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The Bourne supremacy

Drag legend at Kennedy Center this weekend in autobiographical show

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Bette Bourne has no delusions of grandeur.

“I’m an old whore. I go where I’m paid,” the celebrated British actor and gay rights activist says.

Recently, he took his solo show “A Life in Three Acts” to Turin, Italy where he received standing ovations. Now the London-based performer has come to Washington to share his story at the Kennedy Center through Saturday.

Adapted from private conversations between Bourne and hot playwright Mark Ravenhill (“Shopping and Fucking”), the award-winning work hits all the bases in Bourne’s never-a-dull-moment life: post-war childhood in Britain, life in a Notting Hill drag commune during the 1970s, time spent with his world-famous BLOOLIPS gay theater troupe, etc.

“In one evening with an intermission, we move from when I’m very young to now that I’m very old,” says Bourne, 71. “I sing a few songs, do some little dances, tell a couple filthy stories and generally misbehave, all in fabulous drag. But this show is not about female impersonation. It’s my life.”

Bourne is known as both a performer (from Edinburgh Fringe to Royal Shakespeare Company) and a key figure in Britain’s gay liberation movement. But his introduction to activism almost never happened. As a working actor in the ’60s and early ’70s, he had to think of his career. Being political wasn’t an option. Then one evening, his then-boyfriend (“a gorgeous Australian”) returned home from a meeting where gays and lesbians had gathered to discuss fighting for their rights.

“I thought he was mad. I wanted nothing to do with it,” Bourne says. “But then he told me he’d seen a lot of gorgeous guys at the meeting. Well, I was there the next week.”

‘A Life in Three Acts’

Oct. 28 – 30

The Kennedy Center

$25

www.kennedy-center.org

Drag legend Bette Bourne says the lure of hot guys initially got him interested in gay activism. (Photo by Richard Termine; courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

“Prior to the ’70s, things had been really bad for gay people,” Bourne says. “We felt genuinely ripped off and were angry. Soon we were shouting our tits off on Oxford Street and carrying signs that read ‘We’re the people your mother warned you about.’”

Eventually, Bourne began to express his ire differently. He sort of lost interest in the mainstream movement and instead joined a group of friends in forming a drag commune in London.

“We lived in our fabulous frocks 24-7. It was gorgeous,” he says. “The police, of course, hated us. I was dragged to court on several occasions. The judge would ask me to remove my hat. I’d say I can’t. It goes with the shoes.”

During this same time, Bourne changed his name from Peter to Bette.

In the past, Bourne has won over New York audiences with his campy, gender-bending BLOOLIPS’ production “Lust in Space,” and playing Quentin Crisp in “Resident Alien.” He recalls a backstage visit from Eva Gabor. The late actress shared some advice [Bourne’s accent switches from British to thick Hungarian]: “You’re in America now. Get the money.”

Like the Gabor sisters, Bourne also had a mother who helped to advance his career.

“When I first appeared on stage at age 4, my mother was in the audience, her bosom swelling with pride. She would have preferred that I grow up to be Michael Caine or Roger Moore rather than a drag queen. She hated it. But we did get together again before she died. I talk about that in the show.

“The early days of gay liberation were passionate and euphoric for all of us. For the first time queers and dykes were talking about things for the first time- things like blackmail and being arrested simply for who you were. In those days you could get three months in jail and a large fine simply for being queer. Being out could be very dangerous both physically and career wise. It’s important that younger queers know our history and understand that we’re not new on the scene.  I talk about this in my show too.”

Is still Bourne still political? “One doesn’t just stop being what one is,” says Bourne. “I’m still out there, still full of fury and rage, but on the whole I do try to keep up a very pleasant façade.”

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Theater

An autistic, nonbinary, creative type takes center stage in new play

‘Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting’ featured at W.Va. festival

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Playwright Harmon Dot Aut

Contemporary American Theater Festival
Through July 28
Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Catf.org

For their new uniquely titled play, “Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting,” Harmon Dot Aut draws heavily from life. Like the playwright, the new work’s central character Chantal Buñuel, called CB for short, is an autistic, nonbinary creative with synesthesia, a condition that causes some people to experience more than one sense simultaneously (like tasting words for instance).

But how much of Harmon’s three hander, currently making its world premiere at the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at Shepherd University in historic, queer-friendly Shepherdstown, W.Va. (just a 90-minute drive from D.C.), is specifically autobiographical? 

Parts are imagined but location and circumstances are pretty exact, they explain via phone during a rehearsal break. The story unfolds in rural Kansas surrounded by relative poverty; the family doesn’t have much, but they’re loving. 

“Often when I see people depicted from rural areas who don’t have a lot of money, we’re invited to make fun of them. I wanted to make sure I created people who were smart, who fought hard, who loved hard. Who loved their child and had some grace.”

Throughout the 90-minute Oliver Butler-directed production, teenage CB (played by Jean Christian Barry) speaks to the audience in the intimate Studio 112, one of CATF’s smaller spaces, inviting theatergoers into their world, to experience their brain from the inside.   

