The first time I read it, my mouth watered at the description of the life of young, downtown theatre people, although I dreaded the thought of having to wait ten years for my own success, as Charles Busch had for his. Now, my appreciation goes deeper.
The characters in Whores of Lost Atlantis are out-of-work actors coming together in the East Village of the 1980s to put on the eponymous show-within-a-novel, which Julian Young, the Busch prototype, writes one day while at a temp job. And until their little show moves to a commercial run Off-Broadway, they all make ends meet doing something outside of theatre.
Even writing this now, I am sitting at my office job, feeling slightly overwhelmed by my need to get this week’s post written while simultaneously not completely shirking my responsibilities at my day job. It’s always a struggle. If I’m working on a show, how do I find time for myself and for a social life with rehearsals in the evenings and on the weekends and my 10-6 eating up 40 hours each week? And I’m usually working on a number of projects, present and future.
At one point, I thought I had matriculated from the day job/show business balancing act. Having read Whores of Lost Atlantis my senior year of college, I moved to New York very focused on directing and producing a piece of theatre which could transfer and launch my career, not to mention support me financially. That dream seemed to be realized when I made my Off-Broadway directorial debut helming the New York premiere of Joy by my Berkeley teacher John Fisher, himself something of a cult figure, along the lines of Charles Busch, with such San Francisco hits as Medea The Musical.
But what went wrong? Why am I here at this desk?
The initial, limited-run “showcase” engagement of Joy had received rave reviews and generated substantial buzz. For months, my producing partners and I walked around in a euphoric daze, running to meetings across town to raise the half million dollars we need to move the production, deliriously quoting Almost Famous to each other, “It’s all happening.” We were consumed with breathless excitement being taken to fancy lunches in midtown by prospective marketing agencies or walking into a piano bar crowded with aspiring actors all eager to get into our show. Just like in Whores of Lost Atlantis, I felt that I had paid my dues and had the conviction that with all my talent and drive and ambition, my ship was finally coming in. To this day, I am proud of the work I did as director of Joy – and the more I see the difficulty in producing anything, raising hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for a theatrical venture, particularly in this economy, the prouder I am of myself and my partners for making that happen, successfully transferring our little show for the proverbial “commercial run Off-Broadway” as mere neophytes.
Nonetheless, I had fallen in love with a play whose cultural impact had passed since the original San Francisco production ten years earlier. The major critics were not impressed with the piece and we were unable to find an audience to sustain us beyond the two-month mark.
My big debut fizzled.
Now, I come to work as a legal assistant every day and try to find another project to shepherd to the next level. As a director, I am at the mercy of the material I can get my hands on. Actors can audition and land their big break. A playwright can send his script around with no resume attached. What do I have besides some review quotes for some shows nobody saw? The greatest creative outlet in my life right now is this blog, but up until now, I’ve never found satisfaction in writing, although I wish I could churn out a play for myself to put on the way Charles Busch did with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (or fictionally, Julian Young did with Whores of Lost Atlantis).
This mindset, slightly defeated yet hopeful, frustrated but committed, is where I was coming from last week when I began to re-read Whores of Lost Atlantis. It occurs to me that maybe I’ve had it too easy for my own good. That is to say that, having in my twenties, directed and produced a show in a real theatre with real lights and a full tech period and previews and a publicist and an advertising firm, etc., I grew spoiled and set my sights on the wrong things. I’ve been desperate for another chance in the big leagues. I want to be an established talent with offers rolling in to direct my favorite actors in my favorite works in and out of town.
Now, I’m intrigued by the “Do It Yourself” world of Charles Busch’s early work, the world of this book. I’d love to do a show in a backyard under Chinese lanterns when the theatre floods or have a reading in my apartment.
want to focus on something fresh and gritty, without the gloss of extensive staff and resources making real the vision, but with original ideas given center stage. I don’t know at this moment if that means writing something or adapting something, or what. I only know that I’m realizing I want something of my own more than I want to be recognized as part of what everybody else is doing. I wonder if it’s partially a disadvantage to have come up in these progressive times. When Charles Busch and his buddies were starting out with Theatre-in-Limbo, they had no choice but to work outside the mainstream. Charles/Julian began his journey towards the destiny he’s known for today as an unemployed would-be actor frustrated by his lack of opportunity. Similarly situated friends were throwing in the towel on show business and he was at an impasse. Locked out of the establishment, unfailingly devoted to theatre, he was essentially forced to do his own thing – and thereby, free to do whatever he wanted. In a way, that whole generation was defined as much by the resistance they faced as their own expression. With that resistance out of the picture, what defines me?
In a sense, I feel like I am a whore of a lost Atlantis. I don’t know whether the long-gone Utopia of my dream is the Golden Age of Broadway or the glory days of Charles Busch’s beginnings off Off-Broadway, but I’m definitely searching for something that’s not there anymore; and whorishly, I would do anything to find it, experience it, create it. Busch and his scrappy little troupe of outsiders triumphed and became the insiders. Where does that leave me? Thanks to them and others like them, I live in a world much more open to me, open to gays in general, open to what I have to say. Correspondingly, I fantasize about success in the mainstream and yet, I struggle to find my voice. Maybe it’s time to look elsewhere.