Are you curious about what’s in store for you at Late Nite Catechism? Wondering what it’s all about? Well wonder no more! Hear all about the show from three actresses who have played “Sister” as they share their experiences and favorite memories from performing the show that recently won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Lead Performance (Maripat Donovan), and is currently on tour across the country!
In 1963, the Second Vatican Council sent many changes sweeping through the Roman Catholic Church. In 1993, in a small, seventy-seat Chicago “Sister”opened her “classroom” with Late Nite Catechism. This funny yet loving show has, for more than a decade, brought delight to audiences and stirred memories in many Catholics. In addition, its audiences have contributed generously to the ongoing support of communities of women religious throughout the United States. In this interview, playwright Vicki Quade and three actresses who have played “Sister” (Margaret Kustermann, 4 years; Lynda Shadrake, 5 years; Lisa Braatz, 1 year) share their experiences.
AIM: How did the play originate?
Vicki: Actress Maripat Donovan wanted to do a stand-up comedy show about the lives of the saints. The more we talked about it, the more we told our own “growing up Catholic” stories. Pretty soon we knew this was going to be more than just a show about the saints. So I invited her over, put a 90 min. tape in the tape recorder and said “Who are you? Are you going to be Maripat? A character?” She said “I always wanted to be a nun.” So I said, “OK, what are you doing? Talking? Teaching a class?” And finally we decided that “Sister” was going to be teaching a catechism class. If I showed you the few pages of notes that came out of that meeting, you’d see the skeleton of Late Nite Catechism.
The first story she told me was about a friend of hers, an altar boy, that he had loosened the nuts on top of the bells they rang at the elevation. Another altar boy was supposed to ring the bells, and when he did, they clanked all over the sanctuary.
So I ended up going to the library and bookstores to find material about the saints. There was no Internet! So I did all this legwork.
At the time I had a baby in diapers, and a six year old and an eight year old at home, so I wrote at work. I’d call Maripat at night, exchange notes, and then work on it more the next day.
AIM: Was the original concept for the play to be interactive?
Vicki: Yes, it was. We determined that “Sister” would only interact with audience members as she noticed them. At first there was a “priest” who visited the classroom, and there was some interaction between them. After a while we replaced that with the question-and-answer catechism. We moved to a theatre where they wanted to sell liquor at an intermission, so we added one, and added more questions for the “class” in the audience. But we still had to trim some material for length. But all the actresses have access to all the original material if they need it or want to use it.
AIM: Would each of you share a most memorable event?
Lynda: One night I had found out early on that one couple there was Lutheran. “Half the rituals, all the guilt” is what “sister” usually says about Lutherans. Later on, I wrote the letters “J-M-J” on the board. A young lady in the audience asked “Sister, what do those letters stand for?” I asked her if she was Catholic. “Yes.” The whole room went “Ooooooooh…” I said “I bet even our Lutheran friends know what ‘J-M-J’ means!” And I looked at the Lutheran couple. The woman shrugged her shoulders and said “Jesus, My Jesus?” The whole room erupted.
Margaret: It’s not necessarily a “memorable” experience, but especially when you’re doing an evening weekend show, you have to be ready for a drunk in the audience. I usually say “Are you sure you’re in the right room? Perhaps you were on your way to a DIFFERENT meeting and made a wrong turn?” Or when somebody’s cell phone starts ringing, I’ll take the phone and answer it. Sometimes I’ll answer the phone and talk to the person on the other end of the line. Or else I’ll just take it and say “We’ll send this to the missions overseas. But we’ll still send the bill to you.”
Lisa: I remember one night an elderly nun was there. It was a parish show, and she came to me beforehand and “I really don’t want to be here. Please don’t call on me to answer a question.” I reassured her that I just wanted her to enjoy they show, and she could sit in the back of the “class” and be as quiet as she wanted. Later on in the show I was asking a certain question and having a very difficult time getting the right answer; after a while I just said “OK” to an answer that was sort of close. This little old nun jumps to her feet and starts yelling “Wait a minute! That’s not the right answer!” And so I made one of our standard references to how different orders of nuns are sort of like gangs and don’t get along . . . and here the audience had proof! “Sister” belongs to the Sorrowful Sisters of the Weeping Nun.
AIM: Sorrowful Sisters of the Weeping Nun?
Margaret: I always say our motherhouse is in Misery, Missouri.
Vicki: They make handkerchiefs for upscale funeral homes.
AIM: What’s the reaction when you have nuns in the audience?
Vicki: Nuns are our biggest fans. We don’t charge them admission to the show. We have one nun in Chicago, Sr. Benita Coffey, a Benedictine sister, who has seen the show fourteen times.
Lynda: She can tell you which actress played “Sister” at the different theatres at different times.
AIM: What would you say is the most gratifying part of being “Sister” in this play?
Vicki: I’d say the collection we take up for the nuns is the most gratifying. At the end of the show “Sister” stands at the exit with a collection plate and people make donations that will be given to various orders of nuns around the country. I don’t know of another play or theatre piece that does this. I mean, you don’t go to Lion King and make a donation to wildlife preservation when you leave. We get to use the show for something fundamentally important and good. People pull out a buck or two, or a ten or twenty.
Lisa: Last week I had a guy write a check for a hundred dollars.
Vicki: People are very generous. Most people think that dioceses care for the nuns in retirement; they’re surprised to find out that’s not the case. Those women worked out of tremendous love and dedication, and earned next to nothing.
Margaret: And in spite of that, in spite of those huge classes of fifty or more kids, everyone learned to read and write and got a solid religious foundation. You can continue to see some of that when you go out to do a parish show. It’s gratifying to see how the people of a parish have taken over the roles the nuns used to have. They also learned how hard those women worked and what a big investment of themselves they made in a parish. People now have a real sense of ownership of their parishes because of that.