“It’s not really structured like other plays,” says Harmon, “Chantal is a character you’ve never seen represented on stage before, a story artfully revealed through projections, lights, and live feed. 

“I wanted to give them a sense of self that’s very strong, non-wavering. An asset in less tolerant, rural Kansas. Chantal, who becomes a filmmaker, sees a lot of life through a camera lens. They’re a character who’s autistic and nonbinary but who also has agency, a spark and need to go forward.  I call it ‘the fuck you’ spark. No matter what happens you move forward.”

The Hudson Valley-based playwright wrote their first iteration of “Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting” in 2008. Harmon says “It took a while for folks to get on board, to use the word neurodivergent. That was its genesis. I kept working on it. And now I’m here having it produced, which is fabulous.”

For the young, undiagnosed Harmon, playwriting came instinctively. As a kid they’d record music off the radio and things they’d made up on their Playskool recorder. Then they’d take the tape out and cut and splice and make their own recordings. 

“I was making plays but didn’t know it, trying to understand a world that was incomprehensible to me.”

Harmon studied acting at a small college in Kansas. After graduating, they bravely jumped on a bus and traveled the country. “That was my true education. I was constantly writing, and I did standup.” 

A recipient of a Visionary Playwright Award, and founding member of the notorious gay sketch comedy troupe, Hot Dish! they’re enjoying their time in charming Shepherdstown, an accepting enclave where Confederate banners give way to a sea of rainbows. 

Other CATF offerings include Mark St. Germain’s “The Happiest Man On Earth,” the true story of Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku. 

Out playwright Donja R. Love’s “What Will Happen To All That Beauty?” is described as an epic work about Black people living with HIV/AIDS exploring “questions of legacy, family, and healing against the haunting landscape of the AIDS crisis of the 80s and its enduring impact.”

Paloma Nozicka’s “Enough To Let The Light In” is a smart, spooky play about “girlfriends Marc and Cynthia who spend an night celebrating a milestone, but over the course of the evening, their lives are irrevocably changed as buried secrets begin to emerge.”

Nozicka, an ardent queer ally based in L.A, says “For a while I’d wanted to write work reflective of queer friends who don’t get to play queer characters. And when they do, they feel it’s tokenism, and that the characters are less than nuanced,” 

She adds “Friends who’ve acted in the play tell me it’s the first time they’ve ever played a lesbian on stage and they’ve been acting twenty years. 

“I feel there should be more opportunities for people to be playing who are they are.”

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Theater

Stephen Mark Lukas makes sublime turn in ‘Funny Girl’

Updated take at Kennedy Center features fabulous score

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Stephen Mark Lukas (Photo courtesy Lukas)

‘Funny Girl’
Through July 14
The Kennedy Center
$49-$189
Kennedy-center.org

With his striking good looks and sublime singing voice, out actor Stephen Mark Lucas is the ideal musical theater leading man, a title he both nails and thoroughly enjoys. 

He’s played Elder Price in “The Book of Mormon” both on Broadway and on tour, and regionally, he’s wowed audiences performing classic parts like Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls,” Joe Hardy in “Damn Yankees,” Lancelot in “Camelot,” and Curly in “Oklahoma.”

He’s now playing Nick Arnstein, the love interest of Katerina McCrimmon’s Fanny Brice in the national tour of the Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.” Composed by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, it’s the musical story of comedian Brice’s rise from anonymity to stardom via vaudeville, Ziegfeld Follies, radio, and some film. While cementing the Brice legend, the show also became inextricably linked to Barbra Streisand through the 1964 Broadway hit and later movie musical that made her a star.

When we meet Arnstein, a suave, mustachioed gambler, he seems on top of the world, but that soon proves otherwise. Lukas says, “He serves as a bit of an antagonist, but his shortcomings are what pave the way for Fanny’s triumphant ending.”

Certainly, the show still features fabulous tuneful hits like “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” “I’m the Greatest Star,” and “People.” But now there’s an updated book from Harvey Fierstein based on the original classic by Isobel Lennart, which strives to make Arnstein a little more likeable, he says. 

Lukas, who understudied Ramin Karimloo as Nick while on Broadway before taking the part on tour, says, “My character exists in relation to Fanny. The musical is her memories. So, the way I do the role has a lot to do with the actor who’s playing Fanny. So far there have been six including the well-received Lea Michele.” 

The quality of Fanny’s ambition is stronger in the first act while the second act spotlights the demise of her romantic life with Nick, something audiences don’t always anticipate, says Lukas. 

He says McCrimmon captures the blind ambition of the younger Fanny, adding, “her voice is out of this world. People aren’t prepared for what she brings to the part vocally. She’s young yet possesses an old Hollywood quality, and she gets the humor of the role. My favorite song is a duet added to the second act. It’s really beautiful.”

Lukas says he’s never had a problem playing straight romantic characters, explaining that his acting takes care of that. 

He has noticed that over the years the business has changed from more of a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy to something freer: “When I started in the profession, it was a different time. The public perception of queerness for actors has changed.”  

For instance, Lukas is very open about his longtime relationship with former Broadway dancer Brian Letendre – the pair are slated to tie the knot after the “Funny Girl” tour ends. 

