Get your psycho on
Melbourne actor Ash Flanders has a busy year planned for 2013. Best known as Toby in the online gay series Being Brendo (formerly known as Queer as F**k), Flanders has filmed the last episodes of the series due to premiere soon, and his theatre company, Sisters Grimm, will be collaborating with Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company and Griffin Theatre – something he’s both excited and a little scared about. But first, he’s got to get his psycho on the beach at Theatre Works for Midsumma. Tim Hunter talks to Flanders about his latest role.
Psycho Beach Party is a play from US writer and performer Charles Busch, and has become something of a camp and cult classic. It was first performed in 1987, but is probably best known in its 2000 movie incarnation, which starred Lauren Ambrose, Kimberley Davies and Busch himself, as police investigator Monica Stark. It’s a spoof, of course, of 1960s surfer films and horror/slasher films, and Flanders is playing the lead character Chicklet. And cross-dressing for it, which, as Flanders says, is something he’s quite used to. After all, that’s what Sisters Grimm, the theatre company he co-founded with Declan Greene in 2006 is all about: no-budget theatre, more often than not performed in backyard sheds and carparks.
“I’m a huge fan of Busch, because he does something quite similar to what Declan and I do, which is campy, genre-based drag-heavy shows with himself as the leading lady. Busch was a working actor who wanted to make a living and show what he could do, so he made a theatre company, and unintentionally we’ve followed that same model,” explains Flanders.
“Psycho Beach Party destroys the Gidget surfer films by having a male playing Chicklet. It inverts everything and tears the genre apart. And then it’s layered with Chicklet having multiple personalities as well. It’s putting the psychodrama and the surfer party films together and creating its own monster.”
In the film, Chicklet was played by a female, Lauren Ambrose, but Flanders thinks it’s better played by a male. “Originally it was played by Busch, and it can be played by a girl, but I think you lose some of the subversive elements. It’s not meant to have a naturalistic look or be an exploration of genre; it’s meant to be exploiting the genre and destroying it from inside. There’s so much natural hypocrisy – and homoeroticism – in those genre films, and as soon as you bring that to the forefront, or try and show how a real person might exist in their cookie cutter world, you realise that you would need multiple personalities just to survive being that perky.”
Flanders was approached to play Chicklet by the play’s director Stephen Nicolazzo for its premiere in Bondi last year as part of the Tamarama Rock Surfers festival, and he jumped at the chance.
“Stephen’s a good friend of mine, and we’ve worked together before and he invited me and said ‘What do you think?’ It helps that I’m one of Melbourne’s comedic actor transvestites – there’s not that many! It’s all been very natural, and the rest of the cast are all fantastic – it’s Melbourne’s independent theatre glitterati.”
Of course Flanders has great fun in the production, but that doesn’t mean he’s not working hard. “It has been challenging,” he says quite frankly. “It does play to my strengths, I’ll be honest, but Stephen has a strong vision and style that is different to mine, and he doesn’t let me get away with my usual bag of tricks. He’s pushed me, and that’s been great, because as an actor that’s what you want, you want someone to call you out so you can be better. Oh god, that sounds so earnest – sorry!”
Flanders is far from earnest. He takes his work seriously, naturally, but he’s much more interested in having fun on the stage, or on screen, and having something to say. While Being Brendo is finishing up in its online format, Flanders would love to see it make the leap onto TV and demonstrate that being gay isn’t just about coming out and sexuality; there’s more to us than that. He’s not afraid of throwing the cat amongst the pigeons either, which is exactly what Psycho Beach Party does.
“What I like about it is that it’s queer in the old-fashioned sense and subverting gender stereotypes and fucking with society’s main ideals of health and youth and love and sex, and that’s what I’m interested in; having a queer take on things,” says Flanders. “I think we’ve had enough coming out stories on stage and in films, it’s time to move on from that, and become a little less PC as well. You don’t want to throw everything out while trying to assimilate into mainstream culture.”
(Image by Sarah Walker - Ash Flanders and Genevieve Giuffre in Psycho Beach Party)