Excerpt of Interview with Ray Dobbins
Francie: I’m here interviewing Ray Dobbins. It’s August 28, 2013. We’re here to talk about the late 70s, early 80s or thereabouts and this particular community of artists that interacted largely at The Bar on Second Avenue and 4th Street and at Bill Rice’s studio. What I’d like to know from you are any memories you have of that community, any changes you saw over that span of time, something about your practice as an artist during that period and how that community influenced you as an artist.
Ray: Before I knew Bill Rice and these people, I had been real involved in the antiwar movement in the late 60’s and the gay liberation movement from Stonewall on. That’s common to many of us. I had gone out to Brooklyn and lived in a commune with a bunch of people. The commune had come out of the gay liberation movement. I met Minnette out there at a meeting. This was around mid-1970. I moved out to Brooklyn, the Boerum Hill area, because the commune was there. It was really cheap to get places then.
A wealthy friend had given me some video equipment—the very first audio, reel-to-reel equipment. I started doing video tapes of different shows around 1976 and 77. I used to tape things at the Firehouse, which was a famous place. It was a firehouse in Soho that was an alternative to the Mafia run gay bars. They had dances on the weekends. There were big celebrations with super hippie gays and left wing gays and stuff. All the basic people were there like Jim Ferete and Vito Russo. (Vito was in charge of getting the stuff that was being presented there. He wrote a book on gay cinema. He was also an activist. He died of AIDS in the mid 1980s.) So I would tape some of the celebrations that we would have there, and they kept them as a record. I think the first thing I taped around ’77 or ‘78 was when the Bloolips did Alice there. I really liked it and I got to know them.
I’d always had reservations about the video group that we had formed, because I saw the medium as a form of personal expression. It only took only about three years or so for a portion of the gay liberation movement people to turn into bureaucrats. They begat all kinds of important organizations later on in the AIDS days; but many of them were essentially people who were much more comfortable with typewriters, mailings, stamps and especially grant applications. That was their great skill.
They were not good, however, for a video group because their notion of how to make a gay documentary was to just do an imitation interview. When video first started there were a bunch of people that did video documentaries. Their method was the same as the documentaries they had seen. They would go up to people and say, “What you think of lesbian mothers?” People would say, “Oh it’s terrible.” Or they would talk to a lesbian. They would shove the microphone in their face—people on the street interviews. I found that intellectually okay. That’s politically important, but I was burned out politically. I was really tired of what I’d seen.
So I had mixed feelings about this video group. There was all this talk for example about what to call the group. Without much concession from me, the majority decision was to call it the Gay Revolution Video Project. I thought that was a god-awful name. At the time there was all black and white television with the blue screen and everything. I looked at the screen with nothing on it, just the snow on the screen. I said, “Why don’t we call it Queer Blue Light? That’s a much better name.” So that title was the nudge away from the bureaucratic. Even if it was revolutionary bureaucrats, there is no difference between far left revolutionary bureaucrats and centerleft or moderate. It’s the same personality. They ripen like cheese and they either go to the left of the right.
When I made the videotapes of the Hot Peaches at the Firehouse and got to know them a little I thought, ‘This is what I like.’ Around that time, Roy and I had been together for a year or two. He was going into Manhattan all the time; because if you’re a jazz musician, you’ve got to be in the city. I had an unrealized wish to be writer; but I had a Jesuit education, so when you read my work, it’s sounded like it was translated from Latin. It was stiff. It was overwritten and overwrought.
So I moved out of the commune and into Manhattan. I got to know the Hot Peaches better and did more tapes of their shows. I also got to know other people from seeing their shows, like Chris Cap and Billy Bike who was a local character, Rodrigo Soloman and Mike Alarian. This would be around 1978, 79. So the Hot Peaches were my first connection to this community.
I see this community that we’re talking about as a kind of a breakthru downtown gay theater community. Ludlum was doing stuff. He was way ahead of us in terms of technique and ability and so on. But he wasn’t getting reviewed. Jack Smith was doing these happenings that were absolutely top-notch events, just magnificent. He would hardly ever get any reviews. Certainly nobody would take him seriously. Then there were people like Dark Wilson who maybe did one or two things at that time. But I would put him in the bureaucratic column. I didn’t care for his stuff too much. I thought it was very political. I said that the political stuff exposed the issues and that art revealed the issues. I wanted to do things that revealed rather than just exposed. (It made no sense to anybody.)
Francie: It’s deeper, a deeper experience.
Ray: Revealing is different.
Francie: Much more intimate.
Ray: Yeah, much more intimate. I think that this is the kind of work that unconsciously Jimmy Camichia did. You start out with the assumption that however small the community you’re drawing your material from and however unique it is, if you just treat it like it’s universal, people would accept it as universal. They see their own lives in it. They see things what they feel in it. If you accent, in the way that identity politics often does, the unique aspects of it and the personal minority group aspects of it, it loses its universality, even though it’s essentially the same piece of work. I eventually learned that.
So we were taping the Bloolips, I started to see Ludlam. I started to see what other people were doing. So I said, “This is it!” Then I started to think, ‘You know, they’ve got these really eccentric, really wonderful performers, but the writing isn’t very good in many cases. Sometimes it was brilliant, like the work by Harry Katookas and some other people. Also there was Robert Patrick’s plays which were really, really funny but they were excessively long, sometimes up to 3 hours. They were strings of brilliant bon mot and one-liners based on different gay subjects. But they were very free, very funny and they had this casting couch that wouldn’t quit. It was all young men with lots of nudity and lots of jokes. He wouldn’t let anyone direct his stuff. He directed it himself. He would never edit it to make it a little shorter, a little compact. You needed to be drunk or stoned to sit through the whole thing. But they were brilliant. He’s still around. He’s older. He knew everybody, absolutely everybody in those little circles. He was very helpful to Jimmy Camichia and Ian McKay. He was very helpful to me.
