Paul Capsis, national treasure and performer extraordinaire, is currently treading the boards of Sydney’s Seymour Centre as Quentin Crisp, a writer and queer personality of the 20th century, in Resident Alien, which began performances in Melbourne. Capsis has shared many similar life experiences with the historical character, and much like Crisp, has forged an artistic career through his love of androgyny and theatricality. In the following interview, Capsis speaks to me in depth about inhabiting the legendary personality of “Mr Crisp”, and the similarities or vast differences between their lives as androgynous artists.
Androgyny and other fluid or non-conforming genders are largely unrepresented in mainstream Australian theatre. How have you approached your career as an actor with a very open attitude to gender and sexuality?
I had no choice in regards to my gender and how I am perceived in the world. If I am offered work and I like the type of work I am offered, I just say, “yes, thank you”. Simple really. It’s true that androgyny is mostly ignored but more and more this area is being represented in the mainstream, mostly on SBS and ABC and in the form of late night documentaries with trigger warnings!
Cabaret is a medium that more openly supports a wider representation of sexual and gender identities, and you have spent a lot of your career in cabaret and solo performances. Could musical and straight theatre learn anything from cabaret? Should different and non-conforming gendered actors be offered more opportunities on the Australian stage?
I think most definitely non-conforming gendered actors should be offered the opportunities. It all depends on how many are out there pushing themselves into work in cabaret or theatre. The main aspect of cabaret that has always appealed to me is that there are no rules in cabaret (well, there shouldn’t be any rules, not specifically), and I think that maybe that is the reason cabaret and burlesque are leading expressions on our stages along with dance. Theatre seems to have a preoccupation with the domestic these days… A bit like Days Of Our Lives – yawn.
On a recent Q&A appearance, you spoke of your experiences with violence because of your gender identity and sexuality at a young age. Quentin Crisp experienced many similar scenarios throughout his life – does this connect you both and do your similarities inform your character choices?
I draw on what I can investigate when it comes to Mr Crisp. Much exists out in the world of the internet – Mr Crisp is alive and well in cyberspace.
I have read a great deal of his wonderful work, his books, and yes, I most absolutely identify with his early life, as being a person who is vilified for simply being effeminate before we both even understood the concept of sexuality. I had no sexual desires when I was a child, I simply thought I was a female and fell in love with both girls and boys. The word “POOF” had such negative and violent connotations when I was a kid. Whatever that was I didn’t want to be it… But as we all found later, I am a fully-fledged card carrying homo, hooray for that!
Funny you mention Q&A, did you know that I sat next to Mr [Fred] Nile on that show and so did Mr Crisp on Australian television in the seventies? How about that for career defining moments? You gotta love synchronicity.
Biographies of Crisp’s life state that he listed his phone number publicly and saw it as his duty to converse with those who wanted to speak to him. Applying this to queer advocacy, do you think it is the duty of LGBT+ artists to constantly educate and engage with the Australian public, or should their work do the speaking for them?
Mr Crisp spoke to anyone, it’s true, he was totally unconditional in his time for people, any people. He didn’t care what your background was or what you did with your time in the evenings… He loved people, he just chose never to live with anyone so he could re-charge his batteries. I totally get that! I think all artists do educate through their work, that is what art is about, whether it’s a painting by Frida Kahlo or a performance by Moira Finucane, its art, and it can have a powerful message.
I’m not sure I agree that its anyone’s duty. It’s up to the individual really. No duty. The duty you have is to the work… To dedicate to it, that’s enough. What people get out of it or learn from it is up to how the audience receive that information and whether they connect or not. I personally like to keep it real and connect with people, but that’s just me, it can be exhausting. People can be hard work at times, when you’re up there [on stage] and you’re doing your thing and putting it out there, that’s it. After that, well, it depends on who’s hanging out in the bar for a drink and a chat. Occasionally I get asked to give talks and I enjoy them, usually it’s about gender issues, so there you go, there is a perception. People who are out usually get put into tiny boxes.
You are returning to a second season of Resident Alien. Did you learn anything during your Melbourne run that will be applied to Sydney performances? Is this the type of show that affords a new realisation every time you inhabit the character?
Every single night performing Resident Alien, I found something new. You do though. You find new things every single night. Every audience is different, that’s what I love about the theatre, the immediacy and the danger that anything can fuck up. A person might decide to walk across your stage one night and Mr Crisp will react to that. For me, the main thing is to stay inside the character, inside Mr Crisp’s skin – his old knowing skin in this case. Besides, Melbourne and Sydney are two very different cities when it comes to reactions. When I did Calpurnia Descending a few years ago, both cities had wildly different reactions. I have no idea how Sydney will react. I am very fortunate also in this case as I have a very open director, Garry Abrahams and an open producer, Mr [Cameron] Lukey, both young and happening dudes. Lucky me.
What drew you to the material in Resident Alien?
The writing, the words of Mr Crisp himself. So much wonderful material, so many great insights into life, he was such an extraordinary man… I want to be him when I grow up.
What makes Quentin Crisp and his life so interesting to explore?
Mr Crisp was about the individual. We in the modern age have lost so much, as much as we have gained with technology, we have lost a bit more maybe. He and the play [are] about connection and how important that still is. We must remain connected, we must be able to converse and treat each other better, with kindness and total acceptance, otherwise we have these dreadful events around the world, that keep happening. I believe a lot of this is happening because of isolation.
In the Resident Alien press release you mention that Quentin was THE prototype androgynous man, and you list others that followed. Have any of these people influenced your life or art? How?
All of them have influenced me for sure. Before I discovered Mr Crisp, I loved all the queer gender fluid dudes and chicks. Maybe more the women than the men, but that is such a typical homosexual thing, isn’t it? Mr Bowie, Mr Mercury, Mr Allen and Mr Livermore, but more so Ms Joplin and and Ms Quatro and Ms Smith, to name just a few, and still there are many more who have inspired me to move, to act, to speak, to shout…
If Quentin Crisp had been born in Australia, how do you believe his life would have been different?
Depends on when he was born, where he went to school and how he was brought up. He did come here in the seventies, as I have mentioned, he said of Australia then, “The people are as tall as their trees, and just as shady…”
Capsis can be seen as Quentin Crisp in Resident Alien until 23 July. Further information at this link.