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Sister Acting

Julie Halston and Alison Fraser team up with old pal Charles Busch for his hilarious new play The Divine Sister. logo
Amy Rutberg, Charles Busch, Alison Fraser, and Julie Halston
in The Divine Sister
(© David Rodgers)
In The Divine Sister, now at Theater for the New City, writer and star Charles Busch has once again provided great comic opportunities for two of his muses: actresses Julie Halston and Alison Fraser. The very funny ladies play a pair of Catholic school nuns, Sister Acacius and Sister Walburga, respectively, who are most definitely not what they seem. TheaterMania sat down with Halston and Fraser after a recent performance to discuss their work.

THEATERMANIA: This play is just so funny. How do you keep from laughing on stage?
ALISON FRASER: We are actually very grounded on stage, because we take it seriously. We think we're playing very very dramatic parts. And Charles is saying some important things about the hypocrisy of the church and its sexual hysteria.
JULIE HALSTON: I think Alison is dead right. We have found that the straighter you play it, the funnier it is. I think the strength of Charles' work is that for everything that he's parodying, the play is based in such a strong narrative. He's such a great storyteller. You must tell the story, so you can't really be winking. And quite frankly, he writes very long sentences.

TM: How much input did you each have into your characters?
JH: I think Charles is quite generous. Look, I have a career because of Charles Busch. He writes it in my rhythm, so I don't need to put in too much input. It's all me anyway.
AF: He's very generous and so is Carl Andress, our director. They both let me come up with some stupid stuff and keep it. But for some odd reason, Charles sees me as a Nazi villainess. This is the third time that I have been German for him.

TM: Alison, you do an excellent German accent, and an equally good Scottish one here as well. Do they come easily to you?
AF: You know, I think I do have a facility for accents.
JH: You definitely do. The only accent I can really do is the Julie Halston accent.
AF: I can't do the Julie Halston Accent. I can actually do other things. I can do a great little Edie. I actually do it a lot in the dressing room.

TM: Julie, you actually went to Catholic school, right?
JH: Family High School, Christ the King -- don't get me started. You know the interesting thing is, I aspired to be Jewish. Then I meet Charles Busch, who is Jewish but he was not raised with any religion. He's obsessed with Jesus. He loves every catholic pageant. He has seen every Hollywood movie about the Jesus story. I remember one time we were talking and I said something flip -- like yeah, it's the greatest story ever told -- and very pointedly, he said, it is the greatest story ever told. I thought, who is this Jewish boy saying this? All I wanted to do was be a Jewish American Princess from Dix Hills, which I could not be, because I was basically a Catholic Irish Italian girl from Commack.

TM: So, you never wanted to be a nun, did you?
JH: I did, believe it or not. When I was really small, about 7 or 8 years old, I was obsessed with the movie Song of Bernadette. And I was also obsessed with the movie Gypsy. And literally it was Nun, Stripper, Nun, Stripper, Nun, Stripper. So I thought becoming an actress was a good middle ground.
AF: I didn't, but it's really fun wearing a habit. As I always say, the wimple covers a multitude of chins. Come on, that's a good nun joke.

TM: The play parodies a lot of movies from the 1960s. What did you watch for inspiration?
JH: I actually YouTubed The Trouble With Angels again because I was obsessed with Hayley Mills as a kid. And I watched Black Narcissus and a few things from The Nun's Story, but I didn't want to watch the whole thing.
AF: I watched Witness for the Prosecution, and I also saw Inglourious Basterds. I like to think of Christoph Waltz as a great great inspiration for this part.

TM: What's it like performing in a space where the audience is practically on top of you?
AF: I like this space. It's like going back 35 years to the old La MaMa days. That's where I started. It's really freeing.
JH: There are people in the audience who are kind of new to the downtown scene. There are also people who literally remember Charles Busch when he would do midnight shows in 1982. There are also some nights I can't find a woman in the crowd, but generally it's a nice mix.

TM: So what do you think the next step should be with this show?
JH: I think we should all get Obies and then I don't know. I mean, it would be so nice if we could just play here forever.
AF: Well, it would be -- if we got paid.

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