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Interview with a Drag Artiste: Charles Busch Talks The Divine Sister

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Interview with a Drag Artiste: Charles Busch Talks The Divine Sister

It’s a quarter century now since Charles Busch captivated New York theatergoers, playing a Virgin Sacrifice (actually a 2000-year-old diva) in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. The hilarious spoof he penned for his own company, Theater-in-Limbo, was first presented in 1984 at the Limbo Lounge, located in the East Village’s then crack-addled Avenue C. An instant cult hit, the production then transferred the following year to the now-defunct Provincetown Playhouse in the West Village, where it ran for five record years. Busch has since held his own as queen of drag theater in the city, but he is also, as he so inimitably puts it, “the Gypsy Rose Lee of female impersonation—a drag artiste with a literary pedigree.” He was nominated in 2001 for a Best Play Tony Award for his Upper West Side drawing-room comedy The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which enjoyed a 22-month run on Broadway. Over the years, he has given us a memorable gallery of characters, including the notorious wife of Emperor Justinian (Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium), a Malibu tomboy (Psycho Beach Party), a concert pianist fleeing the Nazis (The Lady in Question), a Hollywood star fighting communist threats (Red Scare on Sunset), an opium-addicted American diplomat’s wife (Shanghai Moon), a murderous Hollywood has-been (Die, Mommy, Die!), and most recently, a fashionable Chicago lady mobster and a Russian crone (don’t ask!) in The Third Story. Somewhere in between came the libretto for the short-lived Boy George musical Taboo—but he’d rather not dwell on that. Busch is now back on stage, playing the Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s convent in 1960s Pittsburgh, in his new play The Divine Sister at the Soho Playhouse.

So, what’s a nice Jewish boy doing in a wimple?

I just grew up loving any movie that dealt with Catholicism. I was brought up by my aunt who was really quite agnostic. Watching movies, Jesus was one of my favorite people. So I’ve always wanted to do some kind of pseudo-religious piece. For years I thought of doing a bibilical piece where I was a courtesan who becomes a leper and is then healed by Jesus. But then nuns…I always wanted to do a nun’s story. And so many of the ladies that I evoke have ultimately done a nun’s picture—like Rosalind Russell or Greer Garson. I love those movies where the nuns all wear big false eyelashes and eyeliner. In The Singing Nun, Debbie Reynolds wears more eye makeup than Elizabeth Taylor did in Cleopatra! There’s something marvelous, sweet, and silly about the way Hollywood tried to do religious pictures. They tried to make them very reverent and filled with awe, but at the same time they couldn’t really depart from their formulas and my form of genre parody is all about affection; it’s so close to the source material that it can be a joy actually as a melodrama.

Tell us some more about The Divine Sister. What was your inspiration for the plot?

Well, so many of the plays I’ve written have been based on some kind of fantasy of who I want to play. A lot of them have begun with, “Who would I like to be?” Here I wanted to play this very lovely embattled Mother Superior, who is very Rosalind Russell and Loretta Young. I think I know myself pretty well as a performer so it is fun for me to recreate what I do well and what I enjoy. But I do try to push a little bit. I’ve never played a nun before, so there are different colors that I have never shown before. And I don’t have to wear a girdle, you know. I’m just terribly noble and sanctimonious. She’s a very conservative and old-fashioned nun. I like playing characters who are often in the wrong, but because of the Hollywood structure, I see the light by the last reel.

But it is really a great affectionate salute to what I call Hollywood religiosity. In a way, it’s an overview of Hollywood’s attitude toward religion from the 1940s to today. We touch on ’40s movies like Come to the Stable and Song of Bernadette, then we move into the sexual hysteria of Black Narcissus, which was a little bit later. From the 1960s, The Trouble with Angels is a big one. In some of those movies from the mid-’60s, the convents often seem like sororities where all the girls are just in high spirits and are liable to break out into a song and a dance. They are all rather cuddly and maybe there is one who is a little bit acerbic, but she is really a marshmallow underneath. Then we touch on Agnes of God, and finally there’s a whole thriller element that’s redolent of The Da Vinci Code.

The play is reminiscent of your some of your early work. Did you consciously try to recreate the free-wheeling entertainments of the Theater-in-Limbo days?

