All theater rehearsal is, to some degree, controlled chaos. As Ben Putnam stands the middle of ACT Theatre’s Bullitt Cabaret, working through a transition in Beware the Terror of Gaylord Manor, his Halloween-y theater-cabaret show opening Oct. 10 at ACT, the control outweighs the chaos by a long shot. There are a million little details that need addressing: flying bats, a bevy of dancers, shadow puppetry and a spangly dress that needs to be precisely unzipped. It’s tricky, and timing is everything.
But Putnam is chill. Compared to rehearsals for the show’s 2017 premiere, things are downright luxurious. “It was kind of a miracle that it happened at all last year,” Putnam says, his laughter a more subdued but totally recognizable version of the supernatural pep that flows from his drag persona, BenDeLaCreme. “Part of the reason I love working with this group of people is that everyone stepped up and made it work. They’ll do what it takes to make it happen.”
Last year, Putnam says, he was still finishing the script after the cast was well into rehearsal. The show was still a well-executed, sell-out hit, but on top of starring in the show and directing it, that last-minute scramble was too much, even for a self-described control freak like Putnam.
What happened, of course, was season three of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars. BenDeLaCreme went on (and breathtakingly off) the reality show last year, “so a month and a half of time I was planning to work on this I was not only absent but unreachable.” Fourteen-hour days of filming weren’t exactly conducive to writing his first full-length narrative show, even on weekends.
“You’re not just playing the official [All Stars] game, you’re playing a lot of other games at the same time,” he says. “So, on those two days off, we all just kind of lay on our backs and hyperventilate until it’s time to go back for more. At least when I signed on I wasn’t under the delusion that I would get any work done while I was there.”
But, back to the show. Gaylord Manor is pure ‘60s-horror camp: A young ingénue named Patsy (played by DeLa) ends up trapped with a pair of paranormal researchers in a spooky house on Halloween night. Baron von Gaylord (Richard Andriessen) is lord of this particular peculiar manor and of the various ghouls and ghosts within. Using every trick in their dance, comedy, music, theater and burlesque books, Putnam and his talented cast bring their audience along on a side-splitting, drink-spitting, fourth-wall-breaking ride through a night full of beautiful monsters. Everything is delivered with technical precision and, this being Putnam, hefty doses of subtexts—self-discovery, seductive demons, personal bravery, repressed trauma, ingrained misogyny, etc.
Swaddled in a cozy maroon sweater at ACT, Putnam is in the middle of everything, plugging in lights, moving props. Walking through a section performed in silhouette by burlesque gem The One The Only Inga, he redirects an arm movement to be “like a Disney tree in the spring.” Weirdly, that works really well.
With this longtime team of collaborators including Scott Shoemaker, Faggedy Randy, Inga and Andriessen (aka Major Scales), he’s cultivated a responsive rehearsal room full of questions, conversations and suggestions. “This was the first script like this I’ve ever attempted, and I have no theater background, so this is me trying some new shit,” Putnam says. “As you start creating new forms of work you’re also figuring out how to do them. Everything I’ve ever done performance wise has been a lot of trial and error, whether that’s solo work or cabaret work or emceeing. People are like how do you get good at something? You just do it over and over.”
DeLa’s popular solo shows—Terminally Delightful, Inferno A-Go-Go and Cosmos—put that peppy, raven-haired optimist centerstage, but she’s also been a fabulous host of ensemble burlesque shows Freedom Fantasia and Homo for the Holidays, which she co-created with Kitten LaRue and Lou Henry Hoover. No matter what Putnam is writing, layered under all the sharp jokes, scholarly allusions and narrative switchbacks, there’s a bedrock of human kindness underlying everything. True cynics need not apply.
This year, after 10 years of Homo for the Holidays, DeLa will appear in a brand-new holiday show: To Jesus, Thanks for Everything, Jinkx and DeLa, co-starring fellow Drag Race star and erstwhile Seattleite Jinkx Monsoon. To Jesus will tour throughout December before landing at the Neptune Theater for a four-night run in late December.
“It was just time for me to do something new,” Putnam says. “[Homo] was a huge part of my life and something I was very passionate about so there’s definitely sadness about leaving it behind, but you grow and you learn and you figure out what you need to do next.”
What that is exactly, Jinkx and DeLa are still figuring out. They started scheming in their shared house in Provincetown, Mass., this summer, but the show’s details are still in the works. There will be plenty of songs, of course, and plenty of good times. “Jinkx and I have a great onstage dynamic, and that’s the approach we’re interested in taking: what happens when the two of us have some structure and just get on stage and go. Anybody who’s seen one of my shows, one of Jinkx’s shows or the two of us onstage drinking martinis and talking about TV will have a fairly good idea of what they’re getting into, structurally speaking.”
Letting a show lean on the performers’ improv skills, no matter how adroit, isn’t easy for a control freak. But Putnam isn’t just up for a new endeavor, he’s seeking them out. “[Gaylord] was my last challenge, this is my new challenge,” he says, and when it comes to scaling back on the script, there’s no one he’d rather take that leap with.
“We really trust each other,” Putnam says of Jinkx. “To have been through so much, to have started out soft-shoeing for quarters around Seattle, and for both of us to have the careers we have now, it’s incredible. We’ve always been very good friends, and there’s also of course been a sense of competition between us, and all these things, but we’ve come out on the other end and it’s made us stronger as a team. When I go to see Jinkx’s work I find it inspiring and it makes me want to step up my game, and I know that she feels the same about me.”