Stage and screen actress Ellen Greene has long lived with a secret. She’s even written a poem about it.
”They said don’t let anyone know; It will cause disgrace,” Greene reads a couplet from her as-yet unpublished poem Trancy. ”I was so scared for them to see, my secret; I was so susceptible, afraid of being me.”
”I was an epileptic as a child,” Greene confides. In fact, ”Trancy” is the name Greene gave to her younger self. The powerful poem she wrote by that name recounts a couple of the times she suffered petit mal seizures.
Greene credits her struggle with epilepsy as a core reason she’s become such a strong supporter for causes near and dear to queer hearts — from the fight against AIDS to marriage equality to anti-bullying.
”I don’t like it when someone is treated differently because of who they are, or when children feel they’re not special,” she says. ”If I didn’t have [epilepsy] as a child, it might not have colored who I am today.”
”The things that we’re made fun of [as children] are actually the things that go into making us special,” she adds. She smiles as she coins a phrase: ”I’ve always cared for misplaced modifiers, so it would make sense that I would take up [the gay rights] cause.”
Greene certainly didn’t feel special as a child. In fact, the Brooklyn native didn’t actually feel special until she moved to Manhattan in the 1970s and started performing at gay bars and cabarets, launching her career. ”There’s footage of me at a gay rally when I was only 21,” she recalls. “Bette [Midler] was at it, too.”
Earlier this week, Greene returned to her roots, so to speak. She tore the roof off JR.’s, performing as a special guest at the gay bar’s popular Showtunes night. This weekend, Greene will add luster to the annual holiday concert of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. Red & Greene will feature a mix of holiday choral classics and songs from Greene’s repertoire — including, of course, ”Suddenly Seymour.”
Though she’s best known for playing Audrey in both the original 1982 off-Broadway stage and the 1986 Hollywood film versions of Little Shop of Horrors, Greene earned a Tony nomination years prior for her work in a 1976 production of The Threepenny Opera.
Greene will dedicate a couple songs at the concert to her many gay friends — those fighting for marriage equality and those she’s lost along the way, chiefly to AIDS. ”I’ve just buried so many people,” she says. ”I’ve had to mourn all that talent going. In fact, that’s what stopped me from singing for a long while.” After performing at songwriter Peter Allen’s memorial in 1992, Greene fell silent for more than a decade. ”I just said, ‘That’s it, I can’t sing anymore.’ My heart hurt too much.”
Greene credits pianist Christian Klikovits for getting her back on track. The two released the album In His Eyes in 2004, a year after they married. Now divorced, Greene and Klikovits are starting to collaborate once again. Klikovits will accompany Greene at the GMCW concert, and Greene says the two plan to record a couple albums next year, including a Christmas album that will grow out of this concert. She’s also hoping to return to television as a series regular, similar to her work on ABC’s Pushing Daisies a couple years ago.
Greene writes a lot of poems and would like to incorporate them into a future show. She’s eager to adapt Trancy, in particular, as a short animated/live-action film. ”Her record now open; A secret revealed, naked; No shame now; She can start to be healed,” the poem concludes.
”It’s been 30 years since I’ve had a seizure,” says Greene, ”[but] people get stigmatized. For the very reason that people stay private and don’t come out [as gay], that’s the same reason that people who love me are very protective. I’m old enough now that it hopefully won’t hurt me.”
In the end, like many gay people before her, Greene thinks the risk of being out about her secret is outweighed by the benefit.
”Who’s to say there’s not some child who has epilepsy and they feel like a freak — or who’s gay — and they feel like nobody understands them?” she says. “Well, I do. And maybe by me exposing something personal, they will feel brave, too.”
Ellen Greene performs with the Gay Men’s Chorus on Friday, Dec. 16, Saturday, Dec. 17, at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 18, at 3 p.m. Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, 730 21st St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $50. Call 202-293-1548 or visit lisner.org or gmcw.org.