Almost ten years ago Lisa Buscani packed up her bags and moved to New York to become a nun--onstage, at least.
The chasm between fringe performer and star in a commercial hit like Late Nite Catechism seems wide, but Buscani credits touring with the show in part for her newest performance work, Solid Citizen, which examines how difficult it can be to do the right thing. "I've been a professional Catholic for the last nine years," Buscani says. "I don't practice--it's very important to point that out. But there are certain aspects of the church that I really do like. The church is like Capitol Hill. There are people on the right who are really stodgy and really conservative, and then people on the left who are extremely radical in ways that I could never think about being radical about social justice. In trying to be a good person, what are the pros and cons when you get involved?" The pieces in Solid Citizen range from "Feeding Big LaQuita," a poem about working with abused children that appeared in her 1992 collection Jangle, to newer work about her experiences as a member of a grand jury and as a witness to the public abuse of women.
One of the themes running through Solid Citizen is the battle over territory and how that affects human behavior. Once in Brooklyn a badly beaten woman was tossed from a car right in front of Buscani and her boyfriend. Then the man who threw the woman turned on them and threatened their lives. "Brooklyn is a lot like Chicago, minus the space," she notes in the piece describing the incident. "Emotion minus space usually equals cruelty."
But Buscani's reasons for taking the role of the authoritarian nun in Late Nite Catechism, a Chicago export, were far more pragmatic than philosophical. That the job proved itinerant was a boon. Just as she was moving to New York, Buscani got a call from Maripat Donovan, cocreator and original star. "The show was going on a national tour, she was getting ready to go to Toronto from Boston, they had held replacement auditions for Boston, and they couldn't find a local girl to fill the spot. I said, 'If you pay me this amount of money, I'll do it.' So I ended up going to Boston for six months, and it spiraled from there," Buscani says. "I've been in Detroit for a year and a half, Cleveland for ten months. I'd work for five months, go home [to New York] for two, work six months, go home again. It made me a lot of money."
But not enough money to buy a place in New York, a situation that in part prompted Buscani's move back to Chicago last November. "No regular person can buy a home in New York City," she says. "And I was out on the road so much that being based in New York just didn't make any sense costwise. And my parents are getting older, which is the same reason a lot of people have for moving back home." A veteran of the Neo-Futurists' Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind and a 1992 National Poetry Slam champion, Buscani also found it difficult to do solo work in New York. "I was told by one venue owner, 'We don't really want to do solo any more. I think that genre is tapped out.' There is solo work in New York, but it is very, very, very necessary for things to be commercial there."
On the road, however, Buscani found ways to support spoken-word performance, just as she helped produce the Big Goddess Pow Wows here. In Cleveland she convinced the local producers for Late Nite Catechism, Playhouse Square, to offer an evening of work by local poets she knew. The show she curated drew "200 people on a Sunday night with no advertising budget," she says. Buscani also booked the Scarab Club in Detroit. "It's a very civilized way to get to know a community."
Buscani's outreach efforts also extended to local Catholic communities. "The first thing I'd do when I got into any town was to call the archdiocese department of education," she says, "and ask, 'If I have any questions about what's going on with the church in this city, is it OK to call you?' And they always immediately answered yes. Most of them know what the show is, and they have a vested interest in it being accurate."
That didn't always prevent trouble, however. "We got picketed in Buffalo. I don't know how that happened. I'm from Buffalo originally, and I don't know how it got to be such a hotbed of Catholic conservatism." In Washington, D.C., Buscani found herself facing several members of the ultraconservative Catholic sect Opus Dei during the show's question-and-answer portion. "They went into dogma like you wouldn't believe. They would not let it go. You couldn't make a joke. Maripat says that all I need to do is look at them and say, 'Who cares? Nobody cares. Do you realize how everybody hates you now?' But I wasn't willing to do that."
Buscani observes that "a lot of nuns have a good sense of humor about themselves. Of course, you'll never see the ones who don't, because they wouldn't come to the show." Death-penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame attended a performance in New Orleans. "I may not agree with the Catholic church," Buscani says. "I may not have a whole lot of faith, but I can't argue with the way they're trying to reach out. There are certain nuns you run across all the time, whenever you do charity work or volunteer work of any kind. That's their turf, and they're gonna be there."
Solid Citizen runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM through August 28 at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at 773-275-5255.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.