Andrea Braun (AB): Why [put on] Dirty Blonde?
Kim Furlow (KF): I’ve been a fan of Mae West since I first saw her. I thought, ‘She’s probably not that great an actress, but she sure has a lot of attitude.’ (Laughs) So, when I found out there was a play about this character, and she IS a character, on and off-screen, I thought ‘what a great show [that would be]’ and when I happened to see it 6 or 8 years ago when it was done at HotHouse Theatre (now merged with City Players d.b.a. HotCity Theatre) I thought ‘I would love to mount that show someday.’ I was thinking 10 years or so down the road, but while I was still young enough to play the role myself.
AB: You should be good for another 40 years!
KF: (Laughs) Well, that’s what everybody says, like ‘she was 85 when she did her last movie,’ and I’m [thinking] ‘so, what’s your point?’ Anyway, when we moved into the space here [this is DLP’s second full season in Chesterfield] I thought the intimate space was good for this type of show and we can do it justice here. And we have had a ton of fun with it. The show gives you Mae at 17 to 85, up to right before her death at 87. You find out how self-centered she was but also brilliant at the same time, even though she was kind of a ‘hoosier’—she talked like a truck driver, walked like ‘a truck driver with hips,’ as it says in the play. And she was just every man’s girl who picked what she needed to serve her [career] throughout her lifetime. I think that is so cool, and the fact that she was a playwright, a film star, a singer of sorts, and she had her own persona. You know who Mae West is when you see somebody imitate her. How many women can say that? Cher? Madonna? Now maybe Lady Gaga.
AB: I think she could be the only one because the others except maybe Cher are chameleons. Mae West was just Mae West. I once asked my dad if she was a joke back in her day, and he said no, that she was considered sexy.
KF: Yeah. I watched I’m No Angel with my 12-year-old daughter, and she said “Why does she talk like that?” She used a nasal voice that she threw into the back of her throat, and she talked like that in real life. She may have made it more sultry for stage and screen. For me [as an actor] I find the voice of the character first, then the body and the movement falls into place. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought to come up with the ‘Mae sashay.’ And it’s weird. Her shoulders move, and her hips—boy, do her hips move!—you have to have all that going at one time and her sternum, her core, is stationary. Everything else is swishing.
AB: I know everything was pulled in. Do you have that kind of underwear.
KF: I do. And God bless whoever invented it! It’s interesting. When I was doing a fitting, I looked so much better with the corset on, but I could breathe, move and sing better without it, of course. It was hell on women back then to wear that kind of stuff! Her character says in the play that she’s not sure she should put on that stuff because it’s kind of old fashioned, but the drag queen tells her that she’ll love it “because it makes you curvy and nervy.”
AB: When did you first see Mae West?
KF: I think I was a teenager, around my daughter’s age. And my first thought was the same as hers: ‘Why does she talk so funny?’ And the walk! She walks kind of butch, actually. She doesn’t look like a Marilyn Monroe—flirty and flowing—she walks like she means business. Attitude was the first thing I really noticed. I was used to the Wizard of Oz’s and the Gone With the Wind’s, but this was really different. The movies kind of stunk, but I liked her in them because she was so ‘take charge’ on screen. The character in Dirty Blonde, Joe, says in the play that there’s no pain or desperation behind the eyes. She’s not [saying] ‘Oh, my man who got away, and love him so and he beats me too.’ She wouldn’t accept a role that was about victimizing women. I think she took the lead for women who were strong in movies, not letting anyone give her any stuff.
AB: I always thought her real talent was probably as a writer, yet she decided to be a performer. Did you learn anything about that in your research?
KF: Yes. I read about her saying that her mother was her sustaining life force for entertainment. She started [Mae] at 4 to 6 years old singing and dancing, and by the time she was 12, she was a hit in Vaudeville. What I remember is that she was always driven to succeed and become a star, and without that drive, she wouldn’t have made it. Her mother had a profound influence on her, and Mae couldn’t talk about her, even in later years, without tearing up. The mother had been a performer herself before Mae was born, so she sort of poured everything into her child.
