A Habit for Nuns :: Charles Busch on ’The Divine Sister’
"The Divine Sister," Charles Busch’s wild and woolly send-up of Hollywood nuns, is now on view at New Conservatory Theatre Center. The legendary, cross-dressing star does not appear in the San Francisco production, but he gave NCTC his blessing. In a telephone interview from his home in New York City, Busch explains his fascination with ladies in habits.
"I’m Jewish, but I was raised with no religion," he says. "I got my spirituality from old movies. I’ve always been fascinated with nuns and Catholicism. To me, nuns were romantic and ethereal."
He refers to "Black Narcissus" as "nun noir." In the 1947 film, Deborah Kerr plays the leader of a group of Anglican nuns who travel to the Himalayas to open a hospital for the local residents. They become seduced by the sensuality of their surroundings as the drama unfolds. But the playwright is equally fascinated with the lighter fare that was produced during the 1960s. "They were a relief from Vietnam," he says of hit films like "The Trouble With Angels" and "The Singing Nun."
Busch had a difficult childhood, but not due to his sexuality. His mom died when he was seven years old. Although his dad remained in his life, he lived with his aunt. "I’m the complete product of a permissible childhood," he recalls. "I watched "The Late Show" and became fascinated with women’s pictures. I identified my mom and aunt with those films - my mom was 41 when she died, and my aunt had an embattled nobility. I was living the movies that I watched."
"The Divine Sister" pays homage to the film classics that inspired Busch, albeit with his inimitable over-the-top outrageousness. The play tells the tale of a Mother Superior dealing with a young postulate who’s having "visions," while an older suitor attempts to lure Mother away from her vows. "I had fun with the Mother’s straightness," he says. "I take a satiric jab at the church. I’m sure it’ll be a great production at NCTC."
Busch’s reputation is built on his loving fascination with classic Hollywood. He’s enjoyed a great deal of success with stage homages like "Psycho Beach Party," the legendary "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," and the Bette Davis tribute "Die Mommie Die," which was brought to the screen starring Busch himself.
"It’s hard to say at this point if my audience is gay or straight," he observes. "I’ve got such a peculiar career. I do have a core audience of ’certain-age gay men.’"
He expresses his love for San Francisco, pointing out that he got his start here in the city. "It was a dream to perform in San Francisco," he says. "I performed frequently at the Valencia Rose, and I was embraced by everyone. I always wanted to be in one of my plays in San Francisco, but it can be expensive to bring New York actors out to the coast."
There have been forays into mainstream work, in both male and female roles. In 2001 he played Peg Barlow on the popular, recently revived soap opera "One Life to Live." He also had a recurring role as effeminate death-row inmate Nat Ginzburg on HBO’s "Oz."
"I’ve gotten ’Oz’ residual checks for 22 cents and 46 cents," he says with a laugh.
In 2006, Busch made his debut as a film director. He’s immensely proud of "A Very Serious Person," which he also wrote and starred in. He played Jan, a live-in nurse to a terminally ill woman who is called Mrs. A (Hollywood veteran Polly Bergen). During her final summer, the introverted Jan bonds with Mrs. A’s grandson, and comes out of his shell.
"It won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival," he says proudly. "It’s aired on Showtime and is on DVD, but it never really caught on with moviegoers. Sometimes small stories play better on the small screen."
The film was a rare attempt at serious drama from the cross-dressing comic. It’s the more familiar, zany Busch persona that will be on display in "The Divine Sister," which promises to be a wild ride, even though a local actor will be wearing Busch’s habit. Busch urges his San Francisco fan-base to check it out.
The Divine Sister plays NCTC, 25 Van Ness Ave., SF, through June 29. Tickets: www.nctcsf.org