Actor, singer and cabaret star Paul Capsis has rarely spoken of his anguished childhood, bullied for being gay even before he knew he was. But his current starring turn on stage as his long-time hero Quentin Crisp is so close to the bone he can’t avoid it. The revival season of Resident Alien is at the Seymour Centre.
Paul had it coming from every side. He was effeminate, gay and from a Greek family – three reasons not to fit into his suburban Sydney childhood. And right from the start he got the message: you’re different and you’ll pay for it. He was picked on, bullied, ridiculed and bashed. It was only the kindness of an accepting grandma that got him through, more or less, in one piece.
From the moment he came across Quentin Crisp he latched onto a kindred spirit. Crisp also had the triple whammy: he was effeminate and gay and though British he was despised by his own countrymen for being different. No one could be more ready to portray Crisp on stage, bringing the stoic life-worn self-belief to the role of a man who proudly wore his differences in the face of unbearable ridicule. Crisp took the abuse on the chin and, in turn, apologised to no one, least of all those of his own kind, his gay contemporaries, whom he seemed to be at pains to offend as much as the establishment found offence in him.
The title Resident Alien implies Quentin Crisp was not of this world. Indeed so! Throughout most of his life, in England anyway, then in America which is where he got the label “resident alien” when he went to live there at 75. His book Resident Alien is a diary. His other books include Naked Civil Servant which I read many years ago because Mr Crisp has always been my hero.
He antagonised the gay community, the people who might’ve supported him. Yes, but he did that with everyone. He was contrary. It wasn't just the gay community he was conflicted about. But always there was the wit. He was unusual but courageous. I’ve experienced a bit of what he did, being attacked. He got the worst rejection in the London gay underground. He was asked to leave venues because he was obvious. He dyed his hair henna red, he painted his nails, put on lipstick. Hotel owners said please leave, you're bringing attention to us. It was a seven-year conviction if you were gay.
What happened to you? It started the minute I set foot in school. I had this wonderful fantasy life with my grandmother and my Greek and Maltese family and to a degree I was protected. The only time I knew being effeminate was wrong was when my brother to get me back for something told my father I wore drag. When I was a child I thought I was a girl. Mr Crisp sad that. He also said he was a man in a man's body but with a female brain and I identified with that. I didn't know who Quentin Crisp was then. I wished I had because he would’ve been a mentor.
What did your 15-year-old self need Quentin to say? I needed him to tell me how I could stop the violence. All through kindy, primary, high school, I didn't know how to stop it. It was at its peak in year 9. And he would’ve probably said, well, there's nothing you can do about it, you just be brave.
What was done to you? I was bashed and I didn’t go a day without being verbally harassed. Called poofter, faggot. The earliest I was called poofter was in the 1970s, in primary school. I was about 7, not really knowing what it meant. Now I can say it was misogyny because what those kids addressed about the way I looked and spoke – the biggest sin was being female. That was the horror, the crime, that was the thing that appalled them most. “You sound like a girl!” I remember becoming self-conscious. And about 7 or 8 I fell in love with a Turkish boy and I've never looked back. Even with all that violence, a part of me was sad for those boys because I felt for them to be so angry I thought their parents, their community, their church was mean. I had my grandmother, my cousins. They let me play with dolls, they let me dress up. Of course I learnt quickly I had to do it behind closed doors.
How did you crawl out of that hole? I just suffered it. I dreaded every day at school. I developed a thick skin. I found a part of myself that was tough. I didn't know how to fight physically but I learnt never to let anyone get away with it.
- Resident Alien at Seymour Centre.
- Paul Capsis: Up Close and Intimate Cabaret just announced for November 9 at Darlinghurst Theatre.