After losing more than three dozen speaking engagements last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Baltimore-based filmmaker, writer and raconteur John Waters is going back on the road.
Waters is scheduled to visit at least 18 cities before year’s end with his stand-up shows, including a stop at Baltimore Soundstage on Dec. 21 at 8 p.m. Next month he’ll travel to Poland for the American Film Festival in Wroclaw, where he’ll receive the prestigious Indie Star Award for lifetime achievement in filmmaking, including for his films Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Hairspray.
Publishing company Farrar, Straus and Giroux has set May 3, 2022, as the publication date for Waters’ next book and first novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.” He’s scheduled to guest star in two popular TV series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon Prime and “Search Party” on HBO Max.
It all adds up to a busy next few months for the Baltimore-based artist and performer. It’s a sign that Waters, like many entertainers, is once again making in-person appearances after months of COVID-related theater closings and travel restrictions confined him to a tiny Tic Tac Toe screen on Zoom.
“Back on the road. Here we go,” Waters said in a phone interview. “It’s a little scary, but I’m going to take as many precautions as I can.”
Here’s how the Baltimore Soundstage website touts the resumption of his holiday show, “A John Waters Christmas”:
“Like an obsessed and shell-shocked St. Nick from quarantine, John Waters, the ‘people’s pervert’ or ‘queer Confucius’ as the press recently called him, is back after a two-year home detention in Baltimore to hit the road again for his 25th Annual Xmas Tour.”
For anyone hesitating because of the pandemic, the site promises Waters’ show is “the booster shot you need.”
While most of Waters’ travel is for his popular spoken-word shows, there are other engagements as well, including a music festival in California. The number of fall appearances Waters has planned is pretty much back to his pre-pandemic levels, when he usually scheduled more than 20 out-of-town events in October, November and December.
Waters says he’s happy to get back on stage, and he promises the shows won’t be anything like what he did before COVID. He says he’s revamping everything in his monologues to make sense in a world changed by the pandemic.
“I haven’t done it in a year and a half,” he said in an interview with Town & Country magazine, which put him on the cover of its October issue. “Every single thing is different after COVID. You cannot do the same show. Nothing’s the same.”
He’s even changing the title of his signature “This Filthy World” shows, which he typically performs before Thanksgiving, when he transitions to “A John Waters Christmas.” The new name is “False Negative,” a nod to the testing mishaps that have taken place during the pandemic.
“’False Negative’ is the next chapter in Waters’ rapid-fire one-man spoken word Vaudevillian act, ‘This Filthy World,’ celebrating the film career and joyously appalling taste of the man William Burroughs once called The Pope of Trash,” explains the website for his shows this month in Minnesota.
“In this live performance, the legend himself talks about his early negative artistic influences, including his fascination with true crime, exploitation films, fashion lunacy, the extremes of the art world, Catholicism, sexual deviancy and a love of reading.”
Picking up the pace
Waters, 75, hasn’t exactly been in hibernation for the past 18 months. In September, he attended a gala to celebrate the opening of the $482 million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. In July, he was the “special guest host” for a concert by country crooner Orville Peck and others at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colo., a venue he described as “Hollywood Bowl meets Jurassic Park.”
He had a Q&A session with movie fans in Provincetown, Mass. in August and led a tour of “sex haunts” there in July for winners of an auction benefitting the Provincetown International Film Festival. He hosted his Camp John Waters weekend for superfans in Kent, Conn. in September, with Kathleen Turner, Patricia Hearst and Mink Stole as camp counselors. He went to the New York Film Festival.
The pace will pick up starting this weekend, when Waters travels to Oakland, Calif., to host “Halloween Meltdown with John Waters” on Oct. 16 and 17. It’s an indie music festival that’s replacing the Burger Boogaloo punk rock event he usually hosts there in the summer.
He’s appearing in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 20; Pittsburgh on Oct. 21; Oberlin, Ohio, on Oct. 28; and Minneapolis on Oct. 29 and 30. The Pittsburgh and Minneapolis engagements are two that replace “This Filthy World.” Also in late October, leaders of the Baltimore Museum of Art will name restrooms after him in a private event in return for his pledge to donate the bulk of his personal art collection to the museum, where he just joined the board of trustees.
November and December are the months for his “A John Waters Christmas” shows. Besides the Baltimore performance, the lineup includes: San Francisco on Nov. 29 (Great American Music Hall); Portland, Ore. on Nov. 30 (The Aladdin Theater); Seattle on Dec. 1 (The Neptune Theater); Los Angeles on Dec. 2 (The Vermont Hollywood), and Houston on Dec. 3 (The Heights Theater).
Also, Denver on Dec. 4 (Soiled Dove Underground); Omaha, Neb. on Dec. 5 (Slowdown); Austin, Texas on Dec. 6 (Paramount Theatre); Milwaukee on Dec. 9 (Turner Hall Ballroom); Boston on Dec. 10 (The Berklee Performance Center); New York City on Dec. 12 (City Winery); Key West, Fla. on Dec. 14 (Key West Theater); and Alexandria, Va. on Dec. 15 (The Birchmere).
Breaking up the U.S. tour dates will be Waters’ trip to Poland for the American Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 9 to 14 and is billed as the largest annual film festival in Poland and Eastern Europe.
An English translation of the program says that Waters is being honored for his “lifetime colorful creation” and “completely uniqueness,” starting as an independent filmmaker in the 1960s and early 1970s.
As part of its tribute to Waters, the festival is presenting a retrospective of his movies, including “Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble,” “Cecil B. Demented” and both the 1988 and 2007 versions of “Hairspray,” as well as the documentary “I Am Divine,” about Waters’ muse, the late Harris Glenn Milstead.
