Thursday, June 12, 2014

Actor Reed Birney on his Tony-nominated role in "Casa Valentina"

Reed Birney was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as Charlotte in Casa Valentina, Harvey Fierstein’s first new play in 30 years. The action of the play unfolds one weekend in 1962 at a resort in the Catskills for cross-dressers. The resort is based on a real place, now defunct, and the character of Charlotte is based on an actual crusader for cross-dressers’ rights named Virginia Prince, who lived the last 50 years of her life as a woman, and who died in 2010. Here's an interview with Reed, conducted by Paul VanDeCarr.

You’re playing Charlotte week in and week out. Are there any little aspects or mannerisms of the character you’ve discovered in the run of the show so far?

The other day in performance, I remembered that my mother and other women of that era would straighten their skirts when they stood up and smooth [them] out. I hadn’t thought about that, but suddenly I found myself doing that. I’m dressed in a nice Chanel suit, so it would make sense that I would straighten my skirt. So things like that keep coming up from way down deep inside. But very little was calculated in my performance, it feels like it just came all at once.

It’s as if the clothing itself brought something out in you, or in the character.

We had one very interesting cross-dresser come speak to us during rehearsal, in full gear. He was 70. You wouldn’t say he was a man and you wouldn’t say he was a woman, but what he was, was authentically himself. You could tell there was a great peacefulness at living this passion that he needed to live. That was hugely instructive in our rehearsal process. You put dresses on a lot of actors, and we suddenly feel the need to start mincing around. I asked him, “Do you feel the need to behave in a feminine way?” And he said, “Not at all—the dress and the nails and the heels just do it to you.” And it’s absolutely true. If you let it, it will affect your behavior and you don’t even have to think about it.

Another of Harvey Fierstein’s shows now on Broadway is Kinky Boots, an upbeat musical with an element of drag. Casa Valentina has a very different mood than that.

It’s a dark play. It’s hilarious, but it’s 1962 and there’s a lot of shame and secrecy. That first cross-dresser who came to speak to us said, “I just hope it’s not like Boys in the Band, where everybody is full of self-loathing.” I don’t think that’s the case with Casa Valentina. Sad as they may be at not being able to move freely in the world, they are quite empowered in their dressing and they are full of joy.

Speaking of Boys in the Band, there’s an important distinction to be made. Boys in the Band was about a group of gay men, and self-hating ones at that. But most of the characters in this play, and most cross-dressers today, are straight men.

I think people still assume that cross-dressers are homosexual, but 85% of them are straight.  

There’s a scene in the play where you’re trying to persuade the other visitors at Casa Valentina to sign their names to support a nonprofit you’ve created for cross-dressers, and also sign a “no-gay” pledge. They’re reluctant to go public, because it would threaten the little paradise they’ve created. You speak a funny and cutting line.

They really fight me down, and I end up by saying, “In 50 years time, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking, and transvestites everywhere will celebrate those in this room for making the hard decisions that led to their liberation.” It’s pretty rough!

I’ll say! As a friend said, that line shows how far we’ve come in our understanding of smoking! Not to mention gay rights. And there have been some remarkable strides in transsexual rights. But cross dressers, not so much. In other words, she was wrong—or rather, Virginia Prince was wrong.

Charlotte is single-minded, all she really wants is to have cross-dressers walk down the street without being freaks. It never happened during her lifetime. Cross-dressers are still so incredibly marginalized and forgotten.

Those lines make her seem, not calculating exactly, but very strategic.

As inflammatory as those remarks are, they are right. In 1962, people were very threatened by homosexuals. It was a big goblin, the idea that there was some predator who would swoop your kids away. So it was essential to Virginia Prince—and Charlotte—that we distance ourselves from anything that made [cross-dressers] seem perverse.

There is a feeling, watching the show, that this is anything but perverse—it’s very natural. How did you as a cast achieve that?

I had thought that [Charlotte] is a really classy lady, and so she would present her argument in a really poised and classy way. That seemed to work fine in the rehearsal hall, but once we got on stage, it started to seem flat. And so [director Joe Mantello] was quite rigorous about finding that spirit for all of us, but mostly for me as the presenter of the argument -- [Charlotte is] an evangelist. He kept saying over and over again, ‘these characters are not over there, they’re here in you, you have to find a way that this means everything to you. This need to dress has to be as personal as anything in your own life.’ So anytime we started to drift away from that or started to comment or it started to get a little drag queeny, he was very clear about, ‘they’re not actors, they’re just guys.’

Guys with an intense need to wear women’s clothes.

Yes. One of the wonderful things in the play is that there’s a wide range of skill at dressing. Some of us don’t even make any effort to keep our legs clothed in our dress, and others are quite accomplished. So I think that represents the range of experience with cross-dressers. Some of them are perfectly happy to just put on a wig and a dress and don’t change their personality at all. Others really acquire a whole feminine persona in the dressing. It’s a very serious, very beautiful play about the cost of living an authentic life, which is something all of us struggle with.


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