Op-ed: Camping Lessons
“Nothing can teach you to act like acting!” screen legend Bette Davis once quipped.
Nothing has taught me about acting quite like Bette Davis. In learning how to be her, I was taught how to act better as a man. Davis was Hollywood royalty. She was a queen, and I’m a drag queen…sometimes. She was larger than life. I’m smaller than life. I don’t feel what I do is impersonation; it’s an acting challenge. It’s like when men would portray the women’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays. Can I fool the audience? Can I make them believe I am that creature they know and love so well? Can I say each line (even campy ones) with conviction and truth? Playing Davis is not just a twirl of the arm, a puff on a cigarette, and the exaggerated speech (although you must have those skills!), it’s delving into a living and breathing person’s history and making each moment real. It’s all backstage magic. I’m looking forward to portraying her again in the show BitchSlap!
I have not played Bette since 2004, and I feel like Davis must have in 1955 when she played Queen Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen (she had played the character in 1939 at Warner Bros.). It’s an opportunity to go deeper into her history and bring her back to life.
The reason I love to play Davis is that she’s part of the rich tapestry of our gay history. Powerful, campy, larger than life, and extremely talented — all elements many gay men relate to. Watching legends like Davis, Madonna, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Liza Minnelli has given gay men a language, images of power and success, and taught us that we could achieve that too. In watching all these divas I actually rode on their backs while I developed my own unique talent and persona.
I feel icons of the past are critically important because they have helped forge a “blueprint” for inspiration and creation. I’m certainly not suggesting that you have to become a queen to be a man, but it sure does help you to rule your kingdom. Besides, what gay man doesn’t love a little bitchiness? “Every man has a little bitch inside him,” Joan Crawford once said.
And camp in some ways provides the backbone of gay men. Camp tends to lighten the load of “coming out” or “living the gay life,” which can sometimes feel daunting and perilous. It’s very difficult to take yourself or life too seriously when you are “camping it up.” I’ve been told that I can make people laugh at the most awful circumstance. If that’s true, it’s because I’ve learned that laughter is medicine for the soul. It’s the survival instincts of these legends that make them matter. I have evolved as an actor, I have played wonderful roles as a man, but in returning to the fold of Bette Davis, I feel like I’m returning to my roots. I feel that by being her I am more of myself.
BitchSlap! is performed through June 3 at the Macha Theatre in Los Angeles. For more information go to MachaTheatre.org.