School was a battlefield for a young Paul Capsis. Growing up in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the performer had to juggle his Greek and Maltese heritage while pushing back against a strict religious upbringing, establishing his identity as a gay man and not, as he had always insisted as a kid, a woman trapped in the wrong body. Bashings were a regular occurrence.
“The worst thing I could ever be as a child growing up in Australia in the '70s was a girl,” Capsis says. “The minute I arrived at school I was vilified and attacked for being effeminate because of the misogyny that existed.”
These days, the idea of not being man enough has proliferated on hook-up apps like Grindr, where gay men’s profiles regularly demand "no fems, masc only". It’s a new iteration of strange sort of internalised homophobia that’s been around for quite some time. It was experienced by another great queer icon who embraced his femininity: prolific writer, bon vivant and he of the purple hair, Quentin Crisp. Capsis discovered Crisp in a gay magazine sometime during the '80s before devouring the older man’s work, including books like The Naked Civil Servant and Resident Alien: The New York Diaries.
“One of the most heartbreaking chapters of The Naked Civil Servant is when he talks about how much worse it was being turned away from underground homosexual bars because the owner would say, ‘we don’t want the police coming here, with you here it’s obvious, everyone else is passing as hetero,” Capsis says. “He was attacked, laughed at, made fun of and rejected in England and became an instant hero for me, because of the incredible courage he had in being himself at all costs. He didn’t want to change the world. He accepted his position. He wanted it to be clear and that people like him and myself exist.”
That fierce determination to be true to oneself is something Capsis can relate to, sticking to his guns in Australia as a gender queer artist who revels in difference, even if the Head On star says it has cost him some success. “I know as an artist in Australia, because of who I am and because I haven’t tried to be someone else, I’ve been punished. I’ve also been pretty fortunate that I’ve been able to continue as a performer regardless.”
For his next role, Capsis will inhabit the skin of Crisp in in Tim Fountain’s one-man show Resident Alien, directed by Green Room Award-winner Gary Abrahams. When producer Cameron Lukey first approached him with the proposition, he was reluctant to take on the prickly and brilliant icon so memorably evoked by John Hurt decades apart in 2009’s An Englishman in New York and Jack Gold’s 1975 adaptation of The Naked Civil Servant.
“I never in a million years would have considered playing Quentin,” Capsis says. “He went to boarding school, was very well brought up and he knew how to put a sentence together. My first language is Maltese, then Greek and then English.”
Luckily for Australian audiences, Lukey was persuasive. Resident Alien will debut at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs on May 25 before touring to Sydney’s Seymour Centre and Canberra’s Street Theatre.
The monologue piece is set in Crisp’s infamously shambolic New York apartment. After performing there in 1978, Crisp fell in love with the city and relocated three years later aged 72. He spent the majority of his final years there, before dying in Manchester in 1999. Those New York days were the first time the belligerent outsider had felt fully embraced, falling in with Andy Warhol’s Factory set and, in particular, with performance artist Penny Arcade. His career exploded. “For him, fame and America was a surprise,” Capsis says. “He was very happy that he experienced New York, because he was totally able to be himself.”
Crisp was not one to campaign for queer rights, something that eventually found him at odds with the LGBTQI community. His acerbic tongue lashed out frequently. “He liked Maggie Thatcher and wasn’t sad when Princess Diana was killed,” Capsis says. “I like that he was outspoken, even though I don’t always agree with him. More and more people are afraid to speak up these days. Everyone just wants to get on and not make any waves.”
“I like that he was outspoken, even though I don’t always agree with him. More and more people are afraid to speak up these days. Everyone just wants to get on and not make any waves.”
Walking around the ghosts of Sydney’s once vibrant queer scene, Capsis sees more and more conformity, something Crisp would never have approved of. “I look around me and I see less and less individualism. When I do see it, however, it manifests. I get more joy from that than anything else. The other day I was heading home from my favourite Indian restaurant on Oxford Street with my partner and I saw a young man wearing makeup and little diamond studs glued to his face getting on a bus. I thought, ‘great’.”
He worries about the rise of right-wing conservatism in Australia. “It seems we’re going back to the times of Quentin when he struggled against that. Every now and then, one of the disciples of that movement will rear his ugly head and shout. We cannot let these people think they are like us in any way. And I talk of the Cory Bernardis, the people who rail against and vilify young people who are being bullied.”
Thinking back to his school days, Capsis can draw parallels with Crisp."Quentin accepted he’s a man with a woman’s brain and that’s something I’ve always said about myself, but I think I’m more of a brawler than he was.”
Battling is something Capsis is very good at. “I’m a fighter. I wasn’t until I experienced what I did in high school. That changed the person I was. I am more prepared or battle, I guess. I’m ready to go. I won’t accept.”