Most of his roles have dealt with masculinity in some way, says Lukas. “A lot of characters I play start with confidence and unravel as the show goes on. What does it mean to be a man? What is masculinity? What does it mean to be a husband and a father?”

Growing up in Kennebunkport, Maine, he enjoyed annual visits to New York to see Broadway shows. He boarded at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and studied theater at NYU. He’s remained based in New York City thereafter. 

His life on the road is enjoyable yet disciplined. Lukas says, “the spaces where we perform are interesting for this show in particular. ‘Funny Girl’ is in many ways a show about theater, and we play some of the old vaudeville theaters and movie palaces where Fanny Brice in fact performed.” 

While moving from town to town, Lukas takes care of his voice. He makes sure to eat and sleep well, and works out regularly as evidenced by his impressive build. He also prioritizes visits with his partner whenever possible. 

“These older book musicals are character driven and have great scores,” says Lukas. “It’s what makes them relevant today. On the surface they might feel dated, but there’s also the contemporary humor and romance.”

What’s more, the work is never stagnant, he adds.

“Increasingly, I approach the work as an actor first and that’s what informs the singing; it’s that intersection that goes from scene into song, and that makes a difference.” 

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Theater

Sophie Zmorrod embracing life on the road in ‘Kite Runner’

First national tour comes to Eisenhower Theater on June 25

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Sophie Zmorrod (Photo courtesy of Zmorrod)

‘The Kite Runner’
June 25 – 30
The Kennedy Center
$39-$149
Kennedy-center.org

Newly single, Sophie Zmorrod is enjoying life on the road in the first national tour of “The Kite Runner,” Matthew Spangler’s play with music based on Khaled Hosseini’s gripping novel about damaged relationships and longed for redemption. 

“It’s a wonderful time for me,” says Zmorrod. “I’m past the breakup pain and feeling empowered to explore new cities. A lot of us in the cast are queer, so we figure out the scene wherever the show goes.” 

What’s more, the New York-based actor has fallen in love with the work. “I love how the play’s central character Amir is flawed. He is our antihero. He has faults. As a privileged boy in Kabul, he bears witness to his best friend’s assault and doesn’t intervene. He lives with that guilt for decades and gets that redemption in the end.” 

“He does what he can to right wrongs. For me who’s regretted things, and wished I could go back in time, it resonates. Watching someone forgive themselves and do the right thing is beautiful.” 

Via phone from Chicago (the tour’s stop before moving on to Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on June 25), Zmorrod, whose background is Lebanese, happily chats about sexuality, ethnicity, and acting. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Looking at your resume, I see you’ve been cast in roles traditionally played by men. And have you played queer characters? 

SOPHIE ZMORROD: Oh yes, both. Whether or not they’re written on the page as queer, they sometimes turn out that way. And that holds true for this show too.  

With “The Winter’s Tale” at Trinity Rep, I played Leontes — the king who banishes his wife — as a woman. So, in that production it was about two women and touched on the violence that women sometimes inflict on other women.

And there was Beadle Bamford in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” also at Trinity Rep; I played him as a woman who was masculine and wore a suit. It was a great opportunity to explore myself and gender expression. That was a really good experience. 

BLADE: Are you an actor who’s often be called in for queer roles? 

ZMORROD: Not really. I’m what you might call straight passing. Sometimes I’ve had to advocate for my queerness. To be a part of something. 

Similarly with my ethnicity. I’m called in to audition for the white and Arab roles. It gets tricky because I’m not the exactly the white girl next door and I’m not exactly Jasmine from Disney’s “Aladdin” either. 

This is one of the reasons, I really want people to come see “The Kite Runner,” Audiences need to experience the reality of the wide diversity of Middle Eastern people on the stage. We’re all very different.

And not incidentally, from this 14-person cast, I’ve met some great people to add to those I know from the Middle Eastern affinity spaces and groups I’m connected to in New York.

BLADE: In “The Kite Runner” what parts do you play?

 ZMORROD: Three characters. All women, I think. In the first act, I’m an elderly eccentric pomegranate seller in the Afghan market, waddling around, speaking in Dari [the lingua franca of Afghanistan]; and the second act, I’m young hip and sell records in a San Francisco market; and at the end, I’m a buttoned-down American immigration bureaucrat advising Amir about adoption.

BLADE:  Your training is impressive: BA cum laude in music from Columbia University, an MFA in acting from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company, and you’re also accomplished in opera and playwrighting, to name a few things. Does “The Kite Runner” allow you to flex your many muscles? 

ZMORROD: Very much. Playing multiple roles is always fun for an actor – we like malleability. Also, there are instruments on stage. I like working with the singing bowl; it’s usually used in yoga as a soothing sound, but here we save it for the dramatic, uncomfortable moments. I also sing from offstage. 

We are creating the world of the play on a very minimal set. Oh, and we do kite flying. So yeah, lots of challenges. It’s great. 

BLADE: It sounds like you’re in a good place both professionally and personally.

ZMORROD: It’s taken a long time to feel comfortable. But I’m on the journey and excited to be where I am, and who I am. 

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