Oftentimes, when theater critics or historians talk about Black-Eyed Susan, they speak about downtown impresario Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, with whom she worked and was close friends for twenty years. But she is an icon in her own right, worthy of her own attention and discussion.
Born in Shelton, Connecticut, in the middle of the twentieth century, Black-Eyed Susan’s first appearance on the stage was in her school’s Christmas play, in a male role, with only one line. But she knew then that she was hooked. She went on to study acting as an undergraduate, spending one year at Emerson College and then transferring to Hofstra University. And it was at Hofstra that she met Ludlam, and their friendship began after he cast her in one of his school productions.
Since then she has worked with numerous avant-garde and experimental theater artists primarily in downtown New York (not to mention a film role alongside Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in Ironweed), including Ludlam, John Jesurun, Ethyl Eichberger, Jim Neu, Mabou Mines, and more recently Taylor Mac, and Stephanie Fleischmann, among others. Over the years her work has allowed her to travel everywhere from Rio de Janiero to Berlin and London, among other places. Currently she is in rehearsal with Mallory Catlett in a production titled This Was The End, which is due to premiere in 2014 at the Chocolate Factory in New York City.
I had the great pleasure of eating lunch with Black-Eyed Susan (BES) in September at one of the few remaining cafés in the West Village that has resisted gentrification. BES has called the West Village home for decades and is a resident of the Westbeth Artists’ Housing, one of the few remaining facilities in the city intended to help artists maintain affordable housing.
Alexis Clements: You’ve lived in the West Village for a while now, haven’t you? Do you feel like it’s changed very much in that time?
Black-Eyed Susan: The neighborhood has changed drastically. When I first moved here it was a wonderful neighborhood, it was completely mixed. There were men in high heels, the older people were political. Now, it is a suburb; it’s like living in a town on Long Island, and it’s a rich town.
Alexis: I associate the West Village with people who have been here for a while, like yourself, who have managed to hold on to their homes, and very wealthy people.
BES: Very wealthy. And it’s all white. It never was like that. It just makes me kind of crazy because sometimes people look at me like, what are you doing here? I wish that I could move to a city. Also, the theater has changed. Broadway—if you walk in Times Square, east of 8th Avenue, it’s a mess. It’s all these shows that cost hundreds of dollars to see, and you have all these tourists. So, all these wonderful shows that are Off-Broadway, they’re dwindling. Charles Ludlam’s theater, the last theater he had, was on Sheridan Square and we could run for months, which was fabulous.
Alexis: You worked with Ludlam for many years?
BES: He was a very, very brilliant man. Utterly brilliant, with a facility with language like I’ve never heard before, or since. He wasn’t just articulate, he was eloquent. And he could tell you what was going on inside of him. He was a wonderful director because he was a wonderful actor. He was with Theatre of the Ridiculous, with John Vacarro. They had an argument and Charles left. I left with him. I was rehearsing something that didn’t go to performance, and Vacarro stole the play and put it on. But Charles put it on with a different name, he called it When Queens Collide. [She laughs.] But he was just very gifted.
Alexis: You met him in college, right?
BES: Yes, at Hofstra.
Alexis: And you went to two schools, right?
BES: Yeah, the first year I went to Emerson in Boston. I was studying theater and then my parents couldn’t afford the dormitory living, so I moved. They lived on Long Island, so I went back there, and Charles lived on Long Island. I met him there. I was very shy, and not very outgoing, which is not too good for someone in theater. But he came up to me and he said, you love the theater don’t you. And I said, yes. He said, stick with me, babe, you’ll see the East.
Alexis: That’s fantastic.
BES: So I did a play with him in school. We did, A Solid House, by Elena Garro, a Mexican writer.
Alexis: What made you decide to pursue theater in the first place, when you were younger? I know you had a role at the age of seven.
BES: I had one line in the Christmas play and I thought, this is what I want to do.
Alexis: And was your family supportive?
BES: They never saw me in Charles’s plays. My sister, who is much younger than me, came once and she cried.
Alexis: Not the response you might expect. What about when you were younger, were your parents supportive then?
BES: Yeah, but they didn’t know I would take it seriously. My father said to me when I was at Hofstra, I thought you would find a businessman and marry him. I thought, you don’t have a clue.
Alexis: Besides Charles, you also worked with Ethyl Eichelberger quite a bit, didn’t you.
BES: Yeah. With one of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company members, John Brockmeyer, I met Ethyl Eichelberger, who was called James Eichelberger at that time. He was with the Trinity Square Company [now Trinity Repertory Company]. He was doing serious theater there, but he started developing his own [work], and he eventually dropped out. We became friends.