Then I tried to make money by doing head shots for people because I had a dark room and cameras and stuff, but instead of getting paid and I’d often get tickets to whatever they were doing. There were people that were doing really, really extraordinary things. There was the Cocquettes in California. It was a period that they called Gender Fuck, where you had beards with glitter in it and dresses and stuff like that. They kind of inspired Jimmy to do stuff here. The Cocquettes came to try to do a show here, but it was kind of a mess. It was exactly what they did in San Francisco, exactly the same chaos and gender bending, but New York wasn’t quite ready for that level of chaos onstage and amateurishness.
All of these things were probably amateurish. They had an actual polish to them but nobody was looking for professional actors. They were looking for people with quirky personalities, drag queens, very campy men that were very obviously gay or women that had some humorous quality, generally gay women, but also women that were just funny.
At the same time, there were things where Bill was performing. They were part of a small, independent, below 14th St. film movement. Around that time, John Lurie made some eight millimeter films. One of them was about an astronut, Men in Orbit, and there were some other ones. This was unrelated to gay stuff, but in the same extended community. Jim Jarmusch started making a feature film that Roy was in. I think there was a subsection of this downtown community that generally had a certain aspect. They wouldn’t have very many gay friends and there wouldn’t be much gay stuff allowed, but they were radicals and they were innovative and they weren’t Jewish.
So I started to think for myself that maybe I could write something; but I had this terrible problem with the writing because of this turgid, Germanic, Latinate style, which is like a papal encyclical or something. I had all these stories and people kept saying, “Well then tape-record them, just tape-record them and we’ll put them down on paper. John Endy helped me with that. My friend John Endy was sort of very interesting guy, very erudite. He and Bill Rice were the two most erudite, well read and well considered people I ever knew. He helped me to find that I could I could sit across the table, with a drink in my hand and with a tape recorder in the center and tell my stories. In that way it was very fluid.
I did a whole set of recording of the stories that I wanted to put in the Don the Burp book. One of the stories was about a man in Cleveland who used to pay young men to come over and burp into a microphone. He was this guy and that was his fetish or else he would have you wear swimming trunks and make muscle poses and burp. You’d drink warm beer out of a beer bottle and he would pay. It was this elaborate thing and almost every greaser kid in Cleveland went to him at some point for several generations. The guys who were older than me went. I went. I didn’t know until later that my younger brother eventually went. My cousin was one of the people who would organize it. You got paid a little bit to bring in new people each time. It was very odd and very funny. There is a whole story about it in the book. The other stories are about being a gay teenager between about 1960 and 1967 in Cleveland in the poor white super industrial part of Cleveland.
So for me I saw the writing as a kind of revenge against the left. This is because the left was not good about gay issues until they absolutely had to be. They had to be forced into it. They were more rigid than almost anybody else. They idealized the leather jacket and working class. They thought, ‘These are the people who are going to make the revolution and they’re going to tear down the walls, the labor people, the working working women, the women raising children.’ These activists were all people from Columbia University and Swarthmore and different places. They were all fine people but they really idealized the working class and oversimplified them. I would get into arguments with them saying something like, “You know the erotic and personal and spiritual imagination of the poor and the working classes are just as rich as everybody else’s. We’re not wind up revolutionary wall breakers.” The book served a very different function than that imagined by the political left.
So I did the dictations of these stories. John Endy transcribed them and edited them. They read a couple of them on WBAI. We got good actors because I can’t read out loud comfortably in front of people. I’m very shy. After they read several of the stories, the switchboard was flooded with calls from gay people who said they had the same experiences as me. There was a young black poet who was just in the process of coming out. He would walk all the way from the Bronx, where he lived in the ghetto, down to Times Square to hustle and meet gay men. He eventually became a good poet.
My book was partly about being isolated as a gay teenager, about a whole series of mistakes and stumbles, about winding up a conscientious objector in New York in 1966 in 1967, about living and starting a whole new life and doing what I want to do. They are all stories from the Don the Burp book and are set in Cleveland during my high school years essentially. They were really the autobiographical short dictations about life as a gay greaser teenager. We didn’t call ourselves greasers, but that’s what everybody else would see us as. I have some copies of it. Larry Mitchell printed a second version of it as a regular paperback. All those are gone. On Alibris now they sell almost for almost $600 each. I think that I have three. We did two printings. It was a small grey paperback. Larry Mitchell did it and he did a good job. It has Bill Rice on the back cover and I forget what’s on the front cover. I want to turn some of these things into e-books, because that way people can get them. It won’t be the same experience, but needs to be done.
Insert image from Don the Burp book here
Francie: Were you going to The Bar at this time at all.
Ray: I’m not 100% sure The Bar had opened yet. I don’t know what year it opened. It had been an Israeli coffeehouse when I first moved into the neighborhood. But within a year or so it had charged into a gay bar. That was probably ’77 or ’78. I didn’t go much to gay bars. I really avoided them and all kinds of other things, because I was fat. Those were terrible years to be fat. Everybody was really skinny. Mick Jagger basically was the look. People were all hippies. It was very funny because, a number of years later, everybody’s hair started to fall out and people started to gain weight and everything evened out. At that time though I was the only overweight person, the only fat guy who ever went to any of these fairly sophisticated things.
Roy was in the Lounge Lizards with John and Evan Luries. They had good bookings. They went to good clubs and stuff like that. I’d go in with them. They would have permission to go to the VIP lounge because of Lurie and the group’s fame and so on. Different people would stop me and I’d say, “I’m with them.” They would say, “Is this guy with you?” because I never dressed well. I didn’t feel good about myself. Also the fact that I was in a relationship with Roy kind of confounded people: “Why is this fat guy in a relationship with this dynamic, good-looking young guy?” Also there was pressure in the early days of gay liberation not to be in couples. A lot of people in gay liberation disapproved of couples and disapproved of monogamy. There was an anti-monogamy thing. It was just a way to have sex with your friend’s friends you know. But I did go to bars. I went to straight bars. Often times I met people. It worked really well. They weren’t really straight.
