by Steve Desroches
It’s the summer of 2015 and every night at the end of the show Varla Jean Merman’s Big Black Hole! the drag superstar is abducted by aliens. As Varla makes her exit at the side of the theater at the Art House the door swings open, extra-terrestrial music plays, and multi-colored lighting blinks as the exhaust of a flying saucer blows in ferociously capturing the ginger diva in its gravitational pull and then spitting her back, now in a fabulous new outfit. The audience applauds wildly at the quick change and special effects. What they don’t see just outside the door is Brian Johnston pumping a fog machine with his foot, flicking lights with one hand and pointing a leaf blower with the other, holding it between his legs long enough to rip off one costume to reveal another, and then give Varla a shove through the door for her encore. Such is the life of a dresser, more specifically a drag queen dresser.
Varla is indisputably one of the top drag queens in the country, a feat she achieved, and has maintained, without appearing on RuPaul’s Drag Race. But she does have Johnston to keep her shantaying. Perhaps the hallmark of a Varla Jean Merman show is that she takes drag performance to theatrical heights, keeping her one of the big wigs not just here in Provincetown, but nationwide. Her talents have drawn other talented people, like her accompanist Gerald Goode, writer Jacques Lamarre, and director Michael Schiralli. But Johnston is the backstage glue for the show, sometimes literally. Rips and tears in costumes, broken props, even guest appearances on stage, Johnston does it all. And if you need to look like a favorite sandwich of Varla’s native New Orleans, Johnston’s your man.
“If you tell me you need a giant muffaleta costume I’m going to eat a gummy and head to the store to make a muffaleta,” says Johnston. “I’ll sew it. I’ll glue it. I’ll pin it. I’ll figure it out. That’s my job. To figure it out.”
Though the two met nearly 20 years ago in New Orleans, their professional pairing began in earnest about 11 years ago. Johnston found his passion and home when offered a chance to learn stage management on the job at the North Star Theatre just outside of New Orleans in Mandeville, Louisiana. There he tapped into the larger New Orleans theater and cabaret community, meeting Jeffery Roberson, the man behind Varla Jean. They worked together at venues like Le Chat Noir and the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, pulling together even tighter to get through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But when Roberson was headed back up for a summer run in Provincetown come 2011 and needed a dresser, he knew exactly who to ask.
“The main thing is he’ll do anything I ask him to do,” says Roberson. “Anything! After all this time he’ll do anything I ask. He has such a love for theater. He’s always game. I once had an assistant who wouldn’t even wear a wig! Last summer poor Brian wore a hazmat suit all summer long. Brian is ready for anything.”
Johnston spends about eight months of the year on the road with Varla, four in Provincetown, one in Puerto Vallarta, one in Palm Springs, and the rest of the dates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and beyond, and of course working in their hometown. Not a bad gig at all, he laughs. But of all the locales on the annual tour, Provincetown is the favorite, even if it can provide unique challenges. The salty air of Cape Cod can be murder on costumes and wigs, giving a limp whack to a newly styled hairdo or a corrosive effect on most everything else. One night during a midsummer show Johnston went to unzip Varla out of a gown to find the zipper had rusted shut from the sea air. A firm tug and a bit of a rip solved the most immediate problem, but only to find when putting on the next outfit that that zipper was rusted, too, and wouldn’t go up. He reached into his bottomless Mary Poppins bag of tricks and pulled out “some kind of oil he found somewhere” to make it work. Now, for any costume coming to Provincetown, it’s plastic zippers only.
He even helps promote the show. “Brian solicits people to come to the show on Grindr,” says Roberson. “I’m like, ‘Whatever it takes Brian, whatever it takes.’ It’s all for the love of theater.”
While he’s backstage most of the time making sure Varla can focus on her job at hand, he never worries about Varla onstage. At this point in her career, and in Johnston’s experiences with her, they’ve seen just about everything, especially in the notoriously unpredictable audiences of Provincetown. Randomly people have walked on stage to make an unwelcomed cameo as drunken a-hole tourist, screaming bachelorette parties that forget the show isn’t about them, or that one time a man sent his wheelchair down the aisle slamming into the stage prompting Varla to say, “That’s the first time anyone’s ever thrown a wheelchair at me.” Just as Varla trusts Johnston, he feels calm and easy, as he knows Varla is in control.
“I’ve got to hand it to Varla,” says Johnston. “He knows how to work a room, any room, anywhere. He’s such a pro almost nothing rattles him. He can do anything. He can do anything.”
The duo even pulled off a successful run of shows during the pandemic, with Varla jumping into the pool at the Crown and Anchor twice each night, with Johnston laundering her drag swimwear between each performance. It’s his attention to detail and his fun-loving spirit that make it work as at one moment Johnston is getting chewing gum out of an ostrich feather boa and then once off the clock, partying at the Boatslip, chilling at Herring Cove Beach, or making a late night “turn left to beach comb under the dock.” It’s a dream job, getting to tour the country visiting some of the hippest gay hot spots in one of the most popular shows on the drag circuit today, even if at times he needs to bare all for his work. He had to drop trow one night to be the full Moon opposite Varla dressed as the Sun. Anything for the arts.
“I got a date from it,” says Johnston. “A guy came up to me and said, ‘I saw your ass and balls at Varla’s show the other night. You want to go out?’ So there are perks.”
Brian Johnston will be dressing Varla Jean Merman for Little Prick every Tuesday through Saturday, June 15 through September 11 at 9 p.m. at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St., Provincetown. Tickets ($45) are available at the box office and online at onlyatthecrown.com. For more information call 508.487.1430.