What becomes a legend last? Surely it's the
Off-Off-Broadway star, the performer who devotes the best part of a career to toiling for no money in the back alleys of lower Manhattan. The machinery exists to turn film and television performers into international celebrities quicker than you can say "Live at Five," but some of the most original and creative actors in America continue to work year after year in basements and lofts, in
semi-obscurity and near-poverty, resisting embitterment while clinging to whatever environment will allow them to become more and more themselves. Though you won't find them in Broadway's Theater Hall of Fame, actors such as Ruth Maleczech, Kate Manheim, Ron Vawter, Jeff Weiss, and Crystal Field are nonetheless national treasures, and any ranking of them must include
In her twenty years as the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's leading lady,
Black-Eyed Susan has had first crack at a range of roles that Meryl Streep would kill for. The veteran of more Ridiculous shows than anyone besides company founder Charles Ludlam, she has impersonated everything from the innocent Enfanta Eulalie Irene in
The Enchanted Pig to Polish actress Maia Panzaroff in
Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde to Natolia, Queen of Saturn, in
Conquest of the Universe, whom one critic described as sounding "like Pola Negri talking Chaucerian Spanish." She can switch from pathos to potty jokes faster than Bette Midler, but she's no camp diva. She takes each role seriously, whether it's a cameo in
Camille, a tragic heroine in Der Ring Gott
Farblonjet, or a comic grotesque in Bluebeard (it was she who modeled the hideous genitalia of "the third sex"). Her performances unfold beneath a mysterious veil, a cloak of utter commitment to even the most outlandish character; what's particularly bewitching is her ability to lift the veil for a mischievous instant, not so much breaking character as extending it in such a way that allows both her and us to believe in it all the more.
My personal favorite was Zena Grossfinger in
Secret Lives of the Sexists, the ex-stripper whose unlikely history makes her a feminist heroine, though I'll never forget the hilarious scene in
The Ventriloquist's Wife where, alone onstage, she played both sides
-- really, all three sides -- of a phone conversation with her husband's dummy. In Ludlamís delightful new play
The Artificial Jungle, she plays the restless Roxanne as a combination of Therese Racquin, Lady Macbeth, and Barbara Stanwyck in
Double Indemnity. But perhaps the role that was closest to the bone for
Black-Eyed Susan was Elfie Fey in Stage Blood, who when applying to join a touring theater company is asked, "Do you have what it takes to be an actress? Can you
Swedish-Hungarian parents in Shelton, Connecticut, Susan wanted to act from the age of seven. Her first role in a school play was a boy named Tubby, whose one line was "Christmas will he here in two weeks," a theme which recurred when she played Christmas Past wearing her tutu from ballet class. At her Long Island high school, an inspirational drama teacher cast her in everything from
Sorry, Wrong Number to Playboy of the Western
World. After a year at Emerson, she transferred to Hofstra where she was directed by fellow acting student Charles Ludlam in Sean O'Casey's Figure in the Night
and Elena Garro's The Solid House, a one-act play about dead people in a tomb which they rehearsed for three months.
Moving to New York, she studied at HB Studios, brought her college graduation picture instead of a headshot to a soap opera audition, and worked with a very old woman who wrote Biblical sagas. By chance she ran into Ludlam at an
all-night deli on First Avenue and fell in with what soon became the original Ridiculous Theatrical Company, working as a typist at Nonesuch Records by day, rehearsing at Mario Montez's loft by night, and playing midnight shows at a moviehouse on the weekends. Dissatisfied with her plain last name (Carlson), she experimented with some silly noms de plume until Ludlam finally christened her
The key to her
long-term partnership with Ludlam is "a willingness to partake, to go along with the highs and the lows. Most actors go into rehearsal with a finished script and a regular schedule, ten to six with an hour for lunch. That isn't exactly the way we work," said Susan, wildly understating the case over coffee at Montana Eve one afternoon recently. Her coarse black hair framing an ethereal face, she frequently looks on the verge of saying or doing something wicked, yet offstage she is relentlessly thoughtful and carefully spoken. Although the Ridiculous company has the luxury of previewing new shows for months, "our rehearsals are intensive, and we spend a lot of time listening to Charles expound on ideas while he's directing," she said. "I think he's a great actor because he's so intelligent that he's able to transcribe idealism to reality. When you're writing a play, you can talk about it in lofty terms. But when it's onstage and you're molding it, a lot of times the loftiness and pretentiousness falls away, and you have to be able to accept that and use the reality.
"I learned that from Charles doing
Big Hotel, playing the great artist (based on Garbo in
Grand Hotel) who feels there s no need for her in the world. I didn't know how to think of myself as a great artist, and I was disappointed in my work. Charles showed me how to work with what one has, to work on inadequacies and not to have an idea in mind that you can't be. He taught me
-- this is a Zen concept -- that perfection lies in the mind, and that reality can have a perfection of its own."
She considers herself fortunate to be supplied with custom-written roles demanding a stretch. Playing Tsu Hsi, the Empress of China in
Eunuchs of the Forbidden City, "I was called upon to do something I didn't know I could do, a woman going through her whole life, from
grade-C concubine to the leader of a huge country," Susan mused. "I talked so much in that play and had these high shoes so I could hardly move. For the next play, I wanted to use my body more, so Charles wrote
Corn and had me play a mute." One of her most poignant roles, the
club-footed beauty Sylvia Woodville, originated not as a physical challenge but because "I told Charles I'd love to play a liar," and her longing to play "the Scottish queen" fueled the writing of
The Artificial Jungle.
When there isn't a role for her, she seeks challenges outside the company. In 1975 she auditioned for the Actors Studio with a scene from
Woyzeck (they turned her down). Recently, during the Ridiculous's
Irma Vep/Salammbo period, she worked with Stuart Sherman on his performance portraits of Chekhov and Brecht, played the title role of Ethyl Eichelberger's
Hamlette with astonishing sobriety, and joined John Jesurun's virtuosic company for
Red House and Deep Sleep. Oddly enough, even the hippest casting directors haven't snared
Black-Eyed Susan for movies. She doesn't have an agent or even a union card. "It's my fault I haven't gotten more work," she lamented. "I don't get out there and show myself." As recently as last year she supported herself by working
part-time at an antique shop, "but I've made it my goal not to do that again."
"She s very hard on herself. She has very high standards. There's a lot of grandeur to the vision, seeing it as something bigger," Ludlam said when I asked him about
Black-Eyed Susan. "What isn't said very much and has to be said is that
Black-Eyed Susan is dedicated to the legitimate theater, seeing the theater as a positive good and dedicating your life to it, with all the
self-sacrifice that demands. We have struggled, we've been broke, we starved
-- we've been through hell. Black-Eyed Susan many, many times saved that theater (with me and others) by starting from scratch and rebuilding it. It's not about
self-exploitation, it's about being an artist and making a lasting contribution to the theater. That to me is the real greatness. It's because of her and people like her that there are any live plays at all."
Village Voice, 1986 (?)