Photo credit: Mary F. Zentmyer as Sister. Photo by Neil Reynolds.
When Late Nite Catechism first debuted in St. Louis it was welcomed with open arms and rave reviews. The one-nun show brought everyone into its flock, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I, for one, was so enamored with the charming character of Sister and her strict classroom that I took my friend’s mother (who was an ex-nun) to see it again. I then went a third time. Playwrights Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan re-created what it felt like to be in a Catholic classroom perfectly.
The show was such a success, a myriad of sequels has been spawned. Shows like Late Nite Catechism 2: Sister Strikes Again; Late Nite Catechism 3: “Til Death Do Us Part; Sister’s Easter Catechism; and the latest creation, Sister’s Back to School Catechism: The Holy Ghost and Other Terrifying Tales.
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza brings a holiday-themed version of the show called Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold. The heavens opened I was granted an audience with Mary F. Zentmyer who plays Sister in this incarnation. I have never laughed as much during an interview as I did when talking to Zentmyer. I was impressed by her charisma, her captivating personality, and her deep passion for playing the role of Sister.
[The following interview was conducted in advance of the show’s 2017 run, but with Zentmyer returning for another run of shows at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza starting December 10th, we thought it was the perfect time to re-run it.—Ed.]
Jim Ryan: How long have you been part of the Catechism empire?
Mary F. Zentmyer: You mean the Blue Nun Group? I auditioned for Maripat Donovan in 1996, so I’ve been playing the character of Sister for 21 years. But the Christmas show that I am bringing to St Louis, I’ve done since 2007. I also do Late Nite Catechism and Late Nite 3: ‘Til Death Do Us Part. To me, it’s all the same character. I mean all the shows are the same Sisters and basically the same set, it’s just a different script. People think a lot of this is improv, but they all have about a twenty-five-page monologue. I would say it’s about maybe 80% percent script and 20% participation, which is what I think makes it popular.
If you weren’t an actress, what else would you be?
A teacher. I mean I always wanted to be a teacher. My whole life, I was going to be a teacher. I went to Northeastern in Chicago, which used to be Chicago Teachers College. I went all the way up to just getting my teacher’s degree, but I always took theater and drama type classes as a minor. I ended up getting a degree in speech and performing arts, so I graduated without the teaching degree but ended up getting this role of a teacher. So it’s kind of cool, because I’m teaching and I don’t have to do lesson plans.
And it really is teaching, because I think one of the things that makes these shows so funny and so popular is that all the stuff we’re talking about is true. People will say to me afterward, “I really learned something tonight, Sister.” The reason it’s funny is because none of this is made up—it all really happened. That’s my honest answer: it’s not very funny, but I would be a teacher because I think that’s what I’ve always really wanted to be, so this role is a joy.
You mentioned the “Blue Nun Group” earlier. What is that about?
I call it that because the shows have been running for so long. Here in Chicago, Blue Man Group is the same thing, it’s been here forever. I just watched a special on the news about the Blue Man Group and how they are changing it up a little because you have to roll with the times. It’s the same thing with Late Nite and Sister’s Christmas Catechism— it’s all because of technology.
When I started out people didn’t have cell phones in their lap. Sister is back in the ‘50s and ‘60s—in her mind and in her classroom—so I don’t allow technology. I will tell people to put it away or it’s going to the missions. I will confiscate cell phones and people get really shook up when you take their technology away.
These long-running shows, you might start out doing one thing, but, like Blue Man Group and all of the Catechism shows, you kind of have to roll with the punches as the years go by. I might not have been as lenient in the first five years as I am now because you have to be. I’ll say. “I can see that your lap is glowing.” In my class, you have to know it, it’s not that you can look it up. Yes, I know you have a library in your pocket, but back in the day had to know the answer. I’ll say to people, “Well, did you pray to Saint Google?”
I put the phones I confiscate in a big candy jar. During intermission—Sister calls it recess—they will sneak up on the stage to get their phone out of the jar. I’ve had people lie to me and tell me they were a doctor, that they had to be available to take a call. One woman in Charlotte, North Carolina told me that her son was in prison and he only had one call a week and I thought, “Well then what are you doing sitting in the front row at a theater watching a play?” That’s my biggest challenge, technology.
