Drag queen and burlesque babe BenDeLaCreme (real name: Benjamin Putnam) introduced herself on season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race as “terminally delightful.” After the show she’s bringing to Alexandria June 22, this Miss Congeniality may just have to adapt that to “hellishly delightful.” To prepare for Inferno A-Go-Go at the Birchmere on Thursday, we spoke with Ben about Dante, going through hell, and how DeLa’s makeup stays on among the flames.
For those who haven’t heard about it, how would you describe your show?
It’s a show that’s based on Dante’s “Inferno,” the Italian poem from the 17th century about going to hell. My character is very high camp. It’s essentially sort of a narrative cabaret, and it uses comedy and song and puppets and interactive videos and all sorts of things to kind of create this “Peewee’s Playhouse” version of hell.
Why Dante? What brought you to 17th century poetry for a cabaret?
My first thing that drew me to it was just trying to think about what I wanted my new show to be about, and I started thinking about the structure of Dante’s “Inferno” and the fact that it’s divided into all those circles. And I was like, “Oh, that kind of lends itself to a cabaret.” It’s all these little segments that have one through line. So that’s actually where it started, but then the more I wrote it, the more I was like, “Oh god, this is really related to everything that’s happening in the world around us right now.” So it’s really become an opportunity to kind of reflect on like, “Great, so you found yourself in hell. What do you do then?”
What’s it been like descending into hell so often over the past year?
Pretty amazing! It’s a really fun show, definitely my favorite show I’ve made. It’s just been really satisfying because it’s also really changed. I wrote this pre-election and some of the material has had to shift since the election. I actually performed it in San Francisco the night after the election. I was like, “Oh my god. How am I going to do this?” I woke up just in tears. I thought this was going to be a really different kind of experience. I thought we were going to be coming from a different place, of like joy and relief. I actually called up Peaches Christ, who is an amazing drag legend in San Francisco, and was just beside myself. And she was like, “You know, this is really hard, but this is why we do what we do. We do this because, when people need us most, we’re going to get up there and make them laugh and maybe going to make them feel a sense of catharsis.” So the response to the show, if anything, has only gotten better and more immediate since then. People are identifying with it even more now than they did when I wrote it, which is really satisfying from a performer standpoint.
We do this because, when people need us most, we’re going to get up there and make them laugh and maybe going to make them feel a sense of catharsis.
Has that been the surprise in performing Inferno, the shift in how people are relating to it now?
I think so, yeah. It’s really just been interesting to figure out what the dialogue with the audience is and to see that develop because, in a lot of ways, in terms of my sort of perspective as an art maker, this show feels the most unapologetic. Like this is the thing that I wanted to make and I just made it…not worrying about what it is people want to see. It’s interesting how sometimes when you do that and stop editing yourself then people respond to it really strongly. That’s the surprise, that we all have this stuff on our minds and it just comes out whether it’s intentional or not.
What do you want people to get out of your show?
I can say what I think is the important take away of it. But I think the reality is that when you see something with sequins and jokes and puppets it’s a lot easier to internalize. The overall message is the idea that was sort of what people take away from Dante’s original text, which is the idea that we all create our own hells. Everyone in all of the different circles is suffering from these punishments that reflect the “sins” in life. So there’s this whole metaphor about how essentially we all do these things to ourselves… I guess really it’s a message about personal ownership and responsibility and the ways in which that actually is freeing.
DC can get about as hot as Hades in the summer. Any recommendations to keep my makeup from melting?
I’d say the biggest thing is to avoid exerting yourself at all. I would just say hold super still at any opportunity possible. But, you know, my favorite trick, and it’s kind of hilarious, is that if you put the diarrhea medicine – what do you call it? Milk of magnesia! If you put milk of magnesia on your face under your makeup it keeps it from melting off. And Beyonce does that! Beyonce’s makeup artist rubs diarrhea medicine all over her face before putting her makeup on. And that’s why she always looks so flawless. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s true.
What’s next for you? Is there anything you’re willing to reveal about what you’re working on?
I’m just continuing to work on and tour Inferno now because I’ve got a huge show that I’m opening this fall in Seattle that’s a cast of 10 and it’s based on haunted house films from the ‘60s. So who knows? Maybe we’ll take that on tour someday.