So somebody introduces me to Bill Rice. I told him, “You know, I’ve got this book and I need a photograph to illustrate it. I’d like you to read it and see if you’d be willing to just have your face be on the cover of the book as Don the Burp.” He has a remarkable face. For a couple years before that I had run into him in different places and would smile and say hello. I’d think, “Look at that face!” So Bill agreed to do it. I took a photograph for it. The cover of the book is wonderful! As a result, in Larry’s edition he’s on the back cover as Don the Burp along with Dougy Baum who was one of the drummers of Jazz Passenger.
Steve Watson and I also did this book called Minette: Recollections of a Part Time Lady. Most of Minette’s stories were really goofy stories—they are wonderful—about when he was young and throughout the 30’s 40’s and 50’s. So Steve Watson transcribed Minette’s words and reorganized them in a more writerly way. I did the visuals in the book and I had introduced him to Minette. I’d given him a lot of things to ask Minette. I had Minette’s photograph and re-photographed them. It was this handmade book that me and Roy and Augusto Machado and a whole bunch of us would hand assemble. Then we sold them. We had a party for them and everybody was there. Jackie Curtis was there. The Hot Peaches performed. Ondine and some people from the Ludlam company were there. We did the opening party for the book at the Ludlam place. It was very, very good. It went really well and soon afterwards the Don the Burp book was finished.
I saw what we could do with transcribing speech on the Minette book. So then we did this book of my stories transcribed. I wanted a very different look and a kind of quality to it. John Endy was very helpful in setting that up. So we formed a small press with this guy named Charles Web. We also did a third thing called Stonewall Romances with Peter Hujar and different people. That book was done as a photo novella, with photographs, like in a comic book in a South American style. There used to be this genre of melodrama, soap opera books, all done in photographs instead of cartoons. We did the story of Stonewall about eight years after Stonewall, figuring it would be good for the tenth year anniversary, which would have been ‘79. It was for the younger people who didn’t know the story.
Later on I heard a tape of the reading of Don the Burp on the radio. I thought, ‘These are like monologues. These are like theatrical monologues. These really work. You know, I think I could write for a play and it would be better than what is around. Get some of these friends who are good actors and interesting people and maybe they’d like to do my stuff.’ At the same time I had carried over from my Brooklyn commune days some very complicated overly-idealistic ideas. For example, I didn’t want our group, Queer Blue Light, to use our own names. I wanted everything to be done anonymously. I believed if you were in a community, the perfect way of producing art is the way the cathedrals were built. They were built anonymously by fine, wonderful craftsman. In this way you would see what they did and you would see inside them because what they’ve done is so beautiful. You don’t really know which craftsman it was, because it’s not important. I was trying to enforce that. That didn’t make me very popular in the video group.
Francie: I think not. Boy, were you ahead of your time. You’re still ahead of your time.
Ray: Or way behind, way behind.
So I felt somewhat the same way about theater. I had stories sketched out that I wanted to do. I eventually managed to stop dictating and to write in the same manner as if I was dictating. I lost that formality. I did it by saying that I was telling stories. I was telling stories mostly by dialogue. To me, whether that was a play or not, it was what I was doing. So the first play I wrote was Sheehan’s Outside, where Bill Rice plays Bishop Sheehan, with Ondine, who was a friend of Jimmy’s at the time. Bill Rice really liked the Don the Burp book. I knew that he liked it a lot by everything he said about it.
So I got to him from that moment on. Both the Don the Burp and the Minette book got full, long, page and one-half reviews in the Village voice. The Voice was very influential at the time. Basically these were homemade books. They sold all over the world actually. We had to keep making them. We stopped making them because it was too much work. I still have a bunch of unassembled ones.
We got phone calls in response to the book. I got a call one time from Czechoslovakia in the middle of the night. It was this queen who had performed in cabarets during the Second World War in Berlin and Prague. He’s now about 80. He was crying and crying. He was saying, “My lover and I, this is the story of our lives.” We sold them at the Communist Party bookstore in Adelaide and Sydney and in couple of other cities. The Australian Communist Party unlike the American Communist Party was pro gay liberation and pro feminist. There was beginning to be all these gay bookstores and feminist bookstores all over the world, in Canada and England. That’s where they sold. Then eventually one of these men came to the United States and wanted to meet me and Minette. Tennessee Williams liked the Minette book. All different people liked the Minette book. A lot of old people said this is the first time we’ve seen our lives documented and recorded. It would put them in tears, they were so happy that they were openly available and that they got reviewed and so on. There was this tremendous, poignant need for this kind of work to be done.
Don the Burp had all these scandalous short stories in it about different things that the young men who I knew had done. I used pseudonyms for everone in the book. Yet people I would meet at parties who had read it would say, “That’s about me. You’re from Rochester and used to know so and so.” I wasn’t from Rochester. I was from Cleveland. They’d had the same experience and they thought it was their life in the book. So we got these wonderful responses from old-timers. I was about 23 or 24 years old and these people that must’ve been in their 60’s and 70’s and their lives had never been discussed. That moved me very much.
So then I had decided to write. I had this story in my mind about the night that Bishop Sheen had died. When I was a child I used to have visions of Bishop Sheen. He was on TV in the early 50’s. I think it was Friday nights. He was one of the only people who could compete with Sid Caesar. The Catholics, rather than watching the Show of Shows would watch Bishop Sheen. He was hilarious. He was a smart man. At that time he was a very conservative traditional Catholic Bishop with a swirling cape and very intense dark Irish eyes. He had dark eyes with this shadowed, almost Spanish look, and he was flamboyant and intense. He was a kind of joke because he was a super anti-Communist. In his television show he’d come out swirling this big cape with these broad gestures and chalk to write down the basic tenants that he was going to lecture about that night. It was chalkboard lectures on network television about the Catholic Church. It was very popular because he was so dynamic. Really he was very campy in a way, but people didn’t know that at the time. He eventually became quite liberal during the civil rights movement but that’s another thing all together.
