RYAN LANDRY has been the indisputable king (queen?) of New England fringe performance for years. A comic playwright and impresario of drag theater, his parody productions of classic movies, fairy tales, TV shows, and plays have long been a staple of Provincetown and Boston entertainment. More recently, along with his company, the Gold Dust Orphans, Landry has expanded his satiric reach to New York and beyond.
If there was a critical turning point in Landry’s road to comedy, it happened in New York while he was working his way through art school as a hustler, and a john turned him on to playwright Charles Ludlam, with whom he sensed an immediate bond. After a brief stint with Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous, Landry moved to Provincetown, where he became a drag performer, nightclub promoter, front man for the band Space Pussy, and co-founder of his own ridiculous theater company, in 1996, known as Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans.
While he acts and often sings in most of his shows, Landry’s major gift is the ability to turn out hilarious camp burlesques with a punk attitude, sort of like Charles Ludlum crossed with Courtney Love. The titles of his bawdy pop culture mash-ups—of everything from classic films to classic rock—perhaps say it best: Phantom of the Oprah, Silent Night of the Lambs, Mary Poppers, Pornochio, Snow White and the Seven Bottoms, and on and on. And then there’s Showgirls, the amateur talent show for drag queens, would-be pop stars, and misfit wannabes that Landry hosts in front of SRO crowds every Monday night during Provincetown’s high season. He has also been known to share the stage with guest celebrities like Margaret Cho and Patti Lupone.
After performing in Provincetown gay clubs for years—and Boston clubs during the off-season—Ryan and the Orphans have recently garnered more mainstream success. In 2012, the prestigious Huntington Theater in Boston commissioned them to do an original play, based on the classic movie M, titled Ryan Landry’s M. The following year they performed the musical parody Mildred Fierce Off-Broadway, which got a rave in The New York Times.
The following interview was conducted on-line in early January.
Gay & Lesbian Review: You’re well-known to anyone who’s ever visited Provincetown, but could you describe what you and the Gold Dust Orphans do for the uninitiated?
Ryan Landry: First a light massage and then all bets are off.
GLR: When did you first start performing and when did you realize burlesque theater was your calling?
RL: I suppose I’ve always been a ham. I remember finding a Super 8 film of my father putting me up on top of an old picnic table so that everyone at the party could watch me dance. I couldn’t have been more than 2 years old. You would have thought I’d been asked to open for James Brown. In other words I really let ’em have it.
I never wanted anything more than to make people laugh. The sound of it still brings comfort. It’s almost as if I don’t feel myself without it. As if I wouldn’t even know who I was or why I existed if I could no longer hear the sound. I need that sound. And that look in their eye that tells me I have pleased them. Because of these exchanges, these energies, I know precisely why I exist and who I am within this world. That, so I hear from some of my more depressed friends, is a major blessing.
As far as style goes, I don’t know if you would call what I do “burlesque” theater, but I suppose it’s as good a description as any other.
GLR: Who are some of the performers and artists who’ve had the biggest influence on your style?
RL: Charles Ludlam, Charles Busch, Charles Schultz, and Charles Manson.
GLR: You’ve parodied classic movies, plays, books, television shows. What is it that makes something ripe for parody?
RL: Oh, I could care less about any of that! The only thing “ripe” about my work is the smell of the jokes. In all honesty, I just run across something that I love or have loved in the past, a book, a play, a movie, and simply hold it up to the light. Of course, while doing so I pretend to be wearing my imaginary glasses—the ones with the broken lenses that help me to see something hideous in the beautiful and something beautiful in the hideous.
GLR: You just wrapped Jesus Christ, It’s Christmas!, your musical parody of the 1947 holiday classic The Bishop’s Wife—a very odd family
movie with lots of unintentionally camp undercurrents. Could you talk about what attracted you to that film and how you went from your initial WTF moment to the finished product?