Every couple of years I get this great need to do something completely pure of motive, with no sense of career advancement or even artistic growth. I just wanted to have really pure fun. I wanted to put on a play with a group of friends, people that I’ve worked with before, that I adored. I kind of wrote the parts for everybody, which I enjoy doing. Particularly for Julie Halston, who has been my great stage buddy all these years. And although we’ve continued to work together, we haven’t actually done a new play together since You Should Be So Lucky in 1994. I just enjoy sharing the dressing room with her. She’s such a life force. She loves being on stage so much. There’s a child-like innocence about her, a pure joy of being out there, it’s contagious. I can get sometimes rather dour and I get stage fright half hour before the show. I sit there like Susan Hayward in I Want to Live going to the gas chamber. Oh, it’s just ridiculous. I sit with a horrible expression on my face, thinking “Why can’t the theater burn down?” It’s really self-indulgence. So it’s good when I’m with Julie. It forces me to have a right attitude. At this point I have written 14 different things for Julie over the years. She has such a unique speaking voice, I sort of hear it in my head. So it’s really fun for me allow her to do her trip, which is what I call it, and also to take her in different directions. I’ve always wanted to have her do some really broad physical comedy and I’ve certainly taken her in this play down a very grotesque path. She has shown remarkable lack of ego to play this.

Last month the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center celebrated your birthday and a milestone in your career with a screening of the documentary The Lady in Question Is Charles Busch.

Yes, I’m 56—I can’t believe it. It was for 25 years since Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. But I actually was around for a decade before that. I started my career immediately after college in Chicago for a couple of years. Then I came back to New York and I was a solo performer from 1978 to 1985. It was only fairly recently that I revaluated that period of my career and began to take more pride in it. It was such a difficult period for me because I couldn’t earn a living, so consequently I associated it with a sense of failure. It was such relief when Vampire Lesbians opened and I could finally earn a living as a writer/actor and always have since. But when I really try to look back on my solo career; I would sell out my engagements in these different cities in non-profit theaters and got rave reviews in important papers. So that’s why I was so encouraged to keep going. Not that I even needed the encouragement, I was so obsessed. I just kept thinking that I would keep getting better if I kept learning and learning—and just kept with this mad pursuit of my goal. When I look back, I was quite a resourceful young person.

Weren’t you also honing your skills all that while?

I really was. It was like an old-fashioned career of doing vaudeville for years. Things worked out just right. During those solo years I had a vague dream that I wanted to do my one-man show Off Broadway and someone that would, I don’t know, open the gates. Finally, oddly enough that happened when I was in drag doing basically this skit that I wrote called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. But I think one of the reasons that show was a success—it was the first time I was reviewed by the New York critics—was people were seeing a performer who really had worked steadily and had learned so much about performing and who he was, and learned about exposition and characterization. So maybe it was best that it worked out that way. You could have your big showcase too soon and not be ready, and that could be fatal.

Do you have any other new work coming up?

Oh, I just get a different scheme every week. I also love making movies. I have made so few but I just love the whole process of making a film, so I am trying to figure out how to get that one off again. And Julie and I are continuing to work on this two-person show. This is something we have done in Chicago and Washington, D.C. and now we are going to do four dates in February and March at Primary Stages as a workshop. I also have another play that was commissioned by Primary Stages, titled Olive and the Bitter Herbs. It’s not until a year from now and is rather in the vein of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. The lead role is for an older actress who’s biologically female.

What about role for yourself? Who would you like to be next?

[The New York Times chief drama critic] Ben Brantley had an astute comment when he said that the roles that I have written for myself do correspond to the natural aging process of a classic film star of the ’30s. The character in Shanghai Moon was a kind of Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwcyck, cheap dame; in The Lady in Question, she is the apotheosis of the Hollywood glamour period of the 1940s; then in Red Scare on Sunset, a little bit later, when the studio system is faltering, she is reduced to doing a red-scare exploitation melodrama; and then in Die, Mommy Die, which is grand-dame Guignol, where actresses like Davis and Crawford were scrambling and doing thriller films. And now Mother Superior, which is really Rosalind Russell at the end of her career in The Trouble with Angels. Next stop is television! If I just keep going, the next thing will be a TV movie or a role on Dynasty, so I can’t really go there. It’s tricky, because I try to write roles that are age-appropriate and my one dilemma is that every year at Christmas, for one performance I do this play from 1984, Times Square Angel, where I am playing a girl of 24. I don’t want the joke to be on me.

Well, we are certainly looking forward to being blessed with your Mother Superior…

It’s funny, because there always seems to be a meta-theatrical sense of role-playing. In all my shows, there was always a sense that I’m Charles Busch who is playing an actress, who tonight is playing the role of Angela Arden or Mother Superior. And we started that really from the very beginning at the Limbo Lounge in the East Village, just through the use of footlights, through my delayed entrance, the old-fashioned curtain calls and a curtain speech. And it comes as an unspoken agreement with the audience. I find that it’s fun if the audience is playing their role themselves—they are playing the role of the enduring audience to this slightly faded grande dame of the theater. When we are both playing that role together, we feed off each other.

For information about The Divine Sister, including a schedule of showtimes and ticketing information, click here.