Can Do Anything in Heels :: Rick Park on ’The Third Story’
Rick Park is known, if not better known, as a writer in Boston theater circles as he is an actor, having authored short plays like "Please Report Any Suspicious Activity" (a T rider becomes embroiled in a fight between two gay dolphins) and "Dressed Up Like A Douche" (two guys get high and talk about a popular song).
Recently, Park also wrote a full-length play, "Gay Guy / Fat Girl" as his thesis for a playwriting program at Boston University, where he is pursuing an MFA.
Park, who recently appeared in "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" at the ART’s Oberon, is set to star in the Titanic Theatre production (and New England premiere) of Charles Busch’s play "The Third Story." Park met with EDGE recently to discuss writing, stagecraft, following in Charles Busch’s high heels, and what it’s like to be the guy John Kuntz loves to dress up as a woman.
Actor and playwright?
EDGE: Being an actor and a writer must be like having two full time jobs!
Rick Park: Yeah, it’s kind of fun balancing those two things. I’ve done a lot more writing recently, being in the MFA playwriting program at BU. I’ve been lucky to do a lot of writing, collaborating with fun people. Collaborating with John Kuntz is always a fun time."
EDGE: Your work has a certain metaphorical or fantastical quality--those gay dolphins riding the T, for instance. Is that something you and Charles Busch share?
Rick Park: The gay dolphin play will be on my tombstone, I swear! In my writing, I always try to find things that are just sort of out there. Almost all of the writing I did at BU had an element of being "out there," too, and I like that kind of thing, when elements show up in plays and you ask, ’Why is that there?’
I wrote my thesis at BU as a play called "Gay Guy / Fat Girl," about the gay guy and the fat girl in high school in the ’80s who make a pact to marry each other at age 40 if they aren’t already married by then. They meet 25 years later, fall in love, and don’t quite know what to do about it. So when he needs some advice about love, who better to get it from than the apparition of Marie Osmond, who shows up in his bedroom and starts talking to him about what it’s like to be in love?
Some people who saw the reading of it said, "Why is that happening?" I love that; I love going to the theater and asking that question, like in "Avenue Q," when Gary Coleman is a character. It is so bizarre but then makes perfect sense in the context of the play.
Charles Busch does that wonderfully too, in ways that I don’t understand. What he does better than I know how to do right now is the marrying of scenes that happen on top of one another. There are a lot of times in "The Third Story" when there will be two different genres on stage at the same time. I think that’s the fun of theater for me-doing things onstage that cannot possibly happen in real life.
I’ll never be the type that writes drawing room dramas. I’m not a big fan of the Strindberg/Ibsen ilk, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean they have been around for so long. But I want to see imagination pop out. I want to see something that makes me think, "Wow!"
EDGE: You play multiple characters in the play?
Rick Park: Yes. I play three characters in this play. I play Queenie Bartlett, who is the head of the mob syndicate. I also play my own clone, named Queenie 2, and I play a witch in a fairy tale named Baba Yaga.
These are the roles that Charles Busch played himself, so there’s an intimidation factor of having to live up to such a high standard. The basic story is a mother and son screenwriting team in the late 1940s who are writing a script that reflects their own lives through a gangster film and a science fiction film. The mother is played by Shelley Brown, and the son, who is also Queenie’s son, is played by a terrific young actor
named Jordan Sobol.
And Zygote, who is a lab experiment gone wrong, is played by a great guy named Brett Milanowski, whom I have known for 20 years. I just stare at him in rehearsal. He is the most physical actor I have ever been near and it is wonderfully weird to watch him transform from slightly amphibian to primate to all sorts of other things.
The rest of the super-talented cast are Alisha Jansky who plays the more-than-slightly uptight scientist, and Erin Eva Butcher, who plays the princess in the fairy tale, as well as the-how would my character put it?-the whore who marries Queenie’s son, who
is taking Queenie’s son away and marrying him, provoking Queenie’s displeasure."
Finding his characters (in Spanx)
EDGE: When playing multiple roles, are there any tricks you use to individualize your characters?
Rick Park: The easy one here is Baba Yaga the witch, who is completely hunched over and has a typical witch-in-a-fairy-tale voice. That’s a very physical difference from being Queenie, who is in her four-inch heels and is the height of fashion. I’m wearing all these Spanx undergarments that kind of force you to stand up perfectly straight. The hard part is finding the differences between Queenie and her clone, Queenie 2. They are mistaken for each other, so they have to be the exact same physical presence. what I am still figuring out, is what the triggers are for each of them. Queenie 2 is much more immediate; she’s all id. And Queenie, for her my trigger is Susan Hayward-the tough, hard-as-nails broad with a heart of gold. Queenie is always finding the light-just like Charles Busch does onstage. We saw him in New York in ’The Divine Sister’ and he does the same sort of thing Hayward did; he always knows just where the lights are and how a dreamy look into them can convey so much subtext.
