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Palm Beach Dramaworks reaches out to gay audience with new program

When Palm Beach Dramaworks commissioned the gay-themed drama “Billy and Me,” which is playing now at the downtown West Palm Beach theater, Gary Cadwallader saw the chance to reach out to the LGBT community. That’s how OutStage@PBD was born.

“I just thought this is the perfect opportunity to begin to focus and concentrate on the LGBT audience,” says Cadwallader, the director of education and community management for Dramaworks. “My mission for this was to engage, entertain and inspire. Those are the words I’m using as a goal for this program.”

For the inaugural Outstage@PBD, two events are scheduled. First up is a Dec. 15 performance of “Billy and Me,” an imagined re-creation of the real-life friendship of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge, both gay. The evening will start with dinner before the show and will include a talkback with the director and playwright as well as a post-performance reception.

The second half of OutStage@PBD will be a cabaret performance Jan. 12 by Charles Busch, the actor, director and playwright best known for performing in drag.

“Eventually, [we would like] to create a subscription series for the LGBT audience, where they go to dinner, have refreshments — to make it sort of a celebration, to have photographs taken, to connect with the cast and mingle with them,” Cadwallader says. “And to get to know one another and to build that community for this programming and this work.

“We still have to produce what we know our audiences here demand,” he adds, “good, strong work.”

Already critically acclaimed, Dramaworks’ world premiere of “Billy and Me” seems to fit that mission. The playwright Terry Teachout, who is also the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal, describes “Billy and Me” as being, “about two gay men who are trying to come to terms with themselves, and what they are as men, and also as artists. So, in that sense, it is a play about destiny.”

Teachout says Dramaworks is, “One of the best regional theaters in the United States.”

“It makes sense that a theater company should be reaching out to a community that has so many powerful historical ties to theater,” he says. “It’s not just business. It’s appropriate.”

Those theater ties go beyond drama into campier fare. Busch was drawn into OutStage@PBD by a member of a committee formed by Dramaworks to help with the process.

“I have this friend, David Cohen,” Busch says. “We, Tom [ Judson, musical director] and I, think he just wants us to see his house. Anyway, I told him I don’t go anywhere without working. So he got us there. He figured out how to do it. He helps the Dramaworks theater there, reaching out to the LGBT audience.”

In the 1980s, Busch starred as the female lead in off-off-Broadway shows he wrote such as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” “Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium” and “Pardon My Inquisition, or Kiss the Blood Off My Castanets.” In the ’90s, he took his cross-dressing act to the big screen, appearing in movies such as “Addams Family Values.” Busch turned his stage play “Psycho Beach Party” into a film in 2000 and followed it in 2003 with “Die, Mommie, Die!” His play “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” his first for a mainstream audience and the first in which he did not star, was a hit on Broadway in 2000. For the past five years or so, he has been traveling with his cabaret show.

“I can’t believe it,” Busch says. “I would never have thought of it. It’s been a great dream of mine for decades, and that was to have been on a tour with one of my plays. But economically speaking, it was never feasible. Now, it’s just me and my music director-accompanist Tom Judson. … I’ve been free to travel to, like, 25 cities. And I don’t mean to sound too much like Nora Desmond, but it’s been wonderful meeting all the people all over the United States who are familiar with me and my work, but never have seen me in person.”

Busch will sing “a potpourri of my favorite songs,” much of it from the 1960s and including Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” and Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road.” He doesn’t perform the cabaret show in drag, not exactly.

“When I first started doing [the cabaret show], I said, ‘I don’t understand why I’m in drag when I’m introduced as Charles Busch. And I’m telling stories about my life and singing songs by Sondheim and Bacharach. Why am I in drag?’ So I wore black pants and a black shirt. I tried that one night, and I felt like I was one of the waiters. So I tried a little eyeliner. And that led to a false eyelash. The next thing you know, you have a fabulous paisley suit made. I think of myself out of drag, but someone else would call it full drag. I never met a rhinestone I haven't; liked. I guess technically I’m not in women's clothes. I guess you can put it that way, but I’m still more feminine than K.D. Lang. It’s all very fluid. Isn’t that what they say today, gender fluid?”

The OutStage@PBD event with “Billy and Me” will begin 5:30 p.m. Dec. 15 with dinner, performance, a post-show talkback and post-show reception. Tickets cost $125. “Charles Busch — My Kinda 60s” will take place 8 p.m. on Jan. 12. Tickets cost $75. Palm Beach Dramaworks is located at the Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. To order, call 561-514-4042 go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org/OutStage.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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