Alexis: You and Ethyl?
BES: Yeah. He wrote a play for me, St. Joan. Charles said to me, in the 1980s, name three women characters you would like to play. I said, Medea, Lady Macbeth, and Saint Joan. He said, Medea and Lady Macbeth I understand, but Saint Joan I don’t get. So Ethyl wrote that for me, when Charles died.
Alexis: I didn’t realize that the timing of that play was just after Charles’ death.
BES: Yeah. It was a couple of months after [Charles] died. [Ethyl] wanted to take me away from the grief.
Alexis: You and Charles were very close friends weren’t you?
BES: Yes, very close friends. And we fought too. But my way of fighting was to stay quiet because he was so articulate.
Alexis: One of the articles that I read mentioned that you don’t have a union card or an agent. Is that still true?
Alexis: Was that a conscious decision, or what it just because you were always working downtown.
BES: It was because I was working with Charles. If you work with actors from Equity, they can only do a certain number of shows, and there was one actress who said to me in the 1970s, something like, goddamn, you are working all the time, I’m in the union and I’m not.
Alexis: Nowadays with the showcase code, it seems like so many actors do showcases because that’s the only way they can keep acting because it’s so hard to get full productions as an Equity member.
BES: And so many of them, if you have an agent, they’re pushing you to do film and television. And I don’t want to do TV.
Alexis: You did a little bit of film, right?
BES: Yeah, I did Ironweed, that was fabulous. Jack Nicholson chose me.
Alexis: In the audition?
BES: Yeah, I was sitting in the room, waiting, and I was talking to another actor. Jack Nicholson had just walked in, and she said, he’s staring at you. And I thought, why? And I got the role.
Alexis: After you did that film, did you have any desire to keep doing film work?
BES: No, because they don’t really direct the actors in film. You see so many films and you think, geez, those actors could have been better. The [Ironweed] director [Héctor Babenco], he did not direct the actors. He would say, do what you did at the audition.
Alexis: And it sounds like you really enjoy the process of making theater and creating a character.
BES: Well, [Charles] would encourage me to create characters unlike myself. He wrote roles that I differed from.
Alexis: Having worked over the years in so many productions that aren’t traditional theater, or classical acting in any sense, and working with directors who have such varied modes of working, how do you deal with so many different styles of theater?
BES: I try to get to the core of the character, of what I want to emote, what I want to give. But, I don’t have the kind of rapport with any other director that I had with Charles. Although, some of them are very good.
Alexis: After Charles’ passing the late 1980s, have you been able to find other directors that you’ve been able to work with over a long period of time?
BES: Well, Jim Neu, he wrote his own plays and acted in all of them, with Bill Rice, who was a friend of his. And Jim’s wife Carol Mullins did the lighting. Keith McDermott directed. I even traveled with them. I traveled with Charles a lot, and with John Jesurun too.
Alexis: Over the decades have you been able to act fairly consistently?
BES: I’ve tried to. It’s harder now because I’m older, and there’s a big prejudice in this country against older people. I was never so aware of it as I am now.
Alexis: When do you think you started to become aware of that?
BES: Not until a few years ago.
Alexis: What happened?
BES: Some people were just pointing it out to me, people I know. In my building, which is Westbeth [Artists Community], some of the men, they’re middle-aged, they say, can I help you? You know, I can stand on my hands, idiot!
Alexis: It must be strange to be making those observations about the prejudice against older people from the West Village, and from within the Westbeth community, where a lot of other people are also dealing with that.
BES: Oh, yes. A lot of the women, they look at me like [she makes a sour eye], because I’m not walking with a cane. I had a hairline fracture in my ankle a few years ago, and this woman with a walker stopped and said, with a smile, oooh, what happened? But then there are some lovely people there. It’s New York, you’re always going to have crazies.
BES: She’s taking the four main characters from Uncle Vanya: Sonya, Yelena, Astrov, and Vanya. It’s years later, they’re all older, but they’re all living together, and Astrov is visiting. I’m playing Sonya, and I’m still madly in love with him. Paul Zimet plays Vanya, from the Talking Band. It’s interesting, because [Mallory] is experimental.
Alexis: Is it completely written, or are you devising or improvising in it?
BES: No, it’s written. But, when we did this little performance a few weeks ago, just to see if the audience would get what she was doing, I was improvising. She didn’t want me to memorize because as Sonya I’m trying to remember, I’m trying to remember the past, and so she wants that not to be so awkward, but to really look like trying to remember.