Waters is scheduled to deliver a “masterclass” about filmmaking one day and one of his spoken word performances, “specially adapted to Polish reality,” the next. His stand-up show at the Vertigo Jazz Club and Restaurant will be followed by a tribute to Divine performed by local drag queens and kings, organized by a drag star named Old Lady and billed as “We Are Divine.”
In honoring both Waters and Divine, the festival will be one of the first to draw attention to the 50th anniversary of the release of “Pink Flamingos,” the film that made Divine famous, on March 17, 1972.
Waters said the festival is a good example of how the COVID pandemic has made it difficult for performers to go on tour in recent months, even if they wanted to.
“It’s been in the works for two years because it keeps getting cancelled with COVID,” he said. “It’s like everything. It keeps getting moved and changed.”
The European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe) published a report in 2021 that found that Poland ranked the lowest among European Union countries for LGBTQ rights.
But Waters is undeterred.
“I’ve never been to Poland so I’d love to spread my filth,” Waters said. “It’s going to be quite interesting.”
Does he have many fans in Poland?
“I guess so if I’m going there,” he said. “Yes I guess I do. And I’m looking forward to meeting them.”
Why does Waters feel the need to go back on the road? He told Town & Country writer Mike Albo that his speaking engagements give him a way to stay in touch with his fans.
“It’s more than a way I make my living,” he said in the cover story. “It’s pressing flesh. It’s like campaigning. They come see everything you do for the rest of your life. Elton John told me that. The day you stop touring, it’s over. I always say to someone, you blink and somebody’s there to steal your place. I believe you have to constantly be out there.”
His advice to young artists and performers: Don’t take your foot off the accelerator.
“You have to learn to ride the waves, and you always have to have a backup plan,” he told the magazine. “That’s why I did books. That’s why I always had spoken word shows. They weren’t less to me. That wasn’t a lesser career. It was just a new way for me to tell stories. It was always, ‘I can’t do that. I can do this.’ “
Waters said in a separate phone interview that his audiences will be required to follow the health safety rules put in place by the venues where he performs. “All my Christmas shows, they have to have been vaccinated and wear a mask inside.”
Waters said he won’t have traditional Meet and Greets with handshakes and hugs the way he has in the past but there may be alternatives if theaters can come up with a safe arrangement. “We are working that out.”
At his Camp John Waters weekend, he said, “we set up the prison booths from Cry-Baby with the phones, and we did it that way.”
Waters acknowledges that he’s “a little nervous” about getting back on the road in such a big way, “because, you know, I’m back out there.” But he notes that he’s had a few dry runs: “I did the Orville Peck concert. I did the John Waters Camp. I’ve already been on the road.”
Another point: “I’m on the stage. I’m not in the audience…If I was really that concerned. I wouldn’t even go out of my house, like some people I know.”
One change between last year and this year in terms of getting around, Waters said, is that planes are fuller because more people are traveling.
“During the pandemic,” he said, “I went to Rome. I went to L. A. I went to San Francisco. I lived in Provincetown all summer where the big outbreak was. But at the same time, I’m cautious. The difference was, in the middle of the pandemic I flew and there were three people on the plane. It was fine. Now they’re packed.”
Although news platforms have carried stories about some people having mask-related meltdowns in the air, “I haven’t been duct taped to the seat yet,” he quipped.
For fans who don’t live near a city where Waters is performing, there will be chances to see him on television in the near future. He’ll appear on an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” when Season Four starts on Amazon Prime, most likely this fall or winter. He filmed his guest starring role with Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Miriam “Midge” Maisel, in New York City last March.
He’s also appearing in two episodes of Season Five of “Search Party,” a dark comedy on HBO Max, also filmed in New York City and also expected to be out by early 2022. Other guest stars in Season Five include Jeff Goldblum and Kathy Griffin.
The publication of “Liarmouth” is expected to trigger another book tour next spring. On its website, Farrar, Straus and Giroux calls the book “a hilariously filthy tale of sex, crime and family dysfunction from the brilliantly twisted mind of John Waters.”
The publisher also posted a description of Waters’ title character:
“Marsha Sprinkle. Suitcase thief. Scammer. Master of disguise. Dogs and children hate her. Her own family wants her dead. She’s smart, she’s desperate, she’s disturbed, and she’s on the run with a big chip on her shoulder. They call her ‘Liarmouth’ – until one insane man makes her tell the truth.”
Though his last book was entitled “Mr. Know-It-All,” Waters admits that some things do still shock and surprise him.
In 2016 he told TV host Stephen Colbert he was shocked that Americans voted for Donald Trump. In 2019 he expressed surprise that Nike, the giant sportswear maker, wanted him to be the male face of its fall campaign even though he makes no secret of his disdain for all sports (except skateboarding.)
This fall he says he’s surprised that he landed on the cover of Town & Country magazine, under a headline that reads “The Rules of GOOD TASTE Starring John Waters, Who Broke Them All.”
“Being on the cover of Town & Country is a surprise to me, in a great way,” he said in the article. “It’s another irony in a life of ironies. My mother would be very happy.”
As he resumes a busy travel schedule, Waters admits there’s one more thing that shocks him: What people wear on airplanes.
“It is so shocking what people wear,” he said in a Q&A session on Instagram, pegged to the cover story. “You know, in a filthy old t-shirt and pajama bottoms. And it’s always the ones that aren’t cute. If the cute ones were in their pajamas, all right. It’s always the most hideous ones.”