Thursday, April 01, 2010

Bette Bourne: A Life in Three Acts

I was hesitant to write a review of the show I saw on Saturday at the St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, since as far as I can tell, it ended an extensive tour (mostly in the UK) the following day. Writing about it seemed rude, maybe even cruel, especially since I intend to rave a bit. I saw something great, you don't get to. Sucks to be you. I'm writing about it though, because I think the person at its center deserves to be celebrated.

A Life in Three Acts is a shaped recreation of interviews the playwright Mark Ravenhill did with his new friend, the performer Bette Bourne, about her life. As thrilled as I was at subject matter, having been a fan of Bourne's since the early nineties, I was initially a bit leery of this format. It's not without problems, but Bourne is a gifted storyteller with some fantastic material, Ravenhill a friendly presence, and the connection between them created a warm, relaxed atmosphere.

The evening starts with Bourne's working class childhood in WWII London. We meet his frequently abusive father and his "gifted amateur" mum who helps kindle his love of theatre. Over his father's objections, Bourne pursues a career as an actor, first attending the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama, then almost immediately landing a job at the Old Vic.

In 1969 he and fellow rising star Ian MacKellan toured the world with rep productions of Edward II and Richard II; a short exerpt of a recording is played; we hear Bourne speaking the role of Kent. His artist boyfriend Rex, upon seeing him perform, is less than impressed however; "there was nothing of you in it," he announces. This statement, as perplexing or painful as it must have been to hear at the time, strikes a nerve for Bourne.

Rex is also the man who encourages Bourne to attend a Gay Liberation Front Meeting. At first he goes for the cruising (Rex promises loads of gorgeous guys), but is quickly captivated by the ideas and discussions. This political awakening naturally triggers a self-exploration of identity, and being an actor, perhaps it's not surprising that Bourne's exploration includes costuming. We see a photo of him in what he calls his Che Guevara drag; he mentions, in one of his many seemingly tossed-off thoughts, "those boots didn't even fit me." An important discovery is on the way though. At one of the meetings, when another fellow denounces the proceedings as nothing but cruising, Bourne says "I felt the crown of this queen rising up in me." Perhaps no one is more surprised than he that when the queen chews the other fellow out, she does so in the voice of "a Cockney fishwife." It will surprise none of us who have ever been part of a political group that this Cockney fishwife is quickly offered a position on the steering committee.

By this point Bourne is working at a stall in a market (not, it would seem, acting) where, inspired by the queens at the meetings, he buys a dress he sees. With a friend's encouragement and company, he eventually wears it to a meeting, even braving the cobblestoned streets in heels. The experience is both freeing and revealing, as she recognizes just how vulnerable this clothing (and nascent new identity) makes her. Anyone who has worn heels on a completely flat floor, let alone cobblestones, can probably relate. Drag becomes an important new avenue to explore.

Soon she and other "working class queens" at the meetings notice that while they're the ones doing all the set-up, clean-up, tea preparation and such, university-educated members dominate the meetings, spouting off about the latest theories of liberation politics. Realizing that the theories rarely tell them anything they didn't already know from experience, a group of the working class queens separate from the group to form an anarchic drag commune.

We remember this is swinging Seventies London, right?

For six years Bourne, thirteen or so other queens, three women, two children, an older woman and her boyfriend share all money earned, two rooms of a London squat and what appears to have been an extensive and fabulous wardrobe. Pot, LSD and sex are part of the mix as well, of course. Some of the greatest stories, naturally, come out of this time. There's the early morning raid where the police find themselves face to face with fourteen beautiful naked young men--several of them "proud, as one often is first thing in the morning"--, and the flustered bobbies leave quickly with no arrests made. Bourne does find herself in court at least once, following a demonstration, but even her refusal to remove her hat ("it matches the shoes") doesn't appear to have earned her any jail time.

The arrival of harder drugs and their dealers eventually encourages her to leave the commune and despite a six year gap, she is able to land acting work immediately. The return to acting is welcome, in part because Bourne felt that part of herself wasn't taken seriously by other members of the commune, but she still hopes for a greater synthesis of her identities as actor, gender outlaw and gay activist.

Enter Hot Peaches. This flamboyant theatre company is before my time, I have to let the link do most of the heavy lifting regarding background, but for Bourne it was just the thing she'd been looking for. The costuming and make-up are outrageous and over-the-top yet anchored by writing and acting of the highest caliber. She eventually tours throughout Europe with them, and when they head off to America, she stays behind in England and forms her own company, Bloolips.

