2 out of '5 Lesbians'

August 3, 2011

“What kind of lesbian would you want to be? I mean, it’s a great question, right? Everybody has to ask it at some time in their life!”

Words of wisdom from Megan Johns, who plays super-nice doily dyke Wren Robin in New Colony’s 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, now extended through August 13. They’re also appropriate words for a play that not only features lesbians but makes every audience member a Sapphic follower. Don’t worry: no one has to get up onstage. But even without much audience participation, this is an amazingly inclusive, affectionate show.

Mary Hollis Inboden—who plays the president of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein—says that “a fear of mine was that, with a title like 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, you wouldn’t get the gay community out to see it. That’s the opposite of what we wanted. And actually we do have this huge supportive crowd in the gay community, which is awesome. I think that’s because we keep it real—even though it’s really, really funny, we keep it grounded. We try to bust all these stereotypes. We get a few jokes in there, and then we get away from that.”

New Colony artistic director Andrew Hobgood tossed out the title at a party, and after the actors developed way more material than they could use, they and Evan Linder came up with an award-winning ten-minute devised version—also set in 1956 and featuring an atomic blast—for “Sketchbook X” last summer.

Johns wails: “We were like, ‘There’s so much more!’ We each still had pages of notes.” Inboden adds: “We know exactly who’s got a thing for who, even though it’s never discussed onstage. We know whose house to go to for the potluck. We know their actual careers, which are never mentioned. All that backstory makes this show so rich.” Hobgood collaborated on the current hour-long version, definitely the fruit of all their labors.

Johns, who started out in improv, was in her element when it came to creating the show. “I have that impulsiveness, switching things up,” she says. “But I love the 50s posture [she sits up straight, hands folded in lap]. So I wanted my character to be a lady but also a little bit nutty—she’s so thrilled about the solidarity of the women, and the love of the egg [hence the quiche], she’s always getting ready to topple over with excitement. And I wanted her to be into the outdoors, which is why I have her say in the show, ‘Let’s build a ranger station!’”

Johns also did research. “I looked at tons of pictures of women in the 50s,” she says. She was inspired by the fashion and hairdos and by “seeing how presentational everything was, everyone always smiling. I also looked up lesbian subculture in the 50s, like pulp novels, and things that existed just one layer below the surface and were being guised as something else. I found really old pictures of women either dressed as men or in couples…”

“She did find some park rangers!” says Inboden.

Inboden had a more personal source for Lulie Stanwyck (named after a great-aunt, Lula Mae, and Barbara Stanwyck). “I am a little bit insecure in the New Colony process. I’ve been acting for a really long time, but the improv part of it always makes me a little nervous. The way Lulie Stanwyck was created was that Mary Hollis, myself, said that I needed to be the loudest and the one with the most distinctive voice and characterization. I just wanted to be the one who was in charge. So my inspirations were Foghorn Leghorn and Bill Cosby.”

“But though Lulie is very strong, she’s also the most scared. She has control over that entire room, and when she starts to lose it… if anything goes awry at this meeting, she risks losing her place at the top of this group.”

And why a nuclear blast, however appropriate to the era? “We wanted to play with the fear and the terror of that time,” says Johns. “What would happen if everybody in the world was wiped out except this roomful of lesbians? How would society and the world continue?” The five lesbians find a way.

Plans are being finalized now for a mid-September commercial remount of the New Colony’s 2009 hit Frat, a show for 14 men and 4 women, one of them Johns. “It’s so interesting to go from 5 Lesbians to Frat,” she says, “because one is so girl-centric—and we’re going straight to dude-centric!”