HOT! at 23
BY DAVID NOH | Ellie Covan’s annual HOT! Festival of live queer performance is celebrating its unbelievable 23rd year at Dixon Place, so I trekked down to her wonderful Lower East Side space to get the full dish, which she provided in her inimitably random yet wholly delightful way (161A Chrystie St., btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts., through Aug. 2; hotfestival.org).
“It’s funny, because we don’t really have a headliner this year,” she said. “Usually, we have a commission for a full finished production that runs for three weeks. We do eight of those a year, and usually one of those is in the HOT! Festival, like Lea DeLaria, but this year, they’re all one-night stands, works in progress by emerging artists, although there definitely are a few veterans, like Linda Simpson, Nora Burns, and Michael Cross Burke. There’s MargOH! Channing, who we love, a drag queen from the old school in the traditional cabaret sense, kind of drunk, over-the-top humor. Anna/ Kate do original lesbian folk songs, as sweet as can be, with a little bit of storytelling, kind of autobiographical, with beautiful harmonies.”
Jes Tom’s “Fresh Off the Banana Boat” is described as a queer fourth-generation Asian American having a major identity crisis, with “banana” here meaning a person of Asian descent who is culturally white — “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” Covan calls Tom “a trans Asian and absolutely the cutest person in the world, who you wanna take home with you, no matter what your sexual preference.”
Ellie Covan is Downtown’s theatrical saint; summer is time for fabulous road trips
When Covan started HOT! in 1992, it was, like all Dixon Place events back then, held in her living room at a time when “there was not another gay performance festival. It was a party every night and the idea was to continue the Pride celebration in July, especially as we can’t compete with all the Pride events in bigger venues. Plus it was very hot in my apartment.”
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas (“but don’t hold that against me”), Covan “wasted three years at the U of Texas, studying theater. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have just come here and studied with great teachers.” She moved to New York, but spent time traveling to Paris and Morocco, where she spent time with Paul Bowles after developing a performance piece about his brilliant writer wife, Jane. At the Public Theater, she understudied Annie De Salvo in Peter Parnell’s “Sorrows of Stephen” and “when Annie left, I got to go onstage for two weeks. Joe Papp used to send flowers to the understudy on their first nights — can you believe that? Everybody who acted in that play went on to a big career, except me. Pamela Reed, John Shea, Frances Conroy, Don Scardino, Alice Playten. The only thing the director told me before he left was to do it with a Texas accent — bad! I got my Equity card but was just God-awful, so bad that I never got to do another show at the Public.
“I quit acting because if you’re an actor, you have to keep working so people see you and a lot of it is just crap. Also, it’s not hard to be another mediocre actor but to go beyond that and be excellent, I didn’t do that. I think good actors are narcissists and I’m just not a good narcissist. You have to just love for people to be looking at you.
“I became disillusioned, and then Dixon Place happened, which was never planned. A few people came over for pot luck supper because I had no money left at that point after traveling for so long and it just turned into this salon. You want to know who our first performers were? I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast, but I know there was Reno and Frank Maya.”
The late Maya I will always cherish for two of the funniest bits I ever saw. He said he was going down on his boyfriend one night when the guy said, “Suck that big dick,” and Frank goes, “Okay! Where is it?” The other was when he went to the Anne Frank House and just marveled, “What a great apartment!” When I told Covan that I used to steal lines from him to pick up guys, she said, “I did, too! He performed more than anyone, late shows on the weekends and I never went to my bedroom and would stay up to watch him. His timing and delivery were impeccable. He started in a band and would do these rants which I have cassette tapes of, always wearing this gold ear. He died of AIDS fairly early, and he was lucky because his Latino parents were really wonderful people who loved him dearly. That last year when he was really bad, his father took care of him and was by his bed all the time.
“We had John Leguizamo at the beginning of his career. Great. Blue Man Group did their first performance ever at our open mic and they used real paint. There were fingerprints all over my house and they threw actual balloons filled with blue paint. I just left it all up. They were such an overnight success and are now a multinational corporation. We got a little piece of their residuals for Las Vegas until that closed, and now I can’t even get those guys on the phone.
“Lisa Kron started here and when her show we commissioned went to Broadway she was really good about paying us our residuals. She didn’t forget her roots and comes back, and we are honoring her at our donor dinner benefit thing on September 15.”
Regarding her big move out of her living room to her wonderful space on Chrystie Street, Covan said, “I was in an altered state then, so burnt out after six years of trying to raise $6 million with our $300,000 annual budget. Everybody said don’t do it, but we did. I looked around at places to rent when rents were starting to climb and it was $1,700 a month for a large space and I thought, ‘God, we should just buy something,’ so we own this — it’s a condo. I’m gonna die here. They’re gonna bury me in the basement.”
In the opinion of many, Covan truly is something of a Downtown saint of the theater in the Ellen Stewart/ La MaMa tradition: “So many people tell me they did their first performance here or I gave them the first paycheck they ever got, and that makes me feel really good. We do works in progress, at different stages of development, so I felt that should be affordable. We charge a few dollars more for finished work, but it’s even cheaper for students and seniors. We could really use the money but it really doesn’t fit in with what we do. So as long as people keep drinking their butts off in our bar, we’ll be fine.”