RL: I was unaware of the film until just last year. Which is odd, since I pride myself on having seen so many films from the ’30s and ’40s. I suppose it had to do with David Niven, who I have always disliked. Not as a person, of course, but there was always something classist in his look and speech onscreen that made me want to knock him down a few pegs. Loretta Young also stars in the film and I’ve never been all that fond of her either! That leaves Cary Grant, whom I worship. High class, yes, but always with that hint of trashy, a trait that I find very attractive in any high-tone gentleman regardless of his background.
Be that as I’m gay, I first saw the film on TCM or something, one day when I was hung over, which is always the best way to get me interested in any project. Something about the pain in my head mixing with the glory of Hollywood. The first thing that struck me was Grant’s character actually resembling Jesus—not so much in his appearance but in his attitude, his “aura,” if you will. That’s how I saw it on that particular day, anyway, so that’s how I wrote it.
Honestly, I really don’t have any long-winded, academic explanations of why I love the things I do. I just do.
GLR: What’s your formula for writing plays? Do you smoke a joint to get warmed up like Virginia Woolf?
RL: No. I eat Three Little Pigs like any normal Woolf.
GLR: What qualities do you look for in a Gold Dust Orphan?
RL: Sing out, hit your marks, make ’em laugh, make ’em think, and then get the hell off the stage.
GLR: Where did you grow up?
RL: Colonial Village Trailer Park in Wallingford, Connecticut.
GLR: Did you have a typical American childhood?
RL: Sure. Three months out of the year I slept in a moldy sleeping bag on the roof of our toolshed because it was covered in lilacs. I chased my older brother around with a butcher knife until he stopped calling me “fag.” I rubbed lotion on my mother’s feet while watching Susan Hayward movies. I’d say that’s pretty typical.
GLR: What’s your relationship with your biological family like now? Do they come to your shows?
RL: No, they would not like my shows. All surviving members of my family resemble members of ZZ Top. Especially the women. Most of them live way up in Danforth, Maine, once a thriving logging town and now, just another place to cook up crystal meth. It is sad, as I remember such beauty in that little town. It was like something out of Little House on the Prairie mixed with The Last Picture Show. Just this side of desperate, but still hopeful. Still waving the flag. It’s mostly boarded up now. There’s a general store there where you can buy beer, Doritos and “Impeach Obama” trucker caps, but that’s about it.
GLR: In addition to being Gold Dust Orphan star Penny Champagne, your husband Scott Martino makes costumes for your shows. Is it safe to say he makes the pants in your family and you wear them?
RL: Hold it! She is my wife! I don’t dig this “double husband” shit! I’m the husband, she’s the wife. Got it? And that’s as much of a “top” as you will ever see me get. And where the hell do you get off thinking I wear pants?
GLR: How did you guys meet?
RL: We met here in Provincetown one afternoon. I asked him to take a ride with me that night on my motorcycle, and he said yes. But when it came time for the date, he didn’t show up. The next night he came to Showgirls in drag. I didn’t recognize him until after he’d won the prize money and taken off his wig. He had sort of long, bleach-blonde hair back then. We talked a while, laughed a while, started dating, and have never left each other’s side since then. He became my life. That was back in ’94 I think. Strange that he just gets more beautiful as he gets older. Over twenty years now and he is still my life.
GLR: When so many show-biz relationships don’t last, what do you attribute your longevity to?
RL: As I once overheard a neighbor say to one of his wife’s “companions”: “If you’re gonna take her out, bring her home clean.”
GLR: I’ve seen you naked on stage with your penis pressed between your thighs to simulate a vagina. Is there anything you wouldn’t do for a laugh?
GLR: What can our readers look forward to seeing in Provincetown this summer?
RL: The tourists complaining about the prices. The locals complaining that it’s a short season. The developers building even more condos on top of even more condos. And me: sleeping ’neath the lilacs.
Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans will be performing Thoroughly Muslim Millie in Provincetown this summer.