Interview: Beebo Brinker Chronicles

beebobrinkerprod460From March 2008:

The new Off-Broadway hit “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles” surveys early ’60s Manhattan from the angle of the Greenwich Village lesbian underground. It consistently sold out its off-off-Broadway venue during a showcase run last year, and this move to a larger venue means that every theatergoing lesbian and gay man can now see this sexy and historically important show—and straight audiences are find it very entertaining and enlightening as well.

“Beebo” is based on a steamy series of lesbian pulp novels actually written between 1957 and 1962. Since then, three generations of gay readers have embraced author Ann Bannon’s melodramatic, noir-ish coming-out tales.  Beth and Laura, secret lovers in college, go their separate ways after graduation: Beth marries and has children (much like Bannon herself), and Laura moves to New York. They pine for each other, but find themselves entangled in the web of the titular Beebo Brinker, a loquacious and wildly confident butch barfly with a soft spot for young lesbians fresh off the bus.

We recently sat down co-authors Linda Chapman (“Gertrude and Alice”) and Kate Moira Ryan (“25 Questions for a Jewish Mother”) to find out what all the excitement is about.

Linda Chapman: Did you hear? Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner have just signed on as producers —

Kate Moira Ryan: And we’ve also signed on Continental Airlines as a sponsor, so they’re going to pay for their tickets to come to the opening. They also fly Ann Bannon in and out as we need her as well.

LC: Ann came into the process in the second or third reading. And she loved it.

KMR: She’s never had a single artistic note for us. Nobody has! The producers aren’t even giving us notes.

LC: We had been in contact with Ann through our agent. She loved it she couldn’t believe it; there have been a number of attempts to make this into a theatrical piece.

KMR: Yeah, my friend Leslie in LA was like, “Yeah, good luck!”

LC: But we did it and Ann was just delighted with it, even in early drafts when it was much, much longer. We’ve had dinner with her, we’ve had lunches, and she’s come over to Kate’s house a couple of times. The whole gang was there—[director] Leigh Silverman has been with us from the beginning from the very first draft, the first reading. So Ann’s met the whole company as its taken shape, and she continues to be incredibly supportive. She and her daughter even invested in the off-off-Broadway showcase.

KMR: She’s a real class act and a delightful human being. She’s so excited…

LC: She’s eternally young

KMR: This is the 50th anniversary of her first book. You wouldn’t believe it though, she’s very spry. Her books are so juicy they’re just fantastic bodice-rippers. And yet you meet Ann she’s so proper. Well she was having these weekends you know, she was married and would come to New York. She’s very private, though.

LC: She’ll answer questions that are put to her, but in a very gracious way.

KMR: She enjoys the mystery, too. Her daughter Inga, who travels with her did not know her mother wrote these book until she was well into high school.

LC. Yes. These books were for a very early part of her life, and after them she didn’t write anymore. She’s approaching writing her memoirs now.

Jonathan Warman: So what was the initial idea behind adapting these books for the stage?

KMR: I often go to Dartmouth with the New York Theatre Workshop when they do their residencies there, and I said to Linda [who’s also NYTW’s Associate Artistic Director], “You know we’ve been friends for like 17 years, let’s go out for some drinks.” [NYTW Artistic Director] Jim Nicola was really jealous. I said or maybe Linda said, “Let’s do something to celebrate our friendship.”

LC: Yeah, we thought, we’ve never really worked on a project together.

KMR: And we came up with this because we both liked these books. My friend Jaye Zimet wrote this this fantastic thing called “Strange Sisters”—it was all these lesbian pulp book covers,

LC: …and Ann wrote a foreword for it.

KMR: Right, and Jaye had originally given me Ann’s books to read. I couldn’t put them down; I was just amazed by them. So I said to Linda, I can get to Ann through Jaye, so let’s see if we can get the rights. Jaye has since passed so we’ve dedicated the play to her; she was such an amazing historian on the pulp genre

LC: I knew the “Beebo” books from my early days; they’re primo coming out books. I mean Beebo deserves the term “iconic.” She so epitomizes 1950s butch, she’s really a hero in a way, because it was not an easy time to be out in that strong a way.

KMR: It was like the original “L Word”

LC: At the time, lesbians were living underground, any kind of public expression was totally repressed. There were the bars but they were still very dangerous, you know this is pre-Stonewall. Busted on a regular basis. You could get arrested if you didn’t have at least three items of women’s clothing on.

KMR: But a lot of these bars were integrated with gay men. They would give a warning buzzer and the men and women would start dancing together. They had to form these alliances; some of them had “lavender marriages” like Jack and Laura’s in the play. We love that whole old Village scene. Lola Pashalinski [legendary Ridiculous Theatrical Company actor and Chapman’s partner] had taken us to Fedora’s that restaurant on 4th and 10th.

LC: The décor and even the menu are preserved from that era. It still has it, you’ll always find an older gay and lesbian crowd there, and it gives you a little flavor of what these places must have been like.

KMR: The bar in the play, The Cellar, is an important character itself. Just having these designers, and having them create this world, a friend said “I want to marry the play; I want to live in the world of the play.” You’re transported back into this era—it’s so much fun!!

LC: Greenwich Village today has become so boutique-y, I mean the buildings are preserved, but the aesthetic and the temper are so different. So to go back to what the Village was…I guess it’s kind of romantic. Putting it into an entertaining show like this, it’s a fun way of tricking people into learning their history. Lola says, because she grew up in this era, she used to say when I first met he “The old ways are the best.” There’s something exciting about that repression. The sexual encounters are so heightened.

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