EDGE: Do your skills as a playwright inform your acting?
Rick Park: When I write, it is like I am playing all the characters in my head. When I watch or read a play by another playwright, I am much more on either end of the spectrum as to how I feel about characters in plays. It’s either, ’God, I wish I wrote that,’ or ’My God, what was the playwright thinking? Why did nobody see the problems with this?’ I’ve seen some plays in the past year where there were some logic issues; why did the character do that, and then it was dropped? I get really upset with those things.
As an actor who writes, it is very important to me to see what the playwright has put in the script for me. I look always at punctuation; that’s very important. I want people to look at the punctuation I put in [to my scripts]. I am much more critical as a writer, which means I am much more critical of myself. I also have this really anal thing about getting every word right. If a playwright put ten words into a sentence, I want [to say] those ten words in the exact order and not go making up my own [version]. It’s harder in ’The Third Story,’ because there are lots of stylized ways in which people talk. The one I have a hard time with is the line ’That was a rotten break,’ because I always want to say, ’That was a tough break.’ I’m constantly tripping over that sentence, but I mean, Busch put that in there for a reason.
The first couple of times you see Queenie, I am doing a very stylized Susan Hayward, the dropping of an octave for certain words that I want to emphasize, the mid-Atlantic accent. There’s a very 1940s delivery of words that’s fun to play with, but there are serious things that come up during the course of the play and then I have to decide, ’Do I go for the style? I know if I drop an octave for this line, it will get a laugh, but does doing that serve the play?’ Then you have to decide if the clone talks that way, too.
Playing a clone (Queenie II) is hard, because you’ve developed one character, but now you have to make up a second that’s similar, but different. And she’s a hard character: (she speaks in) complete non-sequiturs come out of thin air. You feel like, ’Do I try to make sense of her, or do I just accept that she’s a clone, this is how her brain is formed?’ She’s the tough one to figure out. Queenie’s just ’put me in heels and give me a compact, and I’m ready to go!’ Well, that and the occasional breakthrough with regard to characters.
Can do anything in heels
EDGE: Is your instinct to always go for the laugh?
Rick Park: In the Busch play there are places where I have to wonder, ’Why am I saying this? HOW am I saying this?’ And I’ll sit down with the director, Adam Zahler [to figure it out]. My instinct, really, is to go for the laugh but that gets dull after a while. You need to have heart. What’s interesting about Queenie is that Queenie is the sweetest thing in the show. Once I get my heels and turban on I’ll be 6’8", but I’m the one who shows everyone in the show some kind of affection and acceptance.
But that [search for a character’s subtleties] is what’s fun about it, especially in shows like this. I mean, it’s just crazy, what happens [in ’The Third Story’]. No one wants to do something that’s written out for you. When I write stuff I try to write as if I were performing it; I want to give actors those moments that we all love, that you can just sink your teeth into. When I was writing ’Gay Guy / Fat Girl,’ Melinda Lopez, who was one of our professors, said, ’It’s a romantic comedy. You need to break them up so that you can bring them back together. That’s what every romantic comedy is: Either through a misunderstanding or a fight, you break them up so you can put them back together.’ So I wrote a fight that was vicious, I mean, VICIOUS, that only a gay man and a straight woman would have, where things were said that weren’t nice at all. We got two terrific actors to read it, and afterwards, Melinda asked them, ’How do you feel?’ and he guy said, ’This is fucking fantastic. This is why I love acting!’ That’s what I want: to have those same moments onstage as an actor and to create those moments for other actors when I write.
EDGE: What are some of your favorite roles?
Rick Park: It’s funny, because I always play one of two things--either men in dresses, or someone who will probably kill everyone onstage. Before I did this show, I was in ’The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ with Stickball Productions at Oberon, and that was great fun because there was all this great subtext in the script and I was playing this character, Dillon, who was just brilliantly manipulative. Those roles are fun to do.
And I was in ’Valhalla,’ a Paul Rudnick show done by Zeitgeist Stage. Talk about fast changes; as one character, I would announce myself as another character and then run out and come back as a princess in a full gown and wig and everything. I love shows that have lots of changes, lots of times when you get the changes done so expertly that the audience has to wonder how you did it. I started doing quick changes in shows with John Kuntz . Come to think of it, John is the first person who ever put me in heels, and every show he’s ever written that I’ve been in, except one, I’ve been in heels. Our costumer for ’The Third Story’ said, ’You should wear your heels at every rehearsal, because it’ll help you learn to walk in them.’ And I thought, ’I’ve been wearing heels for twenty years: I can walk in them, I can run in them, I can do jumping jacks in them, I can skid through shaving cream on stage, I can do anything you want in heels.’
