RUBY LYNN REYNER
By August Bernadicou with additional text and research by Chris Coats
The Theater of the Ridiculous was a radical theater genre that embodied queer, the word and the act, and set the embers of Gay Liberation aflame. In 1965, actor and director Ronald Tavel coined the term “The Theater of the Ridiculous.” He initially used the term to describe his own productions, but its meaning quickly expanded when he wrote what would become the genre’s manifesto: "We have passed beyond the absurd: our position is absolutely preposterous.” What an understatement! The genre knocked down the long-revered pillars of theater, and naturalistic acting and classical storytelling were no longer essential to any respectable piece of work. Over-the-top performances, surreal storytelling, and flamboyant sets and costumes defined the theater’s new wild child who sought to shock, disturb, and rattle the pearls of unsuspecting audiences. The following is an oral history features Agosto Machado, Tony Zanetta and Ruby Lynn Reyner. Agosto Machado, a street kid who grew up into a street queen, claims he cannot sing and act transcends the stage and was even at the Stonewall Riots, the 1969 rebellion that incited Gay Liberation. Tony Zanetta started in the theater and went on to be the tour manager for David Bowie during his gender-bending Ziggy Stardust period. Ruby Lynn Reyner was the star of the Play-House of the Ridiculous, one of the theater troupes in the Ridiculous Movement.
Tony Zanetta: We didn’t want to be like our parents. We didn’t want to get married. We did not want to have children. We wanted to create our own paths. Ruby Lynn Reyner: I would wake up with glitter on my sheets forever. It never came off. Agosto Machado: A lot of the Play-House were outsider people who did drugs and sex and so forth, and I have no memory due to drugs and drinks. August Bernadicou and Chris Coats: In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was consuming American culture and lives. Many young men were forced to go to war under the penalty of law, and they looked for any way out of the draft. Gay men had a unique and simple way out of the draft, but that way could potentially ruin the rest of their lives. Tony: If you checked the box, you were mentally ill. You were officially mentally ill, according to the government. That went down in black and white. I checked the box because I thought, "Fuck you, I’m not going to lie to you in order to go to your war." Anyway, there was that kind of pressure too. In the meantime, it was a lot of fun.
August: Were you there the first night of the Stonewall Riots? Agosto: Yes. August: How did you hear about it? Agosto: I was on the street. I did an early session at the Trucks, and it was social. You get the fresh news of what’s happening. August and Chris: Today, New York City’s West Village piers are clean, shiny, and family-friendly, but in the late 1960s and the 1970s, when libido ruled Downtown, the piers were the site of some hardcore hookups. At night along the piers, the ship’s cargo trucks were parked, and the rear truck doors were open. Use your imagination and multiply by 10. Agosto: It wasn’t the first time Stonewall, or any of the gay bars, had a raid except the situation at hand was like a magnet. With street kids like me, we had nothing to lose. That was the action of the moment and the time. It was an event. It was a happening. It’s like, "This is real life. That’s real blood. We’re going to fight the police. We’re throwing things." "Get butch, girlfriend. Come on." August: You were literally having sex at the Trucks, and then you went to the riots? Agosto: Honeybunch, I had sex in the tea room that afternoon.
August and Chris: In the 1960s, Downtown opened its arms to all of the world’s misfits, and a vibrant community formed. A community of creators focused on breaking apart from the rigid, benign illusion of American life. It was an extraordinary time and place in history—a nexus of art, sexual liberation and revolution. August: Can you explain like Downtown at this time? Ruby: It was fabulous. It was like a circus. It was just free. Everything was very free. You could walk down, what’s Eighth Street called over there? Saint Mark's Place. Everybody used to walk down in different stages of nudity, with different wild outfits on and glitter. It was amazing. It was like the circus, a psychedelic circus.
