred in what was Busch’s most famous play, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, until The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife hit Broadway in 2000. For Uptown Players, Covington repeated Red Scare, and has also done Die, Mommie, Die! and The Divine Sister. A few years ago at Theatre Three, Covington was in Psycho Beach Party.
In The Tribute Artist, which premiered at Primary Stages in 2014, Covington plays Jimmy, a gay man who performs in drag as Hollywood legends such as Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn. His best friend Rita, a lesbian, talks him into his greatest performance by playing Adriana, their landlady who suddenly passed away, just long enough for them to sell their place. The production is directed by B.J. Cleveland and runs through Sept. 10. It also features Cara Statham Serber, Angie McKnight, Luke Longacre, Mary Campbell and Zander Pryor, a transgender youth who plays the transgender youth in the play.
In 2007, one of Covington’s dreams came true when he met Busch when the playwright was in Dallas during Uptown’s production of Die, Mommie, Die!, and saw the show. They had talked a few times before then, but after Busch saw Covington perform, a lifetime bond was formed. (Covington wrote about this experience in one of his first columns on this site, in 2009.)
TheaterJones engaged Covington and Busch in a three-way phone call to talk about this show, their careers, Busch’s Theatre of the Ridiculous idol Charles Ludlam, and the importance of a great entrance.
Below is an excerpt of that conversation. We've noted where some laughter happened, but as you can imagine with these two on the line, there was almost constant laughter.
[When Charles Busch chimes into the conference call the conversation begins]
Coy Covington: Hello my dear, how are you?
Charles Busch: I am so thrilled that you’re doing The Tribute Artist; it’s such a special show for me, and you might be the second theater to do it since our original production.
Coy: We’ve been wanting to do and it finally worked out where all our ducks lined up in a row. And if I can get all my characters in a row then we’ll be good to go.
Charles: It’s a tricky part.
Coy: Mark, one thing that’s interesting about this part is that Charles writes all of his parts to be women, but in this part, he is a female impersonator. So, I’m in drag but I’m a boy in drag who does these celebrity tributes. It’s not like one of these 1940s or 1960s women I’m used to playing.
Charles: There are certain moments where he’s showing off his talent [at impersonation], but for 99 percent of the play, the character is him, Jimmy. What I found interesting in writing it is that after 40 years of playing female characters, even when I played these 1940s old movie characters in my plays, after a certain point it has become such a part of me that the line between Charles and these various ladies becomes amorphous. I’m so comfortable with it, so I thought it would be interesting to have Jimmy posing as his deceased landlady. He finds that the more he’s himself, the less he’s trying to impersonate somebody, the more believable he is to all the old lady’s family and friends. So, he gradually starts wearing his own clothes, and she has this European accent and he slowly drops it, and the people want to believe that he’s this old woman.
Coy: One of my favorite lines, when he’s talking to his girlfriend Rita, he says “you won’t believe this but the more honest you are the more people believe you.”
Charles: Even though I wrote it, it took me about two weeks into rehearsal to figure it out. I started rehearsing and I felt like I had two very distinct characters: Adriana, the lady I’m impersonating, and Jimmy. My whole career I’ve been playing female roles, and so instinctively I’d try to butch it up a bit to be Jimmy. In the third week or so of rehearsals, I realized that the whole point is that there’s not much difference between Jimmy and Adriana. Jimmy morphs into her, and she morphs into him.
Coy: At one point in rehearsals I thought “should I sit with my legs spread open,” and then thought “no, Jimmy wouldn’t do that.”
Charles: For a long time, I thought about doing a Some Like It Hot, a Charley’s Aunt kind of play. I had always played a woman and not a man playing a woman. But in every artistic project you have to figure out what you have to offer. Then I thought there’s so many stories like this, of a man posing as a woman and hilarity ensues—but it’s always been a very heterosexual story, about a very heterosexual, womanizing guy who has to pose as a woman for a woman he likes, and there’s a certain amount of homosexual panic as part of the comedy—that a straight man begins to fall into love with the guy in drag, and [the guy in drag goes] in homosexual panic.