As a child, between the ages of four to six, I was in love with him. I just thought this was the greatest guy. I liked everything about the Catholic Church in terms of all the trappings—the gold, the silk, and the release out of a hideous family situation into a place that was your protector, the mother church. With all the gold and the incense and diamonds it was beautiful stuff. My imagination was stimulated there and to some extent in movies. Ludlam was a seminarian and when he first began his work his whole association in the theater was the mass, the Catholic ritual. He went to college and studied theater but his whole sense of it came out of ritual. That was true for a lot of theatre people.
Francie: I can see that. The catholic mass is certainly a kind of theater.
Ray: So I write this play about Bishop Sheen and the night that he dies. When I was a kid, I had these miracles that happened. Anyway my mother and sisters all thought they were miracles. One time I saw the Blessed Virgin Mary hovering outside the window. We slept three in a bed with my brothers because we had no money. So when I would go to bed in my room I would see Bishop Sheen outside the window, after the show was over and everybody else was asleep. He would come over and sit on the bed and talk to me and calm me down. Things were bad in our house. So I had this secret friend and he was one of them. He was very good to me. We talked and stuff. He was a childhood figure that was very healing. My mother and her sisters thought that my visions of both the Virgin Mary and Bishop Sheen were miracles and I got rewarded for doing this kind of thing. I became kind of notable among my Catholic relatives and some people in the parish. So that was my childhood with Bishop Sheen.
So I wrote this play about a bohemian who is overweight and lonely. He lives in a little apartment on the Lower East Side. He sees on television that Bishop Sheen has died. He turns off the television. He gets ready to go to bed and a young kid from Cleveland, where he comes from, shows up. Prior to that, Bishop Sheen comes to the window and starts talking to the bohemian from the window. Bishop Sheen basically says that he just died and that he’s on his way to heaven, but he’s kind of circling the airport, as in purgatory. He’s got a while before he actually gets in. Ondine, as the bohemian, invites him into his apartment and they talk about all kinds of stuff. Bill Rice, as Bishop Sheen, is standing in the window frame talking to him.
Insert clip from tape here.
So we did that play at Randy Gilberti’s loft, which was also the loft for the first Bloolips shows. It was in the teens in the West side. There was always all these people would who would show up. Jeff Weiss would do stories there. Ethel Eichelberger did things. Hot Peaches did some shows there that I taped.
Francie: Are you in touch with Jeff Weiss at all?
Ray: I must know people who are. He’s up there in his years now to. I don’t know what his status is. He’s in Harrisburg where he came from. I don’t know what kind of shape he is in. He was real important to everybody. He’s a separate generation. He’s more like Bill’s generation or Jack Smith’s. He had a successful Broadway career. Then he started doing his personal pieces. His personal pieces were just explosive, just magnificant. You can see there is this slow aggregation of a new kind of theater that was probably nonprofessional, often insisted that there being no charge for the ticket. There was The Pink Satin Bombers at some point in those early years. That also came out of the Cocquettes and out of the Hot Peaches. The Bloolips came out of the Hot Peaches, as did some of the plays that I did—although they were more personal and didn’t have musical numbers at that point.
So we did Sheehan’s Outside at the loft and a couple people from Theater for the New City where there and they liked it. So they said, “Let’s do six weeks of it.” Ondine was sick for the performance at the loft and someone took over for Ondine for the two weeks that we did that show. Then Ondine returned and we did it with Ondine and a young actor who became a famous film director. Anyway the play went from Randy’s loft to Theatre for the New City. It did extremely well. It just sold out all the time. It knocked out all the competition. It made me very pleased.
By that time I’d gotten to know Bill Rice pretty well. We did a couple more plays, one of which I don’t have the script for and I don’t have the tapes of it either. It’s weird to lose a whole play. For many of the others I don’t have scripts. I just have the recordings. By that time the Hot Peaches were fully running. They were doing a lot of stuff before I did mine. I learned a lot from them. Then I was doing my own stuff. The Minette book came out in 78. The Don the Burp book came out in 1980. Sheehan’s Outside was ‘81. Maybe it’s at Theater for the New City in early 82. Then there were a couple of years.
We’re also slowly moving towards the AIDS epidemic, but not for a year or two yet. People were of course carrying on in the same way with all the clubs, backroom bars and stuff like that. I managed to avoid it by being rejected all the time.
Francie: Maybe you could talk a little bit more about this ‘head of steam’ that was happening in the downtown gay theater and also talk about the audience.
Ray: There was this gradual aggregation and crossing of influences. You have to start with the people who preceded us a little bit—the drag queens that performed in the bars very secretly. They were people like Minette that did shows in gay bars that were very sub rosa. They used to say that wherever there was a light shining on a horizontal service, if you could stand on it, some queen would stand up and put on a show.
Francie: Also you said that that was a time when it was secretive, people were persecuted for drag and it performing was a moment of great release to be who you were.
Ray: Always related to drag there is this tremendous relief in taking on another name, another identity, the appearance of another gender and do stuff that was campy. It was also a kind of a gay humor that was pretty wonderful. It was nasty and funny and very erotic, very outsider humor. So those people kind of laid the foundation for the, ‘Let’s put on the show mentality.’ Then simultaneously there was a movement to do this new kind of theater that cost nothing and was very inexpensive. (Robert Patrick) wrote some history about this.
