For decades, the incomparable John Waters has influenced offbeat artists everywhere. Now, like a twisted Santa on a mission, he’ll be coming to town with his one-man show, A John Waters Christmas, at Diana Wortham Theatre Monday, Dec. 18.
“I talk about everything — Christmas decorations, criminals, fashion, music, art, crime — you know, even criminals have to have a good Christmas,” Waters says of his stage show. He also discusses “how you can avoid politics every year when you are going to your family’s: Just pass out whistles. So anytime anyone talks about politics, just blow the whistle, and people start laughing, and you won’t knock over the Christmas tree! It’s good advice at Christmas.”
It’s worth taking tips from the filmmaker — if his career path wasn’t orthodox, it was certainly inspired. Early on, instead of letting production budgets cower him, Waters armed himself with an 8-mm camera and embraced a style of his own. His company of renegade actors, coined the “Dreamlanders,” were far from Hollywood starlets. They looked plucked off the street and were seemingly willing to do anything on celluloid, like sex involving a chicken, fornication on a church pew and eating dog feces. Such acts helped surge female impersonator Divine to notoriety.
Baltimore-born Waters has always had a knack for provoking audiences. During the 1960s and ’70s, his grungy cult films, often shot obscurely, developed “the underground film movement.” Waters squirmed his way to stardom, directing and writing such jaw-dropping films as Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble and the trashy, yet iconic, Pink Flamingos.
“Shock art” is meant to catch the viewer off guard. “I just think that you need to surprise people to get their attention,” Waters confesses. “It’s easier to shock people. It’s harder to use wit to make them change their mind. So, if you can make somebody laugh and you grab their attention, they will at least listen to you. And that’s the first step in changing someone’s mind.”
Nowadays, despite pleas from movie-hungry fans, Waters focuses on his stage productions. “I’ve been doing this Christmas show for 12 years,” Waters says. “Even when I made all the movies, I used to always do a show called This Filthy World or An Evening with John Waters. It began when I use to tour with the movies to introduce them. I’ve always had a stage show of some kind or other — I never gave up on vaudeville.”
Asheville’s association with fringe arts and eclecticism is a good fit for the filmmaker. “It has the reputation, definitely,” he says. “I think I will be with my people.”
This isn’t the first time Waters has visited the area. He was part of a distinguished speaker series at UNC Asheville in 2007, and, because of high demand, the university is eyeing his return. “My whole view of everywhere is by the fans who come to see me — who I meet at the signing, during the meet-and-greet or see in the audience — and they are all cool everywhere, now,” Waters says. “I always say that all the people who come to my show always get their roots done that day. So it’s really good for the hairdressers when I come.”
After the tour, the Waters household is gearing up for an annual holiday party with 200 hundred guests. “Every four years, it’s my turn to cook the Christmas dinner for the family — it’s not my turn this year, thank God,” he says. “It’s traditional, in a way, but the trappings are parodies of a traditional Christmas.”
At the party, he’ll pay tribute to his muse. “We decorate the electric chair that Divine was fried in, in Female Trouble,” Waters says. “I have, like, Christmas balls with ugly relative pictures on them. I think that you just can take the traditional things about Christmas and have a little more fun with them. I still do all the ‘normal’ things about Christmas, just, hopefully, in an offbeat way.”
Perhaps “offbeat” best explains Waters’ entire career. From puppet shows at age 12 to ghost stories told at camp that sparked concern among parents to making his first movie — Hag in a Black Leather Jacket — at 16, he’s never relented.
Like any trailblazing artist, it took time to gain acceptance. As years passed, Waters’ tamer side emerged in more mainstream movies, starting with Polyester. He eventually charmed critics with the satirical Serial Mom and, of course, Hairspray — Divine’s final performance at the peak of his stardom. The story lives on as a Broadway musical and was staged at Asheville Community Theatre in 2012.
“I was always ambitious, but certainly things have happened that were way beyond my dreams,” Waters says. “So, I’ve had a good life and people have been very fair to me.”
WHAT: A John Waters Christmas
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave., dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Monday, Dec. 18, 8 p.m. $46 general/$116 meet-and-greet