August and Chris: In 1965, John Vaccaro, a brilliant young man deep in the burgeoning film and arts scene, met Tavel. In the summer of 1965, Tavel and Vaccaro produced Shower, and The Life of Juanita Castro, which were initially intended to be films by Andy Warhol. The films didn't materialize, and Tavel decided to have them performed as plays, producing them together on a double bill called Theatre of the Ridiculous. The Life of Lady Godiva, written by Tavel and directed by Vaccaro in 1967, was the first official production by the Play-House of the Ridiculous. The Life of Lady Godiva featured another crucial figure, Charles Ludlam. The theatre quickly became a counterculture sensation, with its outlandish storylines, psychedelic visuals and cutting, shocking takedowns of conservative American culture and sexuality. Tony: He was creating a new American theatre. He did create a new American theatre. There was the Theatre of the Absurd in Europe, there was the Theatre of the Ridiculous in the United States. John had lived in Japan. A lot of this was very, very influenced by Kabuki. It was very stylized, with makeup. He came to New York and thought he was going to be hanging out with the abstract expressionists. The abstract expressionists were not going to hang out with John because that was a very, very macho world. Very homophobic, very macho. In his way, he was an abstract expressionist because he created this color and activity on stage. It wasn't choreographed, but it was choreography. It was dance, but it wasn't dance. He didn't care that much about the play, although he wanted the play to be heard. It was all this other stuff that was what really made it magical. August and Chris: One of the most sensational of these shows was “Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit," a rock musical set in a bordello written by Warhol's superstar Jackie Curtis. It featured a baby deformed by the drug thalidomide. Tony: I hated Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit, which is probably sacrilegious. That was their big hit. That was written by Jackie Curtis, starring your friend Ruby Lynn Reyner. Ruby: We had a song that went, “Thalidomide baby lives in formaldehyde, swims in formaldehyde, swims in formaldehyde. Where do the four winds blow?” August and Chris: Female conjoined triplets and a stump-armed princess—Jack Kroll of Newsweek described it as, "The wildest and in some ways the best show in New York. An explosion of pure theatrical energy, unconfined by any ideas of form, content structure or even rationality." Tony: It's just like one loud scream. Tony Ingrassia lost weight by that time. He was wearing a diaper. The whole play, for me, was an assault, which was a marker of the Play-House of the Ridiculous. I wasn't quite ready for it yet. Ruby: You could do anything. It was off-off-Broadway, and that's where we got away with everything. There was nothing sacrosanct. August and Chris: Another show, Cockstrong, written by Tom Murrin, was what you might call interactive theatre. Ruby: We had a 12-foot penis hooked up to the faucet in the back of the resting room. The penis came at the end of this Kama Sutra ballet and came over the audience. It just came water. It was a heatwave and the air conditioning broke. The audience went, "Ahh." They loved it. August and Chris: Female conjoined triplets and a stump-armed princess—Jack Kroll of Newsweek described it as, "The wildest and in some ways the best show in New York. An explosion of pure theatrical energy, unconfined by any ideas of form, content structure or even rationality."
August and Chris: John Vacarro was the mastermind behind the madness of the Play-House of the Ridiculous. Born in Ohio in 1929, John was confused by his Roman Catholic upbringing in a town that he said had nine blocks of whorehouses. He briefly served in the navy and graduated from Ohio State University, before moving to New York City, where he got into acting. He appeared in Normal Love and Flaming Creatures by the influential underground director Jack Smith. Vaccaro pushed his cast members hard, playing on their vulnerabilities to win their raw talent. While we now have laws making work a safe, non-confrontational environment, this was the mid-1960s. Agosto: There was nothing easy about John. His work was challenging, he was challenging. He was Sicilian. He could be really vicious, but he was also brilliant, and it was really exciting to be around John and around his work. Ruby: John would bully us, and he would push us to the edge of madness. Paul Foster, one of the founders of La Mama, did a version of Satyricon after Fellini did his, and he wanted realism. John said to the troupe, "Tear her clothes off." I was like, "Who's her?" It was me. They ripped my t-shirt, my undergarments, everything. All through this rehearsal, I was naked. He says, "Let's not make a fuss over a little thing like that." August: Do you think someone could be the same style director that he was now? Ruby: In a word, no. I don't think that could happen anymore. Nothing John did was politically correct. Nothing. I did the crow in The Mock Eater, and I had to eat a piece of raw liver, and sometimes it was bad. It was so disturbing that people in the audience would throw up. August and Chris: Another signature of Vaccaro's style was glitter. Lots of it. Tony: He bought bags and bags of glitter on Canal Street. Everybody was covered with glitter. It was beautiful to look at. It was extreme. What else was it? Agosto: Very difficult to get off. Ruby: John runs backstage one day and says, "Everybody listen to me. You can't use the red glitter. Don't use the red glitter." I was putting the red glitter on my lips, I was using it on my lips every night. I was packing thick red glitter on my lips, and I would crunch on it. You'd hear this crunching noise. We said to John, "John, why can't we use the red glitter?" He said, "It's made out of glass." August and Chris: Vaccaro's ferocity and passion could be seen outside of the theater as well. Nowhere is more apparent than his relationship with Charles Ludlam. Their brief fling would shape the rest of their lives and the newly formed genre. In 1967, Vaccaro directed Big Hotel, which was written by Ludlam. Big Hotel continued the genre's theme of lifting from pop culture and much of its content was from the Greta Garbo film it parodied, Grand Hotel. The play also borrowed from such disparate sources as the film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Salome, Playboy cartoons, television commercials and old Wonder Woman comics. Big Hotel was the beginning of the end for the potential partners. Before they parted ways, Ludlam presented a new play titled Conquest of the Universe: When Queens Collide.”The pair began arguing during the play's rehearsals. For reasons we, likely, may never know, Charles quit and went on to found his own rival theatre company with a not so subtle name, The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Tony: Charles left, and the whole company left with him.
August and Chris: This wasn't the end of the play for Vaccaro. In place of his previous actors, Vaccaro cast Warhol superstars like Taylor Mead, Ondine, Mary Woronov, Rene Ricard and Ruby Lynn Reyner. Vacarro staged his version called Conquest of the Universe in November 1967 at the Bouwerie Lane Theater and Ludlam presented his version called When Queens Collide in January 1968 at the Gate Theatre. Ruby: We went to the Obies, and we had one table for the Play-House of the Ridiculous and another table with the whole Ridiculous Theatrical Company. When they got their award, we went, "Boo," and they went, "Yay." When we got our award, we went, "Yay," and they went, "Boo.” It was very juvenile. August: What was the difference between Ludlam and Vaccaro's style? Agosto: It's very obvious that Charles Ludlam's work was very structured, well-acted, well-produced. Tony: John's work was very deep, very political. There was really a gesture of hatred. It was pretty harsh. When it was good it was fantastic and when it was bad it was unbearable. Charles's was more amusing and more entertaining. It was more accessible. I don't want anyone to get the wrong impression, that it was light. Though, it was certainly lighter than the Play-House.
