Where are you at this moment and what are you doing? I've heard you've been in hell.
I'm currently in Provincetown, Massachusetts—the dreamy little LGBT vacation destination on the tip of Cape Cod. Beach in the day, performance in the evening, a wealth of mind-blowing queer artists and musicians to soak in all night. It's grueling.
Your new show is based on Dante's Inferno. Tell me about it.
Oh, you know how I roll—grappling with the pitfalls of moral absolutism through songs, puns, and puppets! BenDeLaCreme has decided to descend into hell in Dante Alighieri's footsteps, with only the vaguest understanding of what that might entail. Along the way, she sings and dances—and meets harpies, centaurs, and sodomites. It uses a vaudevillian format as a structure to tell the story, so it's a lot of ridiculous, campy fun. It's a show and a story for everyone—but if you've read Inferno, there are a few little treats just for you.
This show opened in New York City, and now you're bringing it back to your hometown, Seattle. What's hotter in summertime—hell or New York City?
Well, hell isn't seasonal, but I guess it's the difference between sitting on the subway in a pool of your own sweat versus standing in an actual hole full of fire, so I'll choose the former. I'd always rather sit.
This isn't the typical order we see shows out here. Do you always try out your ideas in New York City and only then bring them to Seattle?
So far I have, but that's more a scheduling thing than a calculated move. There's no "safe place" to premiere a show. I want it to be the best it can be no matter where I am. New York audiences can be notoriously critical and unforgiving. On the other hand, I've been performing in Seattle for a decade now, and I want to bring my best to the audience that has supported me on my way up—so six of one, you know? But the bulk of my process happens before opening night. I work more like a theater maker than a cabaret artist: Very little is improvised. I'm not usually working out new material onstage to see if it lands. Fortunately thus far it's worked in my favor!
Are you changing anything after the New York run?
Actually no. There were a few small tweaks opening weekend, but overall this show has hit exactly as I hoped it would. This is only the third solo show I've written, and with each one I feel my vision and voice becoming clearer. Not really changing but becoming more well-honed. This time around I had a wonderful guide in Scott Shoemaker (my Virgil!), who I have worked with over the years in Freedom Fantasia and Homo for the Holidays, and of course he's making waves with his brilliant Ms. Pak-Man shows and in Ian Bell's Brown Derby Series. For lack of a better term, I've been referring to him as my dramaturge. He's so brilliant and funny—I bounced ideas off him throughout the whole process, and he helped me tease them out and supported all my research and writing. My fullest ideas get developed in conversation rather than in a bubble—and Scott was an indispensable part of that process.
Have you read Dante's Inferno?
I have—but only after choosing the theme, which is how I generally work. I'd been racking my brain for a subject for my next show, and I was on a plane home from performing at the World Buskers Festival in New Zealand when the idea randomly popped into my head. I like adapting preexisting material, both because it defines the parameters of your subject and because it can inform some structural guidelines. I was also drawn to the way that through the nine circles of hell the story is inherently divided into sections, which speaks to my desire to deal with both narrative and a segmented cabaret/variety structure. Then of course I thought: "Oh, sins! Sins are funny and fun!" When I landed at LAX, I walked into the bookstore and Inferno was actually sitting right there on the shelf. Only one copy. AT AN AIRPORT BOOKSTORE. I don't believe things happen for a reason, but I believe in humans' ability to create reason out of anything that happens. And it was settled.
Of course, as soon as I started reading, and the horrors of 2016 began unfolding, I thought, "Oh shit, sins are super not fun." I was faced with the heaviness of having chosen a subject riddled with death, murder, the way that humans betray and hurt other humans, and the way we decide the value and worth of each other's lives. But then I realized this was exactly the reason to be working on this right now. We all have to make sense of these horrible events, of the hell we are living in.
You know what doesn't make sense? You not being on RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars. I just watched the first episode. Why aren't you on there? Did they ask you?
Take another look. Those TV producers are willing to ruin friendships, professional relationships, feelings of self-worth—all for some cheap entertainment. You won't remember the details of that episode in a week. Those queens may have to work through that experience for years. I'm grateful for the experience I had [on season six of RuPaul's Drag Race], but I've already been through hell in my new show—I don't need to go through it on theirs.
Okay, sorry to talk TV, back to literature. Is there a river of boiling blood in your show?
Do you believe in Satan and hell and all that stuff?
I believe in the hells that we create—but I'll save my thoughts on that for the show.