It was Off Off Broadway. It was at La Mama. There were some other venues too. There were people’s lofts where shows could be done for no money at all. This was done in front of audience that were friends and eventually they were audiences that were more or less conventional theater audiences in that they weren’t just friends. These audiences didn’t like conventional theatre. They were unconventional people that liked unconventional theater. There were the drag queens and the Living Theater, simultaneous to the secret days of the 50s. The Living Theatre was a very brave and a very innovative new theater group. On James Street by the river, George Bartineff and Crystal Field set up the first Theater for the New City and had a lot of people like that down there. Sam Shepard and all these different people started out doing things that had no commercial potential. They were just experimental or whatever. In amongst them was Charles Ludlum who did very gay stuff a little bit earlier than everybody else. Jeff Weiss was doing really interesting things certainly by the mid-70s—really amazingly, powerful things. The Cocquettes influence made the Hot Peaches thing happen. There was the Gender Funk movement, which was the Coquettes. The Bloolips came out of the Hot Peaches. Betty Borne was in the Hot Peaches when they were in England. He traveled with the Bloolips, as did Paul Shaw; and then Betty and Paul started their own group, The Bloolips. So Jimmy Camichia was really responsible for the Bloolips actually. Of course I had been videotaping all of these shows. That was my way in.
I had done a couple of books by transcription that made me realize that maybe I could write plays. I was twenty-eight or so when they did the first reading of Sheehan’s Outside. In my mind I had written something which was a tragic comedy with very poignant powerful moments and with alternating funny moments kind. Ondine read it, with Madelyn LaRoux and Bill Rice and I don’t remember who else. These were real downtown notables, really good actors. They were really able to just pick up the script and read it well. We did the first reading of it in somebody’s apartment. As they read through it, people kept laughing. There was an audience of about four other people—Roy and a couple of friends. They laughed and laughed and laughed. Then there would be these periodic little monologues that were very, very secret and very serious. And they laughed all the way through them. I realized the reason they laughed was because I had already established an atmosphere where the audience had permission to laugh. I realized that I had these painful monologues and that pain is funny; and the more painful the monologue was, if it had been preceded by some jokes, the funnier the audience thought it was. People said, “We just about peed in our pants. This was the funniest fucking play.” I didn’t think of it as a comedy. I thought it was a documentary.
The second play I wrote was a sort of very personal piece. But it was with imaginary characters it wasn’t autobiographical. I thought I was doing naturalistic theater. I wanted to be Eugene O’Neill. I wanted to write a really good American play. I did try one, but it wasn’t successful. It was pretty strange too. This other play was with Bill Rice and Betty Borne. Roy did music for it. It was at Theater for the New City. Everybody came back to me and said, “This is the sweetest, strangest most wonderfully surreal comedy that we’ve seen in a long time.” I thought, ‘Surreal comedy?’
At first I didn’t get the point. Slowly, I started to understand. I used to write and I had this thing that happens to a lot of playwrights. You feel people are talking over your shoulder. The character says something and you laugh and you say, “God I can’t believe you just said that.” Then somebody else says something back. I’d be laughing and say, “I can’t believe they said this. I can’t put this in the show because it’ll throw everything off.” So the characters kept saying funny things as I was writing. I would take down their dialogue. They kept being funny and I kept editing the funniness out of the play, because I wanted to make a serious point. So anyway, eventually I realized that comedies make a little money. Audiences like them. They have a good time. Then Robert Patrick told me, “First of all don’t bother making a distinction between autobiographical and fiction. You can’t do it. Your autobiography is fictional and your fiction is autobiographical. Just give up on that.” The other thing he told me about was his friend who was an important chef. The chef came up with a theory of theater. The chef told him, “Listen, when you’re running a restaurant if the soup is good and the desert is good, people tend to forget the entrée if it isn’t perfect.” Patrick said that was his theory of playwriting: “If they come in and have a good soup, the main meal and a delicious dessert, so that they leave feeling really good, they don’t remember whether the show was good or not. That’s the ‘soup, entrée and dessert’ theory of downtown theater.
So anyway, simultaneously what we were developing was a community of people who were doing gay theater for no money that was very funny, very innovative.
Francie: And it was very successful in this community, wildly successful.
Ray: That’s right. It was based on writers who were writing very close to the content: They were very close to the people they writing for, knew who the characters were going to be played by and based the characters often on the people that they were writing about. And it was based on the audience, who was part of the whole process. They were newly liberated gay people living hippie downtown lives, not believing in commercialism, not believing in a lot of other things. (May be with too much of not believing in commercialism.) For most of the initial period we were not being reviewed, even by the Voice; or when we were reviewed by the Voice, the reviewer didn’t get the idea that this stuff was so unrehearsed, so crazy and imperfect or that we didn’t get real name actors.
I’ve always found that you have a choice: You can do a casting call for regular actors and they won’t quite get the show but they can handle it technically if the show is complex. As we got going farther and farther along, the shows got more and more complicated. It required some actual acting technique. The acting technique includes being able to do the same thing every night, even when you’re not inspired to at least put out a medium level performance. But if you’ve got a person with acting technique, you can pretty much presume that they weren’t in the same community and that they had to imitate what they saw around him. The other choice was that you could cast the nearly insane, downtown personalities, like Ondine or all the different people that we know, all the drag queens, all the characters and eccentrics. They could do a damn good job of making the show fly, but they were real inconsistent. Sometimes what happened in Jimmy’s case was that they would get bored and not want to do the show the same way. After about four nights they’d say, “Do we have to do that show the same way again.” We’d say, “Yes, it’s a show. It runs for 6 weeks.” Or they wouldn’t show up.
Francie: I wanted to start to think about the other side of this period. We have this kind of epiphany of the theater and the community. Just this experience of this wonderful environment–not that it did have it’s problems, but there was a kind of cumulative effect. It was magnificent really. Then these other forces come to play and it begins to erode the moment. I would like you to speak on that a little bit.
Ray: Do you have any examples?
Francie: I can tell you what other people spoken to me about when I’ve asked that question. They’ve talked, of course, about the AIDS epidemic. They’ve talked about the real estate forces in the East Village, driving up the costs and driving out people because of the costs. They’ve talked about how, at a certain point, not only AIDS but sometimes drugs and alcohol started to impact people’s health or started to not feel so good anymore. They also talked about a huge political shift from this kind of hippie period to more of a Reagan period. They point to a change in values and orientation towards making money and getting money and just getting more. So doing shows for free would not qualify with that kind of value system. Also the bars changed. Didn’t The Bar burn down at some point and then people went to other bars. So that meeting place went away. There were a lot of forces. This may not have been your experience. I really only want you to speak from your experience.