August and Chris: While cast members maintained friendships and supported each other, Vaccaro never forgave his once friend and held on to the animosity for the rest of his life. Tony: It was a separate world. It became a very separate world. There was very little crossover. Agosto: You're put in a place with couples, they're going together and they split up, and somehow one or the other expects you to be their friend and drop the other. August: Why did he carry it for the rest of his life? Ruby: I never could figure that out. He held onto it like a dog with a bone. He never let it go.
August and Chris: In 1971, Tony was cast as Andy Warhol in a play directed by his old, Ridiculous friend Tony Ingrassia called Pork. August: Can you tell us about David Bowie? Tony: Andy Warhol wanted to do this play Pork, which was all Brigid Berlin cassette tape recordings. Pork now is a stepchild of the Ridiculous. It's still in Ridiculous style, but it's Ingrassia's spin on it. Its sensibility is the same in that it ridiculed everyone and everything. It's still coming from that same place of defiance and ridicule and seeing everything as absurd. August and Chris: Pork turned into a smash with rave reviews, and the cast soon became darlings of the press. One of the attendees was David Bowie, whose Ziggy Stardust period lifted heavily from the Theater of the Ridiculous. Bowie quickly hired Tony to work at his management company, MainMan. Tony: That same sense of spectacle and flamboyance that surrounded all of the Ridiculous and all of the Ingrassia's work transferred to Bowie. I think it's also relevant in the history of gay history. Standing on stage and not being apologetic and saying, "This is who I am," transferred to Bowie. He made an announcement at one point that he was gay. Whether he was or he wasn't is irrelevant. It brought a spotlight onto the gay world. August: Can you tell us about how you had sex with him? Tony: I don't know. Maybe. When you talk about that, then people just fasten onto that. They don't hear anything else. Well, I don’t know. I can talk about it quickly. David was a very seductive person, very seductive. We had a good relationship. It did start out as some kind of seduction. We did have a little sexual fling. It was nothing heavy, but later I would think of it in a different way because everyone was so curious about his sexuality. "What would it be? Is he gay?" I think that was all irrelevant to him. I think that sex to him was just another way of talking to someone. Everything he did was fodder for his art. He didn't do anything that didn't go back in and come back out as art.
August and Chris: While Charles Ludlam and John Vaccaro were able to persevere and evolve with the times, their troupes weren't able to last. In 1984, at age 44, Charles Ludlam died of AIDS. His death was the first obituary on the front page of the New York Times to mention that the cause of death was AIDS. He left behind 29 finished plays. His longtime partner, Everett Quinton, keeps the troupe's spirit alive and recently revamped When Queens Collide. John Vaccaro stopped directing in the 1980s. Like everything in art and culture, the audience turns their attention to what's new and fresh. Ruby: Eventually, he just petered out. He didn't work for his audiences. I tried to explain that to him in Pineapple Face. That was, I think, the last Vaccaro play I did. It was built around Noriega. I played Noriega's prostitute mistress. I had these big huge tits and big ass I put on. Anyway, people really didn't come like they used to come. They weren't packing the house. We tried to explain to John, "You have to work for it. You have to promote it." He'd just get pissed off. He'd say, "These fuckers. Fuck them all." He just thought, "I'll give up." He gave up. He just gave up on the theatre. August: How do you think the Theater of the Ridiculous impacted gay liberation? Tony: Well, it was liberating. That's how. It was unapologetically queer. It was gay, but it wasn't gay theater. After the Play-House, there was such a thing as gay theater which usually had a gay scene, a gay subject. It was about being gay. This was not any of that. This was gay people not trying to hide their gayness. It was queer people not trying to hide that they were queer. It was men dressed as women. It was women dressed as men. It was a defiant presentation. "This is who we are. You can go fuck yourself if you don't like it." It was very much part of gay liberation, and it very much influenced gay liberation. Because, again, it was so liberating. Agosto: It was a cross-pollination of the misfits that had to express itself in some way, just not performing on the street. The natural gravitation, there's someplace we could do this. August: What did you learn from your time in the Play-House? Ruby: Oh, my god. It taught me everything. You can't beat having experience on the stage. I remember telling this little girl next door, whose mother, you know, she's my neighbor, and she came over, and she said, "Listen, I'm having a hard time. Irina has a part in this play, and she has stage fright. Could you talk to her?" I said, "Sure." She came over, and I said, "Listen. No matter what you do, no matter how you screw up, there's nothing that would scare people away from loving you. They are going to love you no matter what you do." That's the way I feel about the theater. The above interview was previously featured in the QueerCore Podcast.