What’s different about Sister’s Christmas Catechism from the other shows?
This show is a little more universal. I think that Christmas Catechism is great because everybody knows the nativity story, everybody knows about Christmas pageants. It’s a little fluffier, it’s not so strict as the Late Nites. The Christmas show itself is more about just the Christmas story, but it’s funny because it’s Sister’s down to Earth way of telling the Christmas story.
After recess, I will choose ten people from the class to come up on stage and dress up in hilarious costumes. The woman who designed the costumes did a fabulous job, they’re very funny. One of the three kings will wear a lamp shade with dangle beads and another wears a blender cover on his head. So, in that way, yes, you get to be in a pageant. The person whose cell phone goes off in act one becomes the jackass in act two.
It’s a lot of fun, Sister is a little less strict than in Late Nite Catechism because it’s Christmas. I allow people to take pictures because their husband is one of the three kings and he’s dressed up in the funny costume. Also, Sister gives a lot of fun prizes. You can go home with a really cute trinket like a Happy Birthday Baby Jesus Yo-Yo or Christmas kazoo. There’s a nostalgia factor—you flash back. It’s a memory play for the old folks.
To me, this play is a great Christmas present for mom and dad or grandma and grandpa—the people that are so hard to buy for for Christmas. It’s great because they get it, they get all the jokes, they remember Sister. It’s a clean show, a great family show. You can bring your children and grandparents and everybody will love it because there’s nothing truly blue in this show.
As you said earlier, some people think the show is mostly improv, but the show’s charm is how the show has so much unique audience participation.
Right. Think of this, if you’re an 82-year-old man who went to grammar school in who knows what year, and all of a sudden, you’re seven years old again and you can stand up and you can recite the Memorare from beginning to end. I go across the country and everybody knows the same prayers. People are proud to stand up and say what they know and you can go home with a nifty prize and make Sister proud of you.
If people come in late, they have to tell us where they were and apologize to the whole class, so don’t come tardy. Sister still runs a tight ship even though it’s Christmastime and we still have class. We don’t have a question and answer period, so it’s not so much about religion as it is just about Christmas. People can tell their stories, which is always the most fun part—you can’t write this stuff. People will tell you hilarious stories about what they remember, good and bad, about different nuns they had as teachers.
One man said his Sister used to line everybody up on Friday. You would have to get in line and get your whack on the knuckles with a ruler because Sister knew that she missed stuff during the week so everybody would get their whack before they went home for the weekend.
Why do you think this show, which is 100% percent religious in nature, appeals to everyone, even the heathens like me?
Well, I think I think it’s a more universal story. Everybody knows the Christmas story. When you know something, you recognize it, you like it better because you’re familiar with it. I also think everybody, no matter what religion you are, has had a strict teacher. So you don’t necessarily have to be Catholic, you don’t have to have attended Catholic school. I went to public grammar school. Then I went to all-girl Catholic high school, so I’m a mixed student. My father was Lutheran and then he turned Catholic when he married my mom. To me it’s all the same Bible, it’s all the same God. If you’re a good person and you treat people well, it all comes back to you.
In Late Nite Catechism, we talk about burying Saint Joseph’s statue upside down to help you sell your house. I go around the country and I found out everybody does that. One guy said to me, “Well I’m Presbyterian and we put Saint Joseph’s statue in the backyard and the house didn’t sell. I said, “Well, did you pray to Saint Joseph?” and he said, “No.” and I said, “Well you can’t just stick him in the dirt and walk away.” It’s all about faith, it’s about beliefs.
Plus, the show is about Christmas, so what could be better? It’s Christmas, and it’s Jesus’s birthday so we’re celebrating—it’s a celebration plus a lot of fun. │ Jim Ryan
Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold plays the Playhouse at Westport Plaza December 10th – 22nd. With one show already sold out and several others are filling up fast, you shouldn’t dawdle – get your tickets now. You can purchase tickets by visiting www.metrotix.com.