AIM: How much have you collected so far?
Vicki: Nationwide, we’ve collected more than a million dollars. It was over a million a year ago, so it’s more by now.
AIM: Wow! Where has the show played?
Vicki: Well, in Chicago, New York–it’s the longest running off-Broadway one-person show–Seattle, Scottsdale, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston, Cleveland, Portland, the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Milwaukee, San Francisco. And we do regional shows in parishes.
AIM: And you’ve done the play in other countries, too.
Vicki: Yes, all over Australia, in Dublin, London–it was listed as one of the top six shows to see–Vancouver, Toronto, the Montreal Comedy Festival; and we did a Spanish-language version in New York.
AIM: Do you have to vary the show when you do it in other countries?
Vicki: No – I had a woman from the Australian outback come up to me and say “You know, that was MY Catholic childhood up there!”
AIM: There’s always a question-and-answer time at the end of the show.
Lynda: They can ask ANYTHING! A lot of times “Sister” has to walk a really fine line with the seriousness of the questions in order to keep the levity of the play going.
AIM: What are some of the tough questions?
(All:) Should women be priests? Should priests be allowed to marry?
AIM: And what are the answers?
Vicki: Well, the stock answer–or at least the beginning of one–”Sister” has for the first question is “Is there anybody here from the archdiocese?” Her stock answer to the second one is “Of course not. Never met one of them who could dance a single step.”
AIM: Are there funny questions? Or do you get trick questions?
Lisa: “Sister, what does the ‘H.’ in Jesus’ name stand for?”
(All:) “Did Adam have a belly button?” “If you play scrabble with the Pope and he makes up a word is it really a word?” “Why do they call it a ‘habit’?”
Lynda: I say that we put it on each day, and eventually we just get in the . . .
Vicki: Women in habit is still a huge religious icon in our society; watch a movie and a lot of times you’ll see nuns in the background in group shots.
Margaret: In a way, that’s what the play represents; that time when things were more black and white.
AIM: Are there differences in audiences?
Lynda: In parishes it’s different because people know each other. They’re more comfortable answering the questions. Plus they’ll give you info on other people in the audience.
Lisa: When I do parish shows I ask if there’s anything specific I can mention in the show. One place they referred to the Pastor as the “envelope nazi.” So I worked the phrase “envelope nazi” into the show. The loved it!
Vicki: A lot of times in the theatre audiences you can tell who’s Catholic and who isn’t when we say a prayer or sing a hymn. And everyone else is just sitting there staring.
Margaret: And you can see the difference in generations; people like me who were raised with catechism and the younger ones who weren’t. It’s sort of a comfort for them, those times when there were questions with clear-cut answers. Every now and then someone will ask me to recall something for them. The other night “Dorothy” said “now, when I lose something, who do I pray to?” And so we all said the prayer to St. Anthony.
(All:) “Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost and must be found.”
AIM: So you’re starting to see that shift in the post-Vatican II adults in the audience?
Vicki: Sometimes when we ask what order of nuns to collect for, people say “there aren’t nuns here any more” or even “What order of nuns used to be here?” That’s happening more and more.
AIM: How else has the play changed?
Vicki: One of the stock answers when “Sister” didn’t know something was to say “Now, you write me a report on that topic.” Now we’ll just say “Are you familiar with the Internet?”
Lynda: If someone asks me about a particular saint and I don’t have any information, I’ll say “Now, why don’t you just go and ‘Google’ that saint when you get home?”
AIM: Are the saints still in the play?
Vicki: Oh yes, in each play “sister” puts some names on the blackboard. Throughout the play she asks if each is a saint or not a saint; or there’s a letter from the Vatican asking which saints should stay and which shouldn’t, so we need to vote.
AIM: You must have to think on your feet a lot. What are some of the ground rules?
(All:) Keep it moving. If it “drops” you’ll never get it back. Keep an eye on ‘em at all times. If there’s a distraction, deal with it and get back on script. If you can’t get back on script, test the class with “Who can tell me where we were?” Whatever happens, blame the “class.”
AIM: So there’s discipline?
Vicki: Oh yes, “Sister” still has her ruler. We ask people what they remember having done to get sister’s ruler.
Lisa: One guy in the audience stole the priest’s car.
Margaret: One boy stole Sister’s clicker. And those were the days when no clicker meant chaos!
Lynda: One girl remembered a boy getting the ruler because he screamed during the Pledge of Allegiance. He never got a chance to explain that a bee had stung him in the ear.
Vicki: And we ask “Was it palms up or palms down?” That determines the severity of the offense.
AIM: One last question: what is the best thing about being associated with Late Nite Catechism?
Lynda: I like that the show is different every time. The interactions with the different “classes” keep me fresh.
Lisa: I love to make people laugh. It’s amazing how much a roomful of people can be transformed by laughing together for an hour or so.
Margaret: I like that it’s fun, but never disrespectful. And I like the nostalgia that it gives some audience members; and I think that it might get them telling younger Catholics about some of this stuff.
Vicki: It’s the power to do so many good things: make people forget their troubles, remember the ups and downs of their childhood, just have a good laugh. And it’s gratifying that we are getting to do good things for the sisters. The letters of gratitude we get are incredibly touching. These women did so much for so little. It’s great to be able to give back to them just the little bit we do.
(This interview originally appeared in AIM: Liturgy Resources magazine, Fall 2004 issue. Interview by Alan J. Hommerding.)
Be sure and check out some Catholic comedy and pray you can get your hands on some seats, March 21st-23rd right here at the Long Center!