Bloolips was my introduction to Bette Bourne, and I'd be willing to bet that was probably true for most other members of Saturday's audience. How to describe a Bloolips show? Never having seen the Cockettes, the Angels of Light, Hot Peaches or The Ridiculous Theatre, I can't tell you where--or if--this company fits into the pantheon. I've also read that Bloolips drew on the traditions of English music hall, Pantos and American Vaudeville (interesting to note all three traditions had a place for drag). All that seems valid and worth mentioning, but the company was still like nothing I had ever seen. The production I saw in Seattle in the early 90s, titled Get-Hur, was a campy, deleriously silly look at the love affair between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and Antinous. The costumes and make-up were so outlandish they weren't drag so much as clown, the writing was farce at its best with silly songs, big tap dance numbers, rauchy humor such as a character whose ass lit up if anyone paid it compliments,("I've never seen it myself," he says) but on a dime the actors--most notably Bourne--could shift gears and take us into moments of rich emotional truth. This is the only Bloolips show I ever saw (the company has since disbanded), but I've been a fan ever since.

The company toured internationally and developed a substantial cult following. I wonder how many actors there are left who have managed to develop such a huge and passionate fan base almost solely from live theatre? And from flamboyant drag/clown/spectacle/political theatre at that? Probably not many since the days of Vaudeville.

At seventy Bourne is still working steadily, recently playing the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at the New Globe, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, and portraying her friend Quentin Crisp in a solo show. In many ways it would appear the world has finally caught up with her, and she's able to move cheerfully back and forth between mainstream theatre and experimental projects. Like Crisp, she carved out space for an identity that felt most true to her inner being, and built a life that fit her like a glove.

As I mentioned, the format of a recreated interview had some drawbacks. There were moments of extreme emotion, for example, when I found myself wondering, is she feeling that, or is she recreating--playing-- an emotional moment from the original interview? This may seem like nitpicking, but it took me out of the performance. There were also occasions when Ravenhill would suddenly become a character in one of Bourne's stories. I'm not sure this gained them as much as they hoped, and it was occasionally jarring. One of the first times it happened I thought Ravenhill was interrupting a story with a rather abrupt and offensive change of subject ("have you ever been inside a woman?") until I realized he was playing the part of an older man offering a young Bourne his first blowjob. On the plus side, the set included an enormous screen that displayed images from throughout Bourne's life. This theatrical tool helped make the evening feel like a chat between friends, since photos would trigger other memories for Bourne, and Ravenhill usually let the digression run its course. I was grateful for that. Perhaps it's also a testament to the format that I frequently wished I were the one doing the interview; many times I wanted Ravenhill to follow up on a comment, ask for more information or clarification, but I had to let him follow his own line.

In the days since seeing this show, I've been mulling over the many ways identity is both discovered and constructed. We all have to do both, listen to inner promptings, and reconcile them with the expectations of the larger world. Most of us may feel perfectly comfortable adopting the costuming--the drag, if you will--our culture hands us, but that doesn't change the fact that we're wearing a costume, a mask even. One wonders if, having first challenged the boundaries of class in 1960s England, Bourne was able to see through the illusions of identity more clearly than most, and this prepared her to challenge boundaries of gender as well. Obviously she came to adulthood at a good time for such questions, and found some merry companions to ask them with; she was not alone. But that doesn't lessen the risks she took, or the things she achieved. In telling her story, she seemed quick to downplay how rough some times were: her mother made a game out of taking cover during the Blitz; running from mounted police after sex in the bushes was ''a big lark''; secondary school in the fifties seems to have been one long gay orgy (especially following Chapel). But she does not discount how rough it still is to go out in public wearing make-up or ambiguous clothing. Just that afternoon, she reports, a clerk at a convenience store refused to serve her because of her lipstick. (The recreated interview format made it unclear if this incident happened two years ago in London, or just that afternoon in DUMBO, but the emotional impact was clear.) Taking such risks must be a bit more daunting when one is seventy and a bit stiff in the knees, compared to when one was (judging from the photos) a vigorous, strong, and frankly, gorgeous young man, but she's clearly still willing to take them.

Bourne reports someone once said to Quentin Crisp, "you just want to be noticed." Crisp replied, "I want to be recognized." Obviously Bourne feels much the same. Some may consider my admiration excessive or misplaced. The creation of a personal identity, no matter how spectacular, may seem self-indulgent, not the work of an activist. Certainly Bourne does not claim to be a big gay hero, though she does at one point, jokingly, refer to herself as a gay icon. I think though that she and her cohorts opened up space that has benefitted the rest of us more than we know. And this is the work we ask of artists. Show us life. Show us other ways of being. Ask the questions, big and small. that we need to ask. Get the discussion started, at least. I'd say Bourne has done all that, and more. (For the record, I believe she's also been a staunch activist.)

Bourne also showed a host of performers (including me) that finding their own way outside the mainstream was possible and appealing. It was a nice coincidence, for example, that Justin Bond (of Kiki and Herb fame) sat in front of me on Saturday. I don't know if Bond considers himself one of Bourne's spiritual daughters, but a case could be made. Then there's my friend Kevin Kent, who I have to thank for introducing me to Bloolips; you can see Kevin in action regularly at the Teatro Zinzanni in Seattle. I think Bourne would approve.

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