AB: The part about starting in childhood is probably key.
KF: Right. I think so too. She didn’t know any other life, and she wasn’t ‘intellectual’; she wasn’t book smart and didn’t do well in school, so she dropped out to become an entertainer who was continuously driving to get to the next level. They talk about that in the script too. One of the drag queens says, “She was born to be a star.” Her first husband, Frank Wallace, said she was obsessed with becoming a star because she really believed that was her destiny.
AB: (Addressing B Weller and John Reidy) Do you guys remember when you became aware of Mae West?
B Weller (BW): In World War II when they referred to life vests as “Mae Wests.”
John Reidy (JR): I had a hard time understanding her. I didn’t quite get her. I really loved W.C. Fields growing up. Growing up, when I became aware of that genre of comedy, Abbott and Costello would come around on Channel 11 every couple of weeks on the Comedy Theater and my brother and I loved them.
KF: I didn’t get them!
JR: And the Marx Brothers. But I was aware of Mae West and I occasionally watched her movies, but I didn’t get her. In watching them again to get ready for this play, I found more than I had seen [as a kid]. One of the things that was interesting about films back then is that they had a very subtle way with profanity.
BW: They found unique ways to say the things they wanted to say [without crossing the censors].
JR: Exactly. “Godfrey Daniel!” The double entendre. I was watching one of the movies—I’m No Angel, I think—and she goes into a jail. Two of the convicts have their arms around each other, and when they greet her, she says, “Hmmph. The Cherry Sisters.” (All laugh) I rewound it because I was thinking ‘it’s 1933. Did she just SAY that?’
AB: She could pretty much say anything apparently. So, Carolyn, why did you decide to direct this show?
Carolyn Hood (CH): I didn’t decide. The show decided to be done. To be honest, I wasn’t that big a fan of Mae West growing up but my dad thought she was funny. Anything my dad or mom liked was totally appalling to me, so I’d go play David Bowie to freak them out. When the show was done years ago, I thought it sounded interesting but I didn’t see it. This time, what really turned me on was Kim’s excitement about it. Had she not been so excited, I don’t know that I would have read it with the same eye.
AB: It’s a good script. It’s fun.
CH: It’s a TOUGH script.
AB: Yeah. When I read it, I said ‘this is undirectable.’
KF: I can totally see why you’d think that.
AB: There’s so much switching with characters on and off the stage very quickly. . .
CH: But we got it figured out because, you know what? It’s a Vaudeville show. That worked for us. We’ll see how the costume changes go though.
KF: Yeah. We haven’t gotten there yet. But one of the reasons we chose it was it’s such a difficult thing to pull off. And I love these kinds of challenging things. Even out here in Chesterfield where we feel like we have to do only things that people know, because we’re so new, I still picked it because Mae West is someone everyone knows.
AB: Have you cut it any [for language]?
KF: I thought about it.
CH: Not the words that you [the interviewer] brought up [cunt, fuck]. There was one line that used “cunnilingus” that just didn’t make any sense, so we took it out for that reason, not because of the word itself.
KF: It kind of comes out of nowhere.
CH: It stands out, so we cut it.
KF: As far as the [other] words go, they’re tough women. They’re going to [talk like that]. And we’re billing it as an adult show because it does have language in it, we know that, and we don’t want kids in the audience. But I don’t like that ‘c word.’
AB: Most women don’t like it, but when I read the line where it’s used, I laughed out loud.
KF: It’s hysterical.
KF: That Championship Season had every word in the book, and we did that as written. It’s the way human beings talk. Why insult other human beings by taking [adult language] out because someone might be offended. I think that’s so silly. Plus, it does a disservice to the playwright.
AB: I wanted to talk about how Mae West addressed gender issues in general.
KF: I think she kicked that modus operandi in its butt because she didn’t allow people to cast her in movies in which she’s the delicate flower who lets men run all over her like [actresses] did at that time.
AB: Could she have done anything else?
KF: No, she was typecast, but she typecast herself.