Ray: Further along there was this wonderful simultaneous aggregation of all of this historically linked, chronologically linked and developing aggregation of downtown gay theater. This went on until there was a large community of a couple thousand people that would reliability show up to these things and oftentimes run the shows themselves. At the same time, all of us that are ‘Approaching Boomers’ were now into our 30s and our lives required more adjustment to practical considerations.
Also, I’d say that this disruption of the community had something to do with an increasingly intense sexualization and the ghettoization of sexuality. This was a change that I noticed during the years right after Stonewall, prior to the Clone Period and prior to when the Mafia started these places where you would have sex at the bar. Around that time, people switched away from going with all of their friends to the bar and sitting around a big table like the ninth circle. Previously, the way you would meet people was the way people would normally meet each other in social situations. Somebody would come to the table that knew one of the people there. They would say, “Oh, sit down and have a drink.” You’d be on the other side of the table somewhere. You get introduced. You would talk. You’d meet the person. You’d have a relationship to them because they’d have a mutual friend. Everybody would be sitting around in a group talking and joking. One person would be very funny. Somebody would be telling really good stories. Then maybe people would dance and then come back to the table. But you went to bars with your friends, two or three friends. Once it got to be sex at the bar in the back room secretly, everybody went alone. So this was the beginning of the destruction of the communal gay liberation thing.
Plus the gay movement had expanded and more conventional and decent but very conventional people were more and more a part of it. Practically every gay boomer was out, whether he was a bank executive or a street cleaner. Christopher Street filled up with all kinds of people, not just outsiders. The bars got more specialized. There were bars for blacks. There were bars were there were no drag queens. There were very leather bars and butch bars. People specialized in the bars where they hung out and became centered around the specifics of their sexuality and they went to them alone. You didn’t socialize at the bars where everybody got AIDS. You didn’t even talk very often to the people you had sex with. You would just go home. It split things apart. That’s kind of one of my observations. I haven’t read that anywhere, but I think Larry Kramer eventually mentioned something similar. That was the important divide. Underneath the surface you could feel the beginning of things changing. Then there were the pressures of getting older and then of Reagan getting in there in 1980.
Also, as the media begin to review shows and people began to have ambitions. They weren’t bad ambitions, but people desired to do good shows and writing. They started to do to do shows that were really ‘shows.’ Then there were reviews very often. These shows had an arc like a show would, with music and song and dialogue. So we would be filling up downtown theater seats with a minimum of a hundred people for equity showcases. Those were twelve performances that you could extend to sixteen. That’s what made it Off Off. Legally Off Off Broadway is 99 or fewer seats.
If you want to extend past sixteen weeks, then you’ve got to pay people minimum union rates. You’ve got to hire technicians and people who were also in unions. You’ve got to pay for advertising and move to a larger theater. Then Off Broadway is about 300 or 400 seats. Then you’re suddenly talking about having to raise money. People did it. The Bloolips did it twice. Once I was associated. Once I wasn’t. I think Jimmy Camachia raised some money one time. Peggy Shaw and those people did a number of shows that kind of went to Off Broadway. There were people like Irene Fornas, who was more academic in the sense, but she was very gay. She was wonderful. The theater got more professional. I don’t think it was a bad thing at all. Like everything around, it’s getting older.
It was the end of the wonderful kind of comraderie that came from people just packing together in bars. People remember these kind of ecstatic moments, before the AIDS epidemic, where you would go out to Fire Island and people would dance for 24 hours, completely stoned, long hair, practically no clothes on. These were nights of a lot of sex or not a lot of sex. It hadn’t yet separated off into each person’s private obsessive, sex with strangers, three times a day kind of thing that then killed everybody.
The only thing that happened with Reagan was the cutting back on the funding of the arts. The grants started to get cut back. New York State Council on the Arts held out as long as they could. We were just beginning to get grants doing gay theater when they started pulling back on the money.
Francie: That’s no surprise.
Ray: Yes. Once again we’d do late night shows at 11 PM or midnight, often on the set of other shows, by just putting a curtain over the other set. The late-night audiences were people just like us who had our sensibilities, our sense of humor, our frame of reference. They were like big parties. They would yell at you when you said a line on stage. The third wall was down. The actors talked very often to the audience. Betty Borne used to constantly turn and face the audience and say something. Ian McKay would do that too. Ian McKay would just turn and look at people if they were getting rowdy in a particular way and say some remark. Ethyl Eichelberger had a way of quieting the audience. The barrier between the audience and the performers was stopped. We didn’t worry about creating the allusion that we had to sustain a character all the time. The actors were essentially characters themselves and they could make remarks to the audience and get a laugh and quiet some people down. The audience and the show was together. There were these wild funny audiences that would go late into the night. They were these magic things that happened at lofts and different places with Ethel Eichelberger or Bill Rice or Jim Neu. Jim Neu’s stuff required a little more of a formal setting because they were plays that depended on an intimate setting and the ability to listen to all of the words. His stuff was very visual because he worked with Robert Wilson originally. Carol Mullins, his partner did to. Robert Wilson is another playwrite who was part of that period, but he stayed way off on the periphery and way off where the money was. He was an influence too.
My explanation for this change is also due to the coming of middle-age, a conservative White House, and an amnesia that comes after things happen. Nobody really remembered exactly what Stonewall was about by that time, because it was 11 or 12 years later. You had to be of that generation. There was a whole new group young gay people. The gay pride parades turned into big commercial, bar run affairs. A lot of people would not go to them. We had alternate parades because we thought it was all too commercial. We weren’t being snobbish, but it was regular people getting on a very important bandwagon in very large numbers.