I thought I can give it a bit of a spin as a gay guy who is posing as this woman and it’s not such that the humor derives from the fact that he’s doing it so badly and what happens when he takes his wig off. I thought the twist would be rather than the homosexual panic thing, he’s got the big crush on the straight guy, and try to subvert it.
Some critics in New York were so used to that traditional story and didn’t understand why I wasn’t doing the slapstick bit with putting the wig on and taking it off.
Coy: Jimmy is very well put together.
That cross-dressing storyline goes back millennia—and look at it in Shakespeare’s works.
Charles: But in Shakespeare, when the women are in their male character, like Viola [in Twelfth Night], there isn’t humor in the fact that they’re not doing [the cross-dressing] well. But in Charley’s Aunt, there’s a battle between [the cross-dressing character’s] heterosexuality and the woman they’re evoking.
Coy, how many of Charles’s plays have you done?
[Coy lists the shows and theaters mentioned above.]
Coy: I was playing the supporting part in Psycho Beach Party, and I said Charles, can’t you please write me another scene? And he said No! It’s a supporting role, darling. Get over it!
On the other hand, there have been parts where I’ve thought “Charles can you cut a scene in this one because there’s a lot of lines?”
Charles: Jimmy is a big part.
Charles, you’ve seen Coy in one of your plays?
Charles: I saw Die, Mommie, Die! I was coming to Dallas for a film festival and it just so happened to be on at the same time, and I heard so much about [Coy], and we had conversed, and I was thrilled to get to see you. You have such a devoted fan base there.
Coy: It was one of those incredible nights, it was one of those shows where everybody clicked and the audience was great.
And you knew Charles was going to be there?
Charles: It’s rare that it works out that way; usually those nights when you have somebody in the audience you’re trying to impress, it’s always terrible. You can have every performance be like the rodeo, where the audiences are so enthusiastic. But the one night Bette Midler comes. Or Stephen Sondheim, or Angela Lansbury. You think, “Oh fuck, I want this to be so good.”
One night a friend of mine who works in corporate realty bought like 15 tickets for his coworkers, and they were HORRIBLE [audience members]. They killed the show. And they were 15 seats in a row in a theater that seats 80, and of course Angela Lansbury is there. Almost invariably that happens. You lucked out that I saw you at your best.
Coy: We had a party afterwards, drank wine, Charles held court and we bonded over wigs.
Charles: I’m glad I’ve kept you employed all these years.
Coy: I often joke that you’ve got to keep working because I’ve got to keep working.
Charles: There’s a couple of my vehicles you haven’t done it.
Coy: I’m dying to do The Lady in Question.
Chares: It’s a big, expensive show.
Coy: There was a low-budget production in Dallas years ago, long enough that we could do it now. That would be my dream Busch.
Charles: I get a little royalty every time you walk on stage, so go for it kid.
Have you seen other actors do your parts, and what is special about Coy’s interpretations?
Charles: I don’t go very often to see other productions, even though they’re done all over the place. Coy was marvelous and I appreciated that he had such a cult audience, they were buzzing to see him. When he made his entrance, the roof came off. He has such charisma and skill.
Coy: I love that you always write an entrance; it helps.
Charles: In most of my plays I don’t come on for about 10 minutes, and the other characters are talking about how beautiful she is and how fascinating she is, and how marvelous she is. Finally, I come out and it’s like “all right already.” My entrances have become more delayed as the years go by. At some point, I’ll come on in the last third of the play, like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh.
Charles, when you were starting out in the downtown New York scene, did you work with Charles Ludlam?
Charles: Ish. He was my great idol. I had seen him in high school because I grew up in New York City. It was so revelatory to me. I wrote and directed, and saw that there weren’t roles for an androgynous young man. I instinctively knew that I would be perfectly fine as an actor, but wondered what I would have to offer. Again, what do you have to offer? That’s the most important question anyone in the arts can ask themselves.
Coy: Thank god you went down that path.
Charles: So, when I saw Ludlam, I thought “here’s someone who shares the same aesthetic, and has his own theater company and writes roles for himself.” That hadn’t occurred to me, that I could write roles for myself. He had this frame of reference of classic film and opera and 19th century theater—all those things I was fascinated with, he was doing it onstage. And in this decrepit old downtown theater. I grew up going to Broadway shows and it didn’t occur to me that there was another place to see theater, where you could create your own theatrical universe if you chose this.
