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The Divine Sister - Off-Broadway

Playwright and Actor Charles Busch on the Holy Hilarity of The Divine Sister

Playwright and Actor Charles Busch on the Holy Hilarity of The Divine Sister
Charles Busch in 'The Divine Sister'
It seemed inevitable that someday we’d play lovable and very glamorous nuns.

About the author
Playwright and actor Charles Busch's career has thrived on over-the-top spoofs with outrageous titles such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! Busch also received a Best Play Tony nomination in 2001 for his comedy The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, a rare production in which the drag master didn't double as a heel-clad leading lady. With his latest play, The Divine Sister, which begins previews at SoHo Playhouse on September 12, Busch returns to his parody prone roots (this time he's sending up classic religious flicks) and will don a habit as the show's main character, Mother Superior. For, the author and star explains his prayerful admiration for movie nuns—and why he's having a heavenly time with his fellow sisters.

Every eight years or so I feel a great need to get back to my beginnings and just put on a show. I mean that in the simplest way: putting on a show with no future agenda or some mistaken notion of greater respectability. I have always loved doing a play on a shoestring budget with a group of friends. Don’t get me wrong. I also love having a budget and seeing my name on a Broadway marquee. Every time I pass by the Barrymore Theatre, I wish The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife was still up there. However, I get a real kick out of figuring out ways to get something very special on the stage with the least amount of cash and pretension.

I was born Jewish, but without any kind of religious training at all. Still, I grew up loving movies that had any type of spiritual element: The Song of Bernadette, The Trouble with Angels, Ben-Hur, The Nun’s Story.  Hollywood religiosity is fascinating because the studios didn’t really have a vocabulary for spirituality. They try very hard to be reverent, but at the same time resort to their tried and true formulas, which is where it can get very campy. Julie Halston, who’s been my muse and collaborator for so many years, has always shared this love with me, so it seemed inevitable that someday we’d play lovable and very glamorous nuns. In my new play, The Divine Sister, Julie and I, along with Alison Fraser and Amy Rutberg, wear nearly as many false eyelashes and as much eyeliner and lipstick as Debbie Reynolds and Greer Garson did in The Singing Nun.

The play takes place in Pittsburgh in 1966 and is a kaleidoscopic view of Hollywood religious movies from the 40s through today. I play the lovely and embattled Mother Superior and my anxieties include sexual hysteria among my nuns, a former lover who wants me to renounce my vows, a postulant with some troublesome stigmata and a radical Catholic sect who, much like in The Da Vinci Code, hopes to reveal a secret that could change the entire fabric of the world.

When I finished the play, I showed it to Carl Andress, who has directed many of my plays, and he wanted to do it right away. He’s very energetic. Carl is the type of fellow who is compelled to take on any kind of problem and won’t quit until he figures it out. I spend most of my time stretched out on my sofa. I get lots of ideas, maybe two a day, and I have the discipline to write 'em and finish 'em, but other people have always taken the initiative and brought them to the stage. I’m kind of the wind under everybody else’s wings and it works out just fine.

Carl figured out a way to put on the play quickly and on a very tight budget. We staged the show last February at Theater for the New City in their 70-seat Cino Theatre. It was a perfect experience—working with people I adore, feeling a true joy in performing and entertaining the most enthusiastic of audiences. Daryl Roth, who is a fantastic lady with a great commitment to keeping off-Broadway alive and has produced just about everything I’ve done for the past decade, immediately decided to bring the show back in the fall. So here we are.

Those who have followed my career will see something that harkens back to plays of mine such as Psycho Beach Party and The Lady in Question. And my latest role? Well…I’ve been writing for myself for 35 years, and there’s always a certain amount of fantasy fulfillment in the roles I play. I adore playing Mother Superior and one of the great perks is that wearing this divine habit, I don’t have to get into a corset! Hallelujah!

It’s always fun walking the tightrope between sincerity and style. There are so many different types of theatrical parody, and in my little stretch of territory, the parody is so close to its source, it can also be enjoyed as an example of the genre. That sounds a bit grand, but I think you get my gist. When you do comedy, especially one with religious subject matter, there’s bound to be someone in the audience who thinks you’ve gone too far. We get pretty bawdy—very bawdy at times—so I might get a letter or two, but really I have so much affection for these films and the mad innocence Hollywood had in telling these stories. Come to think of it, mad innocence is a good way of describing our joy in doing The Divine Sister. Or perhaps Mad Innocence is a good title for my next play!

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