That bar is one of the best kept secrets in town — a dream for anyone in the neighborhood: “At first I wondered if we would get any drop-in business, but we really don’t even need it. While the shows are going on downstairs, it’s kinda dead, but before and after it’s packed, and our patrons can take their drinks into the shows. That’s how we keep our tickets so cheap, and we are going to have our Bingo Lounge in August when the theater is mostly kept dark because we don’t want to compete with the Fringe.
As bad as that long ago Public Theater stint was, Covan confessed she did get “to make out with John Shea and Don Scardino. I could tell you some stuff, but I won’t.”
That brought up the question of her own sexuality and she said, “I’m bisexual, which means I have sex twice a year. Or maybe I buy sex: I have to pay people to touch me! How did you know? The other day I was on Fire Island for my first time, really. I was on that little shuttle bus which was full, so I stood in back and this woman in her early 20s, probably, was sitting with her friends and asked, ‘Would you like my seat?’ And I slapped her. So, really, it’s over.”
Screw the schlep to Fire Island — and the Hamptons, for that matter. Lately, I’ve been enjoying weekend getaway road trips to Philadelphia, Providence, and Connecticut, which have not only been cheap but fun-packed and culturally rich. In Philly, I enjoyed the $5-a-day hop on/ hop off bus, which takes you everywhere. That included the city’s wonderful museum, where my late friend revolutionary black fashion designer Patrick Kelly is getting a terrific show celebrating his brief but oh-so-bright career, running through November (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway; philamuseum.org).
The museum’s permanent collection also is world-class, and I thrilled to see Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s exquisite portrait of one of my idols, Madame du Barry. (When I go, I’m not going like Elsie, but like Jeanne du Barry, who, as she was dragged to the guillotine, chose not to exit with dignity, instead, shrieking, crying, and carrying on, all the way to the blade.)
The Philly Zoo is a world-class wonder with a mesmerizing bat cage that shows you exactly how “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” was inspired, and innovative cage tunnels where monkeys and tigers prowl above your head. The gay scene was lively and super-friendly, situated in the ultra-picturesque downtown historic district (which feels like olde London with its ancient pubs and quaint side streets), my favorite watering hole being the riotously gregarious U Bar. We even caught a very professional, fun production of “How to Succeed in Business” at the venue where Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar” had its tryout, the historic Walnut Street Theatre, with its fabulous, memorabilia-filled Barrymore Café.
On a New England jaunt, we enjoyed a day at Horseneck Beach in Westport, Massachusetts, just east of the Rhode Island line, which has a sizable gay section, although the late afternoon onslaught of chiggers (a local curse) and the sight of a large crab scuttling near my feet gave this Hawaii boy the heebie-jeebies.
Fall River offered the creepy Lizzie Borden house and a gem of a little locals-only diner, the Dunk-N-Munch, where I had the best, most humongous cheeseburger ever, aptly dubbed the Munchinator.
New London, Connecticut, you should definitely check out, with its insanely picturesque Eugene O’Neill cottage, where he wrote many of his greatest hits. Overlooking the water, its interior is like a stage set for “Long Day’s Journey’s Into Night.” Just down the road is another of my favorite eateries, Fred’s Shanty, where yummy fried seafood can be enjoyed on the dock.
But the real reason for this particular New England sojourn was Leslie Uggams’ debut as Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. When a talent of her caliber essays this role of roles, you just GO, no questions asked. Miss Leslie of course proved totally worth the trip, delivering a performance that opened with an adorableness ineffably softening that hard-as-nails, manic, driven character. She sang, of course, thrillingly with that throbbing distinctiveness that just improves every year. In the later scenes, she evinced a ferociously steely power that made me wish its writer, Arthur Laurents — wherever the H he is — could have seen her, eternal doubter of her talent that late curmudgeon always was.
Uggams is as noted in the business for her indefatigable graciousness as her skills. This was proved again when the entire audience was invited to the afterparty at the posh Nathan Hale Inn, where she personally greeted and selfie’ed every single person, after an exhausting performance that she confided to me “is really like doing King Lear!”
In the role of Uncle Jocko was my buddy Steven Hayes (happily enjoying steady employment at U Conn, though we need to see him more in New York), and I have never seen this part done so well, invested with just the right Phil Silvers hilariously grating edge. Also noteworthy was Hawaii-born Luke Hamilton, a nifty dancing Tulsa, and beautiful Alanna Saunders as June, in a multiracial cast so well directed by Vincent J. Cardinal that, for once, skin color truly made no difference.
Storrs, itself, is also a lovely place to visit, and I had a wonderful lunch of katsu-don, edamame, and bubble tea at the Haru Aki Café, opened by a fun bunch of Asian former U Conn students. The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry had a delightful exhibit of masterworks in this genre by legendary names like Tony Sarg and Bill Baird, as well as the entire “Barber of Seville” giant puppet production by Amy Trompetter.