Francie: So you were the vanguard really in New York City in this gay theater. You weren’t the very first people, as you explained; but you were central in terms of this gathering momentum and creating a genre and breaking out of the earlier, secretive bar performances.
Ray: That’s right. By the time that the Coquettes shows up, it’s 1969 or something. So these forces that had been in the bars only, with drag queens performing and other people performing in bars, were secret situations almost. What was wonderful about the first time you saw Ethyl Eichelberger, Charles Ludlam or any of the shows that we’re talking about was that there was also a shared sense of conspiracy. This was left over from the previous real conspiratorial times. It was a sense that we had this secret, wonderful magical theater that we would do for each other. When I’d see Ethyl or I’d see a really good show I would say to myself, “This is what I came to New York for.” The jokes were so gay, the humor was so weird, the costumes were so funny. Very often it was so brilliant in the writing and the presentation that you were just staggered. The only thing that was keeping it from being mainstream was the subject matter. That’s what kept us all from being mainstream. We developed mainstream skills but the subject matter was still forbidden and it was still forbidden pretty much to review it, except for the negative reviews.
Francie: Really. Well that explains why it wasn’t reviewed of course. It’s interesting that you’re putting words to it.
Ray: It’s like racism now. A while into it, by the late 70s, they would review people; but they were almost always thin, mediocre or negative reviews. The reason was that they were mostly straight reviewers who were trying. They weren’t bad people. They knew that they were not supposed to be prejudiced nor were they prejudiced against gay people. But not being prejudiced is different, the way that sympathy is different from empathy. They weren’t close to the material. If I was them I would think, ‘What good is the theater that’s bound to stay its own community because all the references are so indrawn.’
Francie: I’m not gay and I loved this theater. I was wild about it. It’s not like you had to be gay to love it. I guess I’m disagreeing a little.
Ray: It blocked raising money. We could point out that we made money. The Bloolips made money the whole time. For the whole twenty years or so that The Bloolips was very active, I think we got only one or two grants. Everything else was from ticket sales, because we filled the seats. In England you could have thousand seat theaters or eight hundred seat theatres. We often played to an audience of three hundred to five hundred, which is the average size for British fringe theaters. The plays were paid for in England. There were theatres in New York City at the time that also made it possible for us to produce shows. Theatre for the New City, La Mama, PS 122 were writers’ theaters. What these theatres decided to do was to develop writers and to give you money to do a show. They didn’t give you actual money, nothing over $300 or so. What they said was, “We’ll provide the lights, the sound technicians and the space. You give us half of the door.” They dealt through writers. What they wanted to do was to develop playwrights. That’s what they’ve done. They have developed hundreds and hundreds of playwrights. Ellen Stewart was a very pro gay, kind of patronizing the writers in wonderful sort of way. Everyone was ‘her children.’ Crystal and George were very comfortable in gay situations and were always around. PS 122 was a bit later. These theater spaces and the performance spaces hinged on the writer. That was great for me.
I would’ve written in other forms. I wrote a couple of films. I would’ve written other things I suppose. The nice thing was is that these writers’ theaters would allow you to write and see what you did in the same year or year and a half period. I spent about a year writing a play. If I was collaborating with somebody, they would see it as I was writing it. Then within ten months or so we get it booked someplace and set a date. We’d start looking around for people to be in the show or I’d else I’d already written it with people in mind. On the other hand, if you try to write a film, that would be 5 years out of your life or maybe it wouldn’t even happen. If you write a novel, well nobody was publishing new novels. Nobody does now. Nobody did it then. To the extent that you did, you couldn’t make any money at it. Whereas with the stuff I was doing, they were paying a little bit, they laughed and they came back.
Francie: It was good to make people laugh, especially then. It was a hard time.
Ray: Well that is what happened. The second play we wrote was actually about death and people laughed all the way through it. People cried through part of it to. That was the Gland Motel, it was the first Bloolips show. The second one was Get Her, with Julia Dares. That was about death in a different way, accepting the next stage of it. Gland Motel was the first play that I wrote for the Bloolips. I think it was in ‘84 or ‘83. The AIDS epidemic had been on for about a year here. It hadn’t really hardly started at all in England.
I’ll tell you the story of my first show with Betty Borne and the Bloolips. At that time, Betty had come over to the East Village to do a show; and the writer, who was an Australian, pulled the show in an argument with Betty. They were scheduled for Theatre for the New City and they didn’t have a show. They were dirt poor. I had seen the Bloolips and really liked them. Betty had already directed and had been in two shows that I had written. They had come over with this Bloolips show that they were going to do. Then the author said, “No, I’m not going to allow you to do it.” So they had no show.
They said, “Our return plane tickets aren’t until November. It is now late August. We’re not going to be able to this show. Crystal is going to have to fill up the space.” I said to Betty, “Let’s take a couple of days. Maybe I can write a show.” For three or four days I came into this poor company of these people who were sleeping in the park sometimes because they had no place to sleep. They were very, very broke. They had the money for the show and the space for the show, but no show. I kept coming with all these ideas for them for what I wanted to do. I already knew them a little. I didn’t know them all that well personally, but I did know their personas onstage. I knew Betty.
Well it was so disappointing, because the first two days I came in all excited with stuff and nobody liked it. The third day I went in and everybody wound up in tears saying, “Well we’re going to have to find a way to go back to England. We’ll starve here. We haven’t got a show.” I really felt ashamed that I wasn’t able to do anything. Walking back from Theater for the New City to my place with Betty I said, “Oh my God Betty, I’ve got an idea.
John Lurie wanted me to write a show for him and his girlfriend. He had this wonderfully crazy girlfriend who wound up having to go into rehab for a long time. So the show didn’t happen. Mdm. Blavatski was a famous medium in the 1850s, 60s and 70s. There is talk that she met with Mary Todd Lincoln at the White House with Abraham Lincoln to do a seyance about her dead children. I thought that John Lurie would be a perfect Abraham Lincoln. His girlfriend, who was this wonderfully eccentric person, would be great as Mme. Blavatsky. So I’d writen a play about Mdm. Blavatsky and Abraham Lincoln and that would be with John Lurie and his girlfriend. So that option became unavailable. I couldn’t do a play for John Lurie and his girlfriend because she was gone and he only wanted to do the play with her.
