Charles Ludlam is one of the flaming creatures of the New York stage. A sensational comic performer -- legendary especially for his gender-bending performances as Camille, Maria Callas, and Flaubert's Salammbo -- he is also a prolific playwright and the visionary director of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which started in 1967 playing midnight shows in the back of seedy bars and now has its own modest home in Sheridan Square. As its name suggests, the Ridiculous Theater embraces outrageousness, parody, camp, and all manner of comic exaggeration, but Ludlam himself is a determined theater artist who brings an extraordinary erudition to each carefully scripted show, whether it's a Moliere update, a 1940s melodrama, or a gothic horror story. He has taught theater at Yale and New York University, among other schools, and in 1984 was invited to star in Hedda Gabler at the American Ibsen Theater in Pittsburgh.

Onstage Charles is usually elaborately costumed and made up. In person, he is a balding guy in blue jeans and cowboy boots. He was performing two shows in repertory when we met,
The Mystery of Irma Yep and Salammbo. The latter had recently opened to vociferously negative reviews from mainstream critics, which Charles attributed to the conservatism that would dismiss the Ridiculous as gay theater for a cult audience. "Most gay theater either apologizes or pleads for mercy. What I do is not gay theater -- it's something much worse," he said. "I don't ask to be tolerated. I don't mind being intolerable."

Are there actors you admire that you've taken inspiration from?
Charles Laughton, Marie Dressler. Those are role models in case I gain a lot of weight. For my thin period, of course, there's always Garbo. You know who I really admire, though? Ginger Rogers. I realized something recently: she's an incredibly good actress. Not just the dancing and being able to do serious things in light comedy: there's always such a clarity.

All those people are movie actors.
That's what I saw growing up. That's why I think I will probably end up in the movies. Theater was probably the most natural thing for me to go to, because I'm a hands-on person and I wanted artistic control.

What made you want to act in the first place?
My mother used to take me to the movie theater across the street from our apartment in Hyde Park a couple of times a week. I had a big fantasy life. I was an only child for a long time -- about seven years. Until my brother was born, I entertained myself. Parents worry that you're going to be an actor. My mother always wanted me to be a teacher. That would be a respectable, genteel, intellectual thing to do. Funny, if I'd gone into teaching, I'd probably be unemployed today. But I've gotten lots of jobs teaching because I act, because I have my theater.

I've never really taught acting, just com media dell'arte improvisation. I teach them to be decisive and go all the way and not be critical of yourself. If you edit yourself, it's very inhibiting. There's some point in the creative process where you have to suspend the critical faculty. When I first started, I was corrupted by being overly educated. You learn too many things, then you get confused.

When I was studying Method acting, I started to find it very inhibiting. You know, Stanislavsky arrived at all these techniques from watching actors who didn't know what they were doing and trying to figure out what they were doing. If you go backwards from the rules, it becomes very deadening. It's hard to justify everything all the time and wonder, "Am I playing an intention? Do I have my motivation?" I try to go against whatever inhibiting criticism I feel. Sometimes I will set out to do it wrong. "I'm going to write the most incomprehensible play ever." Sometimes I tell an actor who seems inhibited, "Do it the way you worst fear that it would come out. Let's see that, and then we'll know what that is."

Are you ever afraid of being bad as an actor?
Everyone is. There are nights when the whole thing seems to be rushing by so fast, and it's over, and I don't feel I even did anything. The audience could be cheering, and it feels like, "'What was that?" Or you might hit it on a certain night, and then you go, "That's it, but what was it? How can I make it happen again? How can I make it visible to others that I felt it?" Things felt are not things perceived. That's another problem with acting. You might have a wonderful feeling at the moment, but the audience sees nothing. And you can't try to have an emotion. All the slow acting you see is from trying to have an emotion. It never comes that way. It's the byproduct of an action. So you really have to set up the action so it produces the feeling.

What's it like to play in the same theater so long?
It's nice to have your own theater, because you can rehearse. The first five years we never rehearsed in the space we performed in -- ever. Ever! We would often be given half an hour to bring the set in, set it up, light it, and play. It was a terrible disadvantage.

I always wanted to have a theater in the Village, from the time I was a teenager and saw the Living Theater on Fourteenth Street. Julian Beck is sort of my idol. What they did on Fourteenth Street was really quite different from their later work. It was a theater of poetry and symbol, with literature and real acting, and that was the thing that inspired me. Then I saw them do The Brig, where they just tortured the actors for two hours. It was agony to sit through, but artistically it was such a bold step. As a young theater artist, I was in awe of it. Nothing mattered except this production. I knew that everything would have to be like this from now on, but I couldn't go there. My whole generation followed them over the edge into physical, ritualistic theater.

The ritual theater had a lot of credibility in a period when everybody wanted peace. Because it was not representing a conflict, it seemed to embody the ideals of that generation. A drama is a war, a conflict. I realize that I don't want peace. I don't believe in peace. I want war. That made me feel very out of touch during the '60s. I went through a lot of crisis about it, too. It's not easy when there's a major artist whose light is so blinding. To follow is to give up your creative life in a sense, and to try to do anything else seems so stupid. But I wanted to act, and I saw there would be no place for actors in that theater. I wanted to play roles, I wanted the pretense, mimesis -- imitation of an action. And I felt there had to be something wrong with a theater that had no place for a major figure, the actor.