People don’t understand this when I say it, but I never wanted to work with him, to be part of his company. I just wanted him to think I was talented. So, I kind of stalked him a bit. He came to see me when I was doing a solo show, and we chatted, and he offered to let me do my solo show as a midnight show at his theater when he was doing shows in rep. Since I was in his orbit, an actress who played a very small part in one of his plays had to go away for a couple of weeks, and because I was around they had me fill in. But that was it.
From the beginning, I wanted to create my own work. I wanted to be a star! I didn’t want to be a part of somebody’s ensemble.
Coy, that’s how you started too, you said “I want to be a star!”
Coy: [laughing] I had been an actor and got out of the business, or the business got out of me. One of things I loved about Jimmy is he says “don’t call me a drag queen!” I was performing in clubs but found my niche in these Charles Busch plays. I could be a star—but I’m not a drag queen, I’m an actor. I started the Charles Busch canon. … My first one was Red Scare on Sunset, and then [Moonstruck Theatre Company] went back and did Theodora and Pardon my Inquisition. They were particularly nasty, I loved that. I get to say “cunt” in this show.
Charles: [laughing] I was very good friends with Joan Rivers and she said you have to say “cunt” at least once in every show. So, if it’s good enough for her…
Coy, were your influences the same as Charles', such as classic Hollywood?
Coy: Yes, I loved the glamour, especially the 1940s. I was completely drawn to that spectrum.
When you performed in drag, did you do characters?
Coy: No I was a drag queen who was myself, I was never a celebrity impersonator like Jimmy. For this show, one of the characters Jimmy does is Mary Astor, and I went back and watched The Maltese Falcon to make sure I’m doing it right. The audience might not know that I am, but I know that I am doing it right.
Charles: My career in drag was strictly avant-garde, it was writing plays for myself. But I was always fascinated with drag queens; I loved watching them.
Coy, do you have a favorite Charles Bush part?
Coy: [Thinks on it for a while] They are all divine.
Charles, can you look back on your early characters and see them differently now?
Charles: We did a new production of The Lady in Question a few years back and it was a new director and cast, and I was a little leery because I had so much nostalgia for the original production. But in some ways, the new production was better. I’ve certainly grown a lot, and my acting style has evolved. When I was just starting out, I felt I was pushing more trying to evoke feminine behavior. When I look at old videotapes, I’m moving my shoulders around so much and overdoing it. I’m somewhat of an androgynous character in real life; it’s been a 30-year process of taking away and taking away and becoming more minimalist. In a way, the other characters in my plays, the biological women, are more flamboyant. I’ve written many roles for Julie Halston [who played Rita in The Tribute Artist]. She’s the Vivian Vance to my Lucille Ball. In some ways, she more of the drag queen character.
This might sound rude, but Charles, have you thought about who might take over your roles in New York, you know, in maybe 50 years?
Charles: [laughing] No! I’ve always had a yen for doing a play where I age throughout the course of the story. I like these movies where the actress goes from 16 to old age, sort of a Madame X story. It starts in 1906 and I’m a convent girl, then later a chanteuse and later a bordello madam, and later going to the electric chair. It will be a tour de force my dear, a tour de force!
At my mature age of 63, which I turn this year, I will play a 16-year-old girl. It will be a coup de théâtre. If you write them, you get to play them.
The legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, there was a wonderful story that when she was in her 60s she decided to play Joan of Arc. At the tribunal they asked her name and age and she looks defiantly at the audience and says “19.” And the audience leapt to their feet.
That’s like seeing the opera Salome, in which singers in their 50s and 60s play a teenage princess.
Charles: Right. In opera, there is no ageism; if you can sing the notes you can play the princess. The wonderful thing about my career is there’s a fantasy element of it, so if I think “wouldn’t it be fun to play Cleopatra,” then I write a play for me to play Cleopatra. We found a way to do these plays inexpensively and for a limited run and it’s a good time.
OK that will do it, thanks so much for this conversation.
Charles: Coy, it’s always wonderful to talk to you.
Coy: I look forward to this new play of yours.
Charles: I see you circling around like a vulture…
[laughter from all]