Alexis: Are there very many others that you worked with in the beginning of your career, with Charles or others, who are still working in the city today?
BES: No. They all died. George Osterman, he was younger, he died. John Brockmeyer, he died. Bill Vehr, he died. Ethyl Eichelberger died. Charles died. They all died around the same time. It was like—I was numb for three years, I couldn’t feel anything.
Alexis: I’ve heard a few people say similar things about the time of the AIDS epidemic in New York.
BES: I was tingling, but I was numb. I didn’t feel happy or sad, I didn’t feel anything. I shut down. But I think everybody did. So many people. And so uncalled for—it wasn’t being addressed. The New York Times didn’t address it until 1985 because Rock Hudson suddenly had AIDS.
Alexis: There’s been a lot of attention paid to that time and to AIDS now. And curiosity from younger people about why it happened, how it happened, and how people reacted to it.
BES: And homosexuality was not acceptable. But it was acceptable here in the West Village. I always liked gay men because they were fair.
Alexis: What do you mean by fair?
BES: They didn’t treat women as secondary. My generation of women battled. The men of the same generation don’t view you the same as younger men.
Alexis: You always felt like an equal working with Charles and the company?
BES: I never felt as bright as some of them, but I was treated fairly.
Alexis: What have been some of the biggest challenges with trying to keep a career going?
BES: Trying to find people to work with.
Alexis: In the sense of people who are doing work you’re interested in?
BES: Yeah, but there are some theater companies I wished I could audition for. Like Signature Theatre, but maybe I wouldn’t like all the plays.
Alexis: What is it about Signature that is appealing? The company structure?
BES: Yeah, they perform with each other.
Alexis: You’ve worked with companies many times in your career.
Alexis: What do you mean?
BES: It’s very wordy [Jesurun’s writing]. He doesn’t direct actors. But watching Steve, he was totally relaxed, and developed a character. [Jesurun] had a company at that time and it was very good.
Alexis: How do you keep working in the theater stay fresh and interesting? I gather you love this work.
BES: I do. I do. And it’s living in a fantasy world. I’m not dealing with what everybody else is dealing with at that time. I’m not dealing with boredom or doing something I don’t want to do.
Alexis: And because you work downtown, you’re not stuck in that three-year Broadway run.
BES: Right. And I think, when the critics come, [the actors] must be a nervous wreck. The stakes are so high. And they don’t blame anybody but the actors. I wouldn’t have acted if it hadn’t been Off-Broadway. I didn’t have the nerve. It’s still the same game—whether it’s going to be good or not, whether you’re going to be good or not, it’s the same thing—but it’s not as fatal as Broadway.
Alexis: That’s a good way to put it! And how have you managed to keep yourself afloat financially over the years? Because one thing Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway don’t do as well is cover the cost of living here in New York.
BES: I can’t wait to get into production. Working with Mallory, she pays. Better than the job I have now. I’m also working for a friend, once every two weeks, he’s a painter. Working with him, he pays me double what that other place pays me. I had a job that I worked part-time and I got health benefits. It was the best job I ever had. It lasted for about ten years, but he sold it. It was Superlative Interiors. He designed showrooms for people who made bed sheets and linens. He only hired artists, who would do the backdrops, painting, lighting, all of that. Oh, it was fabulous, because they were all crazy—I was at home. And the guy who ran it was an actor/director. He had been a dancer, he was married, he had a couple of kids, he had to do this. He made this company, and he was so fair.
Alexis: A kind of artists’ employment agency.
Alexis: One of the reasons I was excited to interview you is because so few people think about what it means to stay in theater over the long-term, the ups and downs of the whole thing.
BES: You don’t, when you’re young. I felt like a kid for the longest time. I remember when I turned forty, Charles and Everett [Quinton, Charles’s lover at the time] were looking at me and they said, you don’t look forty. And I said, I know. I felt like a kid. I was able to live like a kid. And as [an actual child], I grew up very quickly. I was raised by my grandparents for the first ten years, my parents worked all the time. But when we moved [in with my parents], from my grandparents, I didn’t know who [my parents] were. They weren’t what I thought. Even at thirteen I was acting like an adult. People would even say that to me, you’re not a kid. But when I was with Charles, I thought, ah, okay! Now I can start just having some fun.
Alexis: Isn’t it funny how much childhood impacts choices later on?
BES: Oh, it does, hugely.
If you are in, or traveling to New York City, you see some of Black-Eyed Susan’s early performances on film/video at the NYPL.
Image: Black-Eyed Susan. Photo credit: Jackie Rudin