Life in a drag commune, playing his friend Quentin Crisp on stage, forming the groundbreaking gay cabaret group Bloolips – 71-year-old actor and activist Bette Bourne covers it all in A Life In Three Acts, an on-stage memoir of sorts that plays this week as part of the Sydney Festival.

The British Bourne takes to the stage each night alongside Australian actor Mitchell Butel (replacing Bourne’s longtime friend and acclaimed playwright Mark Ravenhill, who had to bow out of the Australian season due to illness), who adopts the role of interviewer, keeping Bourne on track when he gets lost in his memories.

“He asks me questions and I tell stories. Sing the occasional number. I’ve even been known to tap — I am an old hoofer — but I’m 72 next birthday,” Bourne told the Star Observer.

The idea for a show about Bourne’s life came about when Ravenhill first happened upon some of his friend’s fantastic stories.

“He was writing a show called Mother Clap’s Molly House, about a bunch of prostitutes living together in one big house.

“I told him it reminded me of the time I lived in a drag commune in 1971 when I was in the gay Liberation Front. All us drag queens got fed up with the straight politicos, so we found a little squat where we could all just dress up in our frocks and be in drag 24/7.

“It was very exciting and rather scary, at times. We’d go and stick up for other communes around London that were getting attacked.

“Once we went to a commune in Brixton that was being terrorised by a gang of schoolboys. There were about 30 of us in full drag, make-up and glitter.
We saw them coming and charged out of the house screaming and ranting. They turned and ran, and never came near us again.

“We used to look after each other. We were arrested once and taken to court — all the queens of London came from all over to show their support. The galleries were full of queens.

“I was in the dock with a large hat and a frock. The judge ordered me to take off my hat. I said ‘I can’t – it goes with the shoes.’

“Pandemonium broke loose because all the queens were blowing bubbles and releasing balloons into the courtroom. The police were all trying to jump up and catch the balloons.”

Throughout all the regal actor’s tales, there’s one common thread ­— a healthy disregard for authority and a wilfully disobedient streak. Bourne said it was present even as a child, much to his parents’ chagrin.

“My father sent me to a very butch boy’s school to try and straighten me out. Of course, they all wanted to fuck me in the toilets, all these butch east end blokes of 15. I thought, this is fuckin’ lovely! It didn’t make me into a man, it made me into a prostitute.

“I used to charge a penny. Or I’d make them eat my greens in exchange for sexual favours.”

info: A Life In Three Acts plays at Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, until January 16. www.sydneyfestival.org.au/life

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