No mirrors, please
EDGE: Okay. Why are playwrights so fascinated with a man in a dress? And how differently do audiences - straight and gay - respond to them?
Rick Park: You’d have to ask John why he’s so fascinated with having me in a dress. But I think a lot of the gay community just likes that, because it puts an emphasis on all of the things that are really feminine, which is all a terrific illusion. As an actor it’s sometimes weird, because when I put on certain costumes I don’t want mirrors. I don’t want to see what I look like because in my head I look completely different than I probably really look and I need to extend the illusion for myself. I think there’s something fun about finding the things that are really womanly in a man. That’s a really interesting thing to me, and, I think, to a lot of gay people-seeing how a man interprets being a woman or looking like a woman.
Having worked with Ryan Landry as much as I have, you look at [Gold Dust Orphans cast members] Afrodite or Penny Champagne, and they are women. I swear, they are two of the most beautiful woman in the world when they are done up. And that is one kind of drag. And then sometimes you see Ryan, who brings a completely different edge to his female characters. They seem more dangerous and over the top. And that is fun-knowing that there is such a huge spectrum of drag that we can all find our niche in the drag world. Plus I think there’s just an inherent comedy factor in having no shame in doing it, and in really going for it.
When John (Kuntz) and I were doing ’After School Special’ years ago, the play involves a beauty pageant, and John said, ’We’ll have to find you a good one-piece.’ I said, ’No. Marie’s going to wear a bikini. Marie does not wear one-pieces. Marie thinks she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.’ So we found a two-piece; I got a two-piece from my friend Martha who didn’t want it any more and I came out in a two-piece and heels, which, believe me, was frightening but funny and true to the character. And a bit shocking to the audience that was expecting a 6 foot, 275 pound man to suddenly come out in a bikini and 6-inch heels.
On the flip side, you have actors who, when they are in drag, can convey so much realness that you forget that they are really men. I’m never going to be like that, be ’real’ like an Afrodite or a Penny Champagne, so I am always going with the fun of it, the comedy of it. I don’t know how straight people think about this; I know that straight people go for it. Jacques is always full of straight people, but I don’t know what they like it so much. Maybe ’RuPaul’s Drag Race’ has made it more familiar... maybe because [when you dress in drag] you emphasize glamor. You emphasize what’s glamorous and what’s exciting about a woman.
EDGE: What are you working on now?
Rick Park: I’m supposed to be writing a short play for a friend’s theater, having a festival in January. I sent him one piece, a monologue that’s very dark--it’s about a man talking about his four-year-old daughter’s obsession with the Disney princesses, especially ’The Little Mermaid,’ As he’s telling this very sweet, funny story about how insightful his daughter is, he’s getting dressed in this outfit, and you realize at the end of it that he’s on the set of a snuff film. Kinda weird.
And I have another one in my head for the same festival about a guy who wakes up in bed with another guy and has no idea how he got there at all, and the other guy is just, like, ’Its about time you woke up.’ He starts trying to figure out what’s happened, and it’s all about, ’Well, we met at the bareback orgy.’ And then it is: ’But I wasn’t there for [the sex], I went for the cocaine.’ And the guy’s hearing about all these things that he’s done that he has no idea about. I also have an idea that have to get down [on paper].
When I was in London recently I walked in to a men’s room in this restaurant and it was lit so beautifully; I made my boyfriend go in and take pictures of it because it was so beautiful. I thought to myself, ’This would make a good set. What should happen here?’ The urinals were lit with pinspots! I thought, ’There’s a play in there that has to end with a lot of blood. Those shiny white tiles are just screaming for a bloody hand print.’ There’s a lot of stuff that Harold Pinter does that’s really dark and really...you don’t know what the menace is, but it’s just there. So I thought, ’So, we have a couple of guys cruising each other. They go into one of the stalls, and then...this menace happens outside of the stall. And they hear everything.’
I am also working on the book for a musical about the Napoleon Club, as well as an adaptation of Chekhov’s ’The Three Sisters’ entitled ’Sistahs!’, with three Latina drag performers in Brooklyn. Figuring out a way to get to some place so extraordinarily dangerous and dark, or funny, that it still makes perfect sense, it could actually happen. "That’s the problem with writing; you have so many things going on in your head you have to really sit down and put them on paper so you’ll remember all these things. I always find inspiration in the weirdest places.
"The Third Story" runs August 9-18, 2012 at The Arsenal Center, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA. For more details, visit the Titanic Theatre Company website.