Go Deeper

From Theater Of The Ridiculous With Love: Catching Up With Kenneth Elliott

Posted April 6th, 2012

Vampire cast at the Limbo Lounge circa 1984. Kenneth Elliott is on the far left in the foreground, Charles Busch is wearing the long brown wig.

Kenneth Elliott has been hiding in Philadelphia.

Having moved to the area five years ago, the director has been busy co-authoring and directing Devil Boys from Beyond (winner of Outstanding Play at the 2009 International Fringe Festival), writing his book Beyond Ridiculous, and serving as an assistant professor at Rutgers University. He hasn’t had much time to proclaim his status as a new Philadelphian.

On a quiet block in Queen Village, Elliott, who considers waking up at 8am sleeping in, meets me at the 10 o’clock hour on a Tuesday morning. I buzz the ringer and am soon greeted by a man who, dressed in slacks and a button down, seems more uplifted than the average person at such an hour. He welcomes me into his elaborately furnished home. There are mirrors everywhere, a sleigh bed in the living room, and he even has a record player. He asks if I would like a cup of coffee. I am grateful: I am not a morning person.

Elliott, who grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, began his career years ago. Elliott explains, “My parents are theater goers. My dad would play Broadway albums all the time.” This was when theater was much more of an event to the general public, as people would throng to the theater every week. In junior high, Elliott braved his first theatrical performance and loved it. He later branched out beyond school and “community theater became an obsession.” He performed as an actor in any show he could get cast in. He went on to study theater at Northwestern University, where he received his B.S and M.A. in theater and afterwards ended up in Chicago stage managing and working temp jobs. (Elliott would later earn his Ph.D. from UCLA.)

But his plan was to go to law school when a friend of his suggested he move to New York. Elliott liked the idea and stayed there with a friend, writer Charles Busch. During one of their outings, the two stumbled upon the Limbo Lounge in the East Village, which at that time was a place two actors especially, would not typically find themselves—“back then, you didn’t want to go east of Ave A.” Despite this the two ventured to this lounge often, and saw a number of plays performed there. They thought a lounge an odd place to put on a show, but they also thought maybe they could do the same. They told the owner, Michael Limbo, they would like to put on a show. Limbo simply asked, “When?”

The pair rehearsed and performed Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Elliott remembers, “The original version was two short scenes. The first was set in ancient Sodom and Gomorrah—the twin cities. A young virgin girl, played by Charles Busch, dressed like a burlesque stripper, is hauled to the mouth of a cave by two hunky guards where she is left as a human sacrifice for the dreaded Succubus, a lesbian monster who sucks the blood of its victims. After some arguing, she has her way with the young girl. The second scene takes place in 1920s Hollywood at the height of the silent film era, and the Succubus is now a screen star vamp of the Theda Bara type known as La Condesa who takes advantage of all the young Hollywood starlets. Into her house walks Madeleine Astarte, a great stage actress from the east, who proclaims that she has been offered all the plum roles that La Condesa had lined up. Not only that, she steals La Condesa’s girlfriend as well. In a pair of climactic speeches it is revealed that Madeleine is none other than the Virgin Sacrifice from the first scene, who transformed herself into a vampire by biting the Succubus’s neck and drinking her blood. The scene ends with entrance of a female Hollywood gossip columnist, a Hedda Hopper type, who is actually a male vampire hunter in disguise. This causes the two enemy vampires to join forces to put a hex on him, and they escape together into the night. We later added a third scene that brought the story into contemporary Las Vegas.”

What, me subversive? Kenneth Elliott as respected professor. Photo by Carol Rosseg.

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom went on to become the longest running non-musical off Broadway. Elliott and Busch continued to work together, spawning off Broadway hits such as Psycho Beach Party, which, years later, yielded a film version starring Amy Adams. Joseph Papp of the Public Theatre in New York City attended a performance of Psycho Beach Party, and this led to Elliott directing for the Public Theatre (Todd Rundgren’s Up Against It  and Zero Positive by Harry Kondoleon. Elliott made a point of trying to get jobs at other theaters and doing shows in a variety of styles. He went on to direct The Boys in the Band in New York (Lucille Lortel Theatre) and London (Aldwych Theatre) and has directed at major theaters across the country, including  in Philly at The Wilma Theater and Prince Music Theater.

Elliott, now a theater professor at Rutgers University, is directing the department’s spring production, A Doll’s House. Elliott enjoys working with student actors, they’re “cooperative and willing to try anything. . . . It’s wonderful, I love watching student actors grow.” Actors with more experience are often times unlikely to step outside of their comfort zone. At Rutgers he has directed Angels In America, Tartuffe, Dracula, and Measure For Measure, transforming the work of the department. “Theatre is an excellent tool to understand the culture of a time and place . . . it helps us to understand ourselves.” Elliott approaches teaching in a hands on way. “There is no substitute for doing,” he insists, “and you’ve got to get them to do it themselves.”

Currently Elliott is working on writing his book, Beyond Ridiculous, which will touch on the history of theater of the ridiculous and the quest of Theatre in Limbo. A Doll’s House opens at Rutgers Camden on April 13 and runs until April 22. “I think we’re in great shape,” Elliott says of the production as he takes my empty coffee mug into the kitchen, “you should come see the show.”

–Sebastian Cummings