CH: There’s a problem though. She didn’t know when to let it go. She had a persona like Madonna and Lady Gaga that she put out into the world every day, and she was no Betty White. She didn’t grow old gracefully and that’s addressed in the play. There’s an argument between her and another character. I don’t think that would have happened to a man. He’d have gotten parts [anyway].
AB: I think that’s the way it was and the way it is, unfortunately. Women at Harrison’s Ford’s age aren’t playing leads.
KF: Well, you do have the Helen Mirrens, but there aren’t many.
CH: Annette Bening is letting herself age and doing incredibly hot roles. She’s my new ‘It Girl’ for mature women.
KF: Whereas Mae West got a call to do Sunset Boulevard at the age of 57 and said “I look like a woman of 26.” And she honest-to-god believed she did. That’s just taking it a little too far. But she was a pioneer who set the stage for the Madonnas and the Gagas with that attitude of “I don’t give a crap what people think. I’m going to do what I do and do it well.” Which she did, but when she got into her 60s, 70s and 80s, she became a joke.
AB: She didn’t know when it was time to leave.
AB: Do you think she could have continued to write?
KF: I do, but I think it meant more for her to be seen and glamorized. She could have—it wasn’t Shakespeare but it was fun and it worked for her.
CH: [Also] I think times change and it wasn’t as shocking anymore.
BW: Did she write Sextette? (Sextette was a dreadful mess of a film made when West was 85 years old with Timothy Dalton, 34, as her romantic leading man. She only made two films after her heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s: Myra Breckinridge in 1970 and Sextette in 1978.)
CH: A lot of it was her own. The thing that bothers me about watching it is that everybody is spoofing her and her genre, and she’s very serious about it. Even when they’re propping her up, literally, because she was physically weak by then. She’s married to Timothy Dalton playing her husband telling her how beautiful she was and so on. . . just sad.
KF: She never changed her apartment—pristine gold and white furniture. It looked like an old movie set and reminded me of Sunset Boulevard.
BW: But Gloria Swanson was great. . .
CH: And it might not have been the same film. I just found a picture of that apartment today and everything was covered in plastic. She’s posed by the window. Creepy, when you think about it.
AB: Did the format seem confusing, beyond the Vaudeville-inspired bits.
CH: Yes. We’re still working on that.
KF: The hardest part to get is the continuity. What’s next and how do we get there. Carolyn had a great idea about using projections to keep the audience oriented to where we are in Mae’s life. It’s amazing roles for actors [though].
BW: We could keep a sheep’s crook backstage when someone needs to come off (all laugh).
AB: John, have you ever been in drag before?
JR: No, but it’s fun. And I hope to have more fun once the dress gets here (laughs). But the high heels! I’ll just say I will never, never roll my eyes [again] at a woman who says her feet hurt.
AB: Kim, do you use your regular voice for Jo?
KF: Wait’ll you hear this! She had to tell me not to be SWEET.
CH: We had to harden her up. Kim thinks she’s a tough broad, but she’s not. She’s brazen, but she’s not tough. If you cry, she’ll cry too.
KF: Her biggest note to me during this process was ‘Stop Being Sweet.’ I never thought I was.
CH: She was trying so hard to play something different from Mae that [her other character] Jo was coming out weak. I understand that because she’s got to show the audience two different people, but they’re both tough. One’s tough because she’s hurt [Jo] and the other because she’s driven [Mae]. That is a huge difference and getting her to realize that was a breakthrough for her.
AB: Obviously, Mae West is iconic to the gay community. What is her appeal, do you think?
KF: One of the lines in the play says she was friends with blacks, boxers and queens. Those were her people, the ones she gravitated to. She was kind to everyone and loyal to her friends. She believed, and this is something I like about her too, that just because you’re different is no reason you should be shunned in society. It wasn’t just ‘okay’ to be different; she relished it.
Cast: Kim Furlow is Mae West (and “Jo”); John Reidy and B Weller play all the males; Carolyn Hood directs. For more information, you may contact www.dramaticlicenseproductions.org. Dirty Blonde opens Sept. 15 and runs through Oct. 2.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT