A short, behind-the-scenes chat between Michael T. Reynolds, Talkin' Broadway's Senior Editor, and the American Humphriesiologist David Martin Bruson. Mr. Bruson is an old friend and the authorized online biographer of Barry Humphries (Dame Edna).
MTR: David, I've just returned from a preview performance of DAME EDNA The Royal Tour. I've never laughed so hard in my life. Is Dame Edna the only character Barry does in his shows now?
DMB: Barry is widely known in North America for his character Dame Edna Everage. But during his 40-year career as a character actor, Barry has created several remarkable creatures. Among them are Sir Les Patterson, Alexander "Sandy" Stone, Lance Boyle and Martin Agrippa. Sir Les and Sandy Stone are still present in most of Barry's shows even today.
Sir Les Patterson, Australian cultural attache to the Court of St. James in London and Chairman of the Australian Chapter of the International Cheese Board, is a hard-drinking, womanizing elder statesman. Les was invented in 1974 for a show in Hong Kong. Barry was entertaining Australian servicemen and expatriates and he thought they might not react too kindly when a Melbourne housewife took the stage. He felt that Sir Les would be useful to buffer any attacks from a potentially threatening audience. By 1997, Sir Les had become so enormously popular that he had starred in his own one-man show, hosted a documentary, produced a successful album, and even appeared in his first feature film Les Patterson Saves the World which has become a highly sought after cult favorite on home video.
MTR: I like the idea of starting The Royal Tour with film clips documenting Dame Edna's rise to fame. When and how was Dame Edna created? Exactly when did she become a Dame?
DMB: Dame Edna (or Mrs. Everage - Edna wasn't given a damehood until 1976) was first presented on stage at the Union Theatre in Melbourne on December 13, 1955 - more than 40 years ago. Barry, a student actor, had been touring Australia in a production of Twelfth Night starring opposite a then unknown Zoe Caldwell. The company would travel from town to town on a bus. They would ultimately be greeted by the lady mayor or chairwoman of the local Art Society who would thank them for coming. Before they would get to the next town, Barry would give a preview of what he though the next lady would say. He named her Edna.
Later, Barry's director suggested he write a short sketch for Edna and present her on stage. Barry had thought Zoe Caldwell would play Edna, but the director decided it would be funnier for Barry to do it as a pantomime dame. Thus, Edna Mae Everage was born.
Edna was invested with the title of Dame in 1976, for her services to Culture.
MTR: Why do you think Dame Edna is so popular?
DMB: Dame Edna is popular because there is so much truth in her. Her public thrives on truth. She's also able to evolve with her audience. It's really a kind of paradox. She forces us to laugh at ourselves. In fact my favorite Dame Edna quote is "If you can't laugh at yourself you could be missing the joke of the century."
MTR: Dame Edna certainly has her own "look." In fact, she makes the stuff on the catwalks of New York's recent Fashion Week look pretty tame by comparison. How did her look come about?
DMB: Edna's look is developed from ideas by Barry who then has gowns made by various designers. Dame Edna's megastar frocks and trademark specs of the nineties and late eighties were designed by Stephen Adnitt. Stephen began working with Barry at London Weekend Television where the first of the Dame Edna talk shows were filmed - The Dame Edna Experience, Dame Edna's Hollywood, Dame Edna's Work Experience, Dame Edna's Neighborhood Watch, and most of Dame Edna's recent stage shows. These trademark frocks can cost anywhere from £1,200 ($2,000) to more than £10,000 ($16,500) depending of the intricacy of the design. Mr. Adnitt also designed suits for Sir Les. Dame-Edna.com will soon feature an in depth interview with Mr. Adnitt.
The Victorian Arts Centre Performing Arts Museum in Melbourne which housed The Barry Humphries Collection recently presented an exhibition entitled DAME EDNA's Frock-a-Thon: A Journey from Cardigan to Couture. This was an incredible retrospective of Edna's style from her invention until now. That's how seriously Dame Edna is taken in Australia. She is an icon, a real person.
MTR: Is any of Dame Edna's material changed, or customized, for shows in different countries?
DMB: Dame Edna changes her shows slightly from country to country and even from performance to performance - always staying on the cutting edge. However, it's never necessary to change much because her humor is so universal.
MTR: I take it being called a possum is a good thing?
DMB: Yes, "possum" is an affectionate Australianism.
MTR: If you were trying to describe a Dame Edna show to someone who had never had the Dame Edna experience, how would you do it in one sentence?
DMB: To quote Dame Edna, "My show is like an intimate conversation between two friends, one of whom is a lot more interesting than the other."
MTR: I've spoken with a number of fans in New York who can't wait to see Dame Edna in the flesh, but who are shy and would be terrified if she started talking to them during her performance. What is the best way to avoid Dame Edna's attention when you see her show? Conversely, what is the best way to guarantee that she will notice you in the audience?
DMB: Dame Edna's shows are interactive, it's true. She calls them interactive learning tools. She cares and shares with her audience. I would like to urge any fans thinking of seeing the show to not be shy. To be spoken to by Dame Edna is a theatrical rite of passage. It's like kissing the Pope's ring. It's an honor. Journalists, talk-show hosts, and other celebrities have been begging to sit in the front rows just to get a taste of the magic that is Dame Edna.
I don't think there is any way to avoid Dame Edna. She knows all and sees all.
MTR: Seeing Dame Edna in person is somewhat different from seeing her on television, wouldn't you say?
DMB: Dame Edna is not to be missed. She is totally unique and must be experienced live. Barry is a remarkable entertainer. He is highly respected among the London theatre community. I think he's the only performer I've ever seen given a standing ovation by his own peers.
MTR: Dame Edna sings several songs in The Royal Tour. Has she ever released a CD?
DMB: Dame Edna always sings in her shows. She's recorded several hit albums including HOUSEWIFE SUPERSTAR!, THE SOUND OF EDNA, THE DAME EDNA PARTY EXPERIENCE, and narrated Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. She recently recorded a song by her good friend Stephen Sondheim called "Ladies Who Lunch." It's available on Jay Records' SONDHEIM TONIGHT!. It's sure to be a collector's item!
MTR: You've referred to Dame Edna as a "pantomime dame." What is that?
DMB: The pantomime dame comes out of the British music hall (burlesque) tradition. The dame was usually a stocky man playing a woman of a certain age. The joke of the pantomime dame is the hefty man in women's clothing. Do you remember Gene Wilder's movie Haunted Honeymoon? The Dom DeLuise character is a kind of panotmime dame. If you notice, almost the entire cast was British.
Dame Edna is not really a pantomime dame. She is a female character played seriously by a man - as in character acting. The music hall tradition resonates because it made the idea of a man dressing up as a woman a matter of comic invention and not a perversion as it is so often thought of here in the States.
MTR: Does Barry acknowledge any strong influences in his comedy, any performers or writers who particularly impressed him as a young man?
DMB: Barry never really mentions performers from his youth. He mostly talks about authors - he was a voracious reader and a lot of influence comes from that.
MTR: What would Dame Edna's acceptance speech be like, were she to win a Tony Award for her Broadway debut?
DMB: She would probably thank her Public, her Possums. I've been campaigning for Dame Edna to host the next Tony Awards show! Now that would be something!
DAME EDNA The Royal Tour is currently in previews at the Booth Theatre. Tickets may be booked online at http://www.telecharge.com/
The Official website for Dame Edna On Broadway is at http://www.dameednaonbroadway.com/
Dame Edna: The Megapage, the Barry Humphries and Dame Edna Official website, by David Martin Bruson, is at http://www.dame-edna.com/
David Martin Bruson currently attends the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he is working towards a degree in theatre performance and arts management. He is the creator of a popular and award-winning website for Dame Edna Everage, one of the world's most brilliant entertainers.
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