World of John Waters comes to York
'Hairspray,' 'Pink Flamingos' director talks pop culture and more in one-man show. By Mary Ellen Wright, Correspondent
John Waters confesses he has always been drawn to both high-brow and low-brow culture.
It's the middle he tries to avoid.
"I am more comfortable, high or low, definitely," Waters says with a laugh. "I'm always nervous when I see people mall-walking."
Waters, the Baltimore-bred cult-film director who brought forth such shocking movie fare as 1972's "Pink Flamingos" -- which famously featured his plus-sized drag-queen friend, Divine, eating dog poop -- is also a voracious reader who owns more than 8,000 books.
Waters, 66, has made kitschy movies like "Female Trouble," "Cry-Baby," "Serial Mom" and the original "Hairspray," peopled with lifelong friends from Baltimore and with notorious cultural icons such as kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst and former porn star Traci Lords.
But he's also an art collector, and creates photographic art installations he has exhibited throughout the United States and Europe.
Waters' varied palette of passions will be on display when he brings his weird worldview and his smirking, encyclopedic intelligence to the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center in York Friday night in his one-man show, "This Filthy World."
"There's nothing on stage except me and a microphone," Waters says. His show is an extended monologue filled with his observations about popular culture; vignettes from his life in trashy filmmaking and high art; and meditations on such early influences as the Wicked Witch of the West and the horror films of B-movie impresario William Castle.
The show "is constantly updated and constantly changed," Waters says.
"I would say it's 95 percent different" from the material in the 2006 documentary film made of the show.
Among the other inspirational people in his life, many of whom Waters wrote about in his 2011 book of essays, "Role Models," he calls playwright Tennessee Williams one of the most influential.
"When I first read his stuff when I wasn't allowed to, as a kid at the library, I realized there was another world -- the world of bohemia -- that I didn't know existed," he says. "And I then knew there was a place for me to live.
"I can be that for kids, too. I've always said I want to be a negative role model, because all kids need bad artistic influences they can look up to," Waters says with a chuckle. "I try to be a filth elder."
Though he also has apartments in New York and San Francisco, Waters still lives in his hometown of Baltimore.
"I'm inspired here," he says. "I get ideas here. People are used to me here. ... It's a great city with edge."
Though he's made cameo appearances in films and on TV, Waters hasn't directed a feature film since 2004's "A Dirty Shame."
"The independent film world has changed so much," Waters says. "They want all movies to cost a fifth of what they used to. ... And I can't do that. I can't go backwards."
So Waters continues to tour with various versions of "This Filthy World," tailored to audiences from art aficionados to prison inmates to horror-convention attendees; the York audience will get the "standard, normal version," he says.
He's writing another book, "Car Sick," inspired by his recent adventures in hitchhiking across America, and he's preparing a new photo installation to be exhibited in New York next year.
And the openly gay Waters recently campaigned with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley on the issue of marriage equality; the state legalized same-sex marriage last month.
If there's a "middle" to Waters' creative portfolio, it's the pop-culture juggernaut that is "Hairspray." His 1988 Ricki Lake film inspired the 2002 Broadway musical and 2007 John Travolta movie.
Waters just finished a gig as narrator of the costumed, choreographed "Hairspray: In Concert," featuring the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra playing the music from the Broadway musical.
His narration detailed the people and institutions around Baltimore that inspired various characters and situations in "Hairspray."
"I sort of talk you through it," he says. "I suppose it's almost like a commentary on a DVD.
"I'm Victor Borge now," Waters deadpans.
" 'Hairspray' has certainly played everywhere in the middle,'' he notes, "and it was amazing to me how accepting people were of everything in that movie.
"I never just tried to shock people. I always tried to make people laugh and see things in a different way -- in 'This Filthy World' and even my books and my movies. …"
He feels his audiences are willing to come into his world because they have an open mind about seeing things from an unusual point of view.
"That doesn't mean they're going to embrace it or change their opinions," he says.
"I'm never mean-spirited, I don't think," Waters says. "You can hate my work, but I don't ever think you can say it's mean, because it's not."
"This Filthy World: An Evening With John Waters" begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Strand Theatre, 50 N. George St., York. Tickets, $31- $41; call the box office at 846-1111. Information: mystrandcapitol.org.