So I had this play sketched out about Mdm. Blavatsky. I had done a lot of research on Mme. Blavatsky. She was a wonderful eccentric character. I said, “Betty I have a play that is partially written and it is about this very eccentric medium in the late 19th century named Mme. Blavatsky. She smoked cigar’s. She went around in a wheeled vehicle. She was very butch. She was very intellectual, a very aggressive and interesting person–and very eccentric!” The next day I showed up with a whole bunch of stuff based on that assumption and a whole bunch of characters and stuff. It just clicked it. It went really well. We all went up to this country house that Roy and I had with some friends. I think we had five weeks before the opening of the show. We wrote the show in about eight or ten days. Minette and Jimmy used to find public domain songs to write new words to, so we didn’t have to pay royalties for them. So we had a number of songs that we’d chosen. I had some comedy bits already chosen. So that’s how I wrote my first Bloolips show. We put it up at the Theater for the New City.
A story of being a playwright in these circumstances was when I did my first show of Sheehan’s Outside at Randy’s loft. Randy was also a piano maker and had a couple of grand pianos that he was fixing. I was sitting at the back of the audience during the first act of the play. Then I realize suddenly that when the intermission comes everybody’s going to stand up, turn around and look right at me. So I hid under a piano, because I didn’t want to see people’s reactions to the play. I didn’t want them to say anything to me until the play was over. I was terrified that they weren’t going to like it. So I hid under a piano covered with a sheet until they went off in the intermission and came back in. This was after I said to myself, “I know playwrights do eccentric things on the opening night. I’m not to do anything eccentric.”
One thing about comedy is that it’s not funny after you been rehearsing it for a while. You just have to trust that it’s going to be funny. You laugh initially. I’d laugh when I wrote it and I’d think it was funny. I’d read it to Betty and he’d laugh. By the time you got it through four or five weeks of rehearsal, nothing seems funny anymore. You’re running on technique and instincts, to trust that you’re doing it in a funny way. Because you don’t know whether it’s funny or not. Just before the opening of the first Bloolips show, I went home and told Roy, “This is it. I have a little bit of a reputation. It is now gone. There’s going to be utter silence throughout the whole show.” I actually laid down on the floor and Roy had to pull me up off the floor and get me to take a shower. He kept pulling me out of bed or off the floor because I wasn’t going to go to the theater and be humiliated by two hundred people. We got there and there was a line around the block literally, waiting to buy the tickets. It was a big success. They laughed all the way through it every ten seconds or so.
Francie: Well Ray, that about wraps it up. But before we end the interview, I’d like to know if there is anything else you want to add.
Ray: I wanted to add something about when Bill Rice died. I wrote for him. Betty performed for him. He was the center in so many ways. He was older than us. He was very, very wise. He had very, very good judgment. If he liked what you did he would criticize it in exactly an appropriate way that was actually constructive. Maybe it stung a little bit, but it was constructive. He was very kind about things. He really liked my writing. He really liked the warmth of the community. By the time the Bloolips came up, I already felt that the community was beginning to fall apart. I would write plays with an ensemble that was itself a community. The plays were about gay community. They were not about political gay community; rather they were about people being kind to each other and helpful to each other and remaining friends.
That was the style of the Bloolips. It was all based on the Jack Benny shows. All the Bloolips shows that I did were based on the Jack Benny radio programs. You had Jack Benny as the chief. Betty was bossy Betty, who was a straight man for all of the jokes. You have the dumb one. There was one of each of the Jack Benny characters. I stole the basic ensemble structure of a community of friends and the way they did their lines. The radio shows were extensively rehersals for the radio show that was going to be done on the next night, with all these goings-on between the people in the company. So I copied the shows after Jack Benny shows. I had about one hundred, very carefully gathered audio shows on tape that I would listen to.
When Bill Rice died, this was after the AIDS epidemic and many people were already gone. We were all damaged as a result of it in a lot of ways. But there was still a persisting group of hangers on that were still doing things. Almost through the whole time, Bill Rice one of was one of the real centers of it. He kept people centered. He had all the intellectual knowledge. If I had any questions about any subject matter that I was writing or reading about, he already knew about it. He knew the references. Also his sensibility came out of a different time. It came out of jazz and it came out of a black sensibility. This was a real good antidote to the where the gay political movement was going, which was whiter and whiter. Even the promiscuity that created AIDS was very white. It wasn’t generous. It was exclusive and selfish and cold in its own way.
Francie: Very hedonistic.
Ray: Yeah, cold hedonism. With the Bloolips and our remaining community, there was still this tremendous warmth and mutual assistance, including people like Veena Sharif and all kinds of other people, people around Larry and the people around Ithaca. There was still a general community that was maintaining itself to some extent. When Bill died it was really, really almost the end of me as a writer. Jim is the only other writer that I really liked a lot. I saw everything that he did. And Bill was in almost everything that he did. At the memorial for Bill Rice, Jim Neu said to me, “Who am I going to write for now?” And I said, “I don’t know. I feel the same way. I wrote for him too.”
Years before, when I was in my early 20s and I was living in a commune in Brooklyn, I said to myself, ‘I need a definition of success that deals with the way I view the world and what I feel.’ My definition for success as a writer became this: When writers and artists who I like, when they like something that I’ve done, that’s success. It’s not how many people see it, whether it goes on television, whether it gets sold. My notion of success is when somebody like Bill Rice or Tennessee Williams or Robert Kilpatrick or some other writer who I really like or who I really respect, if they like what I’ve done then that’s fantastic. That’s success.
Francie: That’s great. That’s it Ray. Very good and thank you.