An actor has to be hired, and that means that he has to wait for someone else to imagine the role. It's a tremendous handicap. You could work your whole life and never have roles that add up to a career. You could make a lot of money and never really find creative continuity. Also, sometimes you'll have a director who'll want you to tone it down. That might not be what you want to do in yourlife. Maybe you really want to get violent about it or get really vulgar or garish and overdo it.

Do the actors in your company have the same freedom you do?
They have a lot of freedom. It's not that easy to be free. You don't come that way.

How do you write for yourself as an actor?
With Galas, the challenge was to try to create a modern woman who was a real person [Maria Callas]. It had to hold up, because people knew what she looked like. To do a two-man show was a challenge Everett [Quinton, the actor and costume designer with whom Ludlam lives] and I set for ourselves with The Mystery of Irma Vep: to change costumes that fast and to play all those characters. I'd just done a show with a huge cast, and I wanted a chance to work on the fine points of my own acting. Videotape has been a tremendous plus. After a certain number of previews, we tape the show. Then I can look at the staging and give myself notes.

What was it like to play Hedda Gabler "straight"?
Fabulous. What I really wanted out of that experience was to be intimately familiar with an Ibsen play. I've read pretty much all of Ibsen's plays, but they're so intricate -- actors really know plays from doing them night after night. They know all the places the seams don't quite fit, as well as the great moments. I wanted to have that familiarity; I thought it would be very good for me as a playwright, and it was. For instance, I realized that Hedda has the same plot as an early play he wrote called The Vikings at Helgeland. The characters in Hedda Gabler are gods and goddesses and heroes manque, reborn into a drawing room, and they're playing out the same plot. It is so weird when you realize it's the same play. In fact, at the end of The Vikings, Hjørdis, who is this sort of Valkyrie character who also kills herself, much like Hedda, is riding off into the clouds on a winged horse. And her kid says to his father, "Look, there's Mother! Can't you see her, riding through the clouds on a horse?" Curtain. The first time you hear about Hedda, the aunt says, "Oh, remember when we first saw Hedda riding by the house with her cape flowing in the wind and a feather in her hat?" And you realize that Hedda is galloping out of Norse mythology into the modern drawing room, where she can't possibly fulfill herself, she's so big. These characters are deities who have these huge heroic passions and desires and they're being boxed in.

It was a very difficult role, Hedda Gabler. You could walk through it, say all the lines, be perfectly charming, and never know what it meant. People used to come back and say, "I never knew that's what that line is about." Just to make it clear is the hardest thing in the world to do. In Hedda, there are three or four moments where she goes "Ah" or "Oh" or "Ooh." They're very oblique, very hard to play, because you feel that nobody's going to pay any attention to you saying those things. Yet those were the epiphanies, the moments where she makes her mental connection and goes to the next step. If you can understand those lines-- the "Ah" and the "Oh" and the "Ooh" and the "Eh" -- you have the role.

Have you had a lot of offers to work outside your company?
More and more. I can't do them all, because you have to keep your focus or you become just another person in the world with no continuity. I really do stand for something, and I have certain ideals of what I think the theater can be.

What sort of things tempt you to work outside your company?
Operas. I've done a lot of parodies of operas and people said, "Oh, it's better than the original." I wanted to see what I could really do with an opera. Films I like. I'm making my own movies now. Everett and I were on Miami Vice. I was in drag, and he was a gangster.

Isn't it weird to do a little TV thing and use a smidgen of what you can do, yet have that seen by . . .
More people than have seen you onstage in your whole life? Yeah, it is weird. It's tremendously difficult work, TV and movie acting. A tremendous amount of waiting around, tedium. But it's kind of fun to do something that drains you for one day and not have to do it day in and day out.

What's the hardest thing you've ever had to do as an actor?
I was playing Puck in college, and I had to jump off an upper level of the stage at Hofstra. There was all this machismo: "Everybody else jumps off there." I was so afraid, and it was so high, and I had these awful bedroom slippers on, and I jumped down and broke all my toes.

What's the silliest thing for you about being an actor?
The audience can never know what you're thinking when you're acting, and there's a certain campiness to that. If I see someone asleep in the audience, I have a lot of trouble not getting the giggles. Or they talk and don't think you can hear. Or cellophane wrappers. I hope there's a special circle in hell for people who rattle cellophane or have those watches that beep.

One time Bill Vehr and I were playing the scene in Reverse Psychology where I'm having an affair with his wife, and I don't know that it's his wife, and I start to tell him things she does in bed. It's a very funny scene, and it's hard not to crack up, because Bill does all those great shocked reactions. He tries to crack you up onstage anyway, if he can. So we were doing this scene, and he had lots, of "Oh, really?" and "Tell me more." Well, every time we started to talk, someone would rattle their cellophane. We were staring at each other in disbelief, because it was so loud. It was unbelievably loud, like it was amplified. Rattle ratttle. You'd pause, it would pause. You'd start talking, and it would start again. You'd pause, and it would stop. You'd talk, and it would rattle. We had tears streaming down our cheeks trying to hold that in.

from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (photo by Susan Shacter)