When the legendary performer Bette Bourne mentioned to a much younger friend, the playwright Mark Ravenhill, that he’d lived in a “drag commune” back in the 1970s, Ravenhill was floored. “I hadn’t heard of gay communes,” says Ravenhill, who is 43. “I hadn’t appreciated how uncharted a lot of gay history was.”
Minding that knowledge gap, the two Londoners will present Bourne’s memoir onstage at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, March 4 through 28. Titled A Life in Three Acts, the two-hour event puts Ravenhill in the interviewer’s chair, where he listens and learns as Bourne recalls his family life, early forays into activism and drag, his formation of the Gay Liberation Front, and cabaret life with the New York troupe Hot Peaches.
Bourne, a 70-year-old who has also portrayed characters from Queen Victoria to Quentin Crisp, is perhaps best known for his performances with Bloolips, the troupe he founded in the late 1970s. Bloolips toured the world with shows like Lust in Space, which were lit up with camp and humor and charged with queer politics, until AIDS brought a new era. Although audiences eventually saw Bourne as an icon of liberation, the right to live that life was won in a series of personal and legal struggles. “I used to get arrested quite a lot [for wearing women’s clothes],” says Bourne via telephone from his London flat, where he was spending a quiet afternoon studying Joanna Lumley’s AbFab moves. “The judge would tell me, ‘Take off that hat—you’re a man.’ And I would say, ‘I can’t take off my hat—it goes with the shoes.’ “
Tales like that inspired Ravenhill to document his friend’s personal narrative. Over 18 months, they met and recorded their conversations. Ravenhill edited the transcripts to order these recollections of seven decades into a script they more or less recite onstage. “Bette’s got an associative mind,” says the playwright. “I shaped it largely to create a linear narrative focused on key moments of choice and transition in his life.” Historical photos from Bourne’s life appear behind the duo during the performance.
“We call it a play—it’s like a play, a lively biography,” says Bourne. “It’s funny, moving, full of rage and laughter.” Recollecting all your life choices in the spotlight every night is “completely alarming, absolutely fit-making,” he adds. So far, audiences have responded warmly and respectfully to performances at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and London’s Soho Theatre. “Especially the young queens, the youngsters,” says Bourne affectionately. “These kids have no idea what was happening in the struggle. They don’t actually know anything except disco and bubble butts.”
Bourne has lived in New York at various points and looks forward to returning with this project. “I can’t wait to get under the Brooklyn Bridge,” he says mischievously. “I’ve only ever done shows in Manhattan, though I did spend a few nights in Queens in 1959 when I first dropped down in New York. All I remember is that my friends had plastic over every stick of furniture—it was like the house of condom.”