First, a disclaimer: I am not a Catholic. I did not attend a Catholic school. Yet, when I saw the first performance of Sister’s Christmas Catechism at Geva last week, I giggled right along with the rest of the audience. But otherwise I was on my best behavior, because I have a fear of audience participation, and Sister doesn’t take “no” for an answer…
So, I thought it would be fun to talk with Colleen Moore, pictured left, who has played Sister all over the country for twelve years, and here at Geva twice now – this season in Sister’s Christmas Catechism and last season in Late Night Catechism. And I wasn’t wrong – she is as warm and funny one-on-one as she is onstage in front of an audience. Here are some excerpts of our conversation – read it carefully because there may be a test at the end…
JW: So, first, tell me, did you go to Catholic school?
CM: Oh yes, yes I did.
JW: What’s it like, after having been schooled by nuns to be now playing a nun? Do you take inspiration from that?
CM: Oh, I take huge inspiration from my knowledge of the nuns. And everybody I know who went to Catholic school has one nun that they adored, and one nun that just scared the daylights out of them – sometimes more than one. And had they told me, back when I was at St. Mary’s Academy – I went to a small Catholic girls school – there were fewer than a hundred girls in my graduating class. Had they told me that I would be playing a nun for a living, I would have rolled around on the ground laughing, saying “never in a million years! It would not happen!” I could never have imagined this. And yet, in many ways, it is a perfect fit. Because I have always known I was going to be an actor. Always, always always.
CM: Always. Oh, I played the Jolly Green Giant, I played Davy Crockett when I was in the second grade! I was just a little stinker! But you know, it was just always what I wanted. My father was a theatre and movie critic in D.C. So I think that lent itself to my formation as an actor.
JW: So you grew up going to shows…
CM: Ever since I was young – theatre, ballet, theatre, ballet. I took a little dance, but I had to be in the theatre. I’m a character actor. I’ve known that forever. I’m almost six feet tall. I have a fairly deep voice, although it’s even deeper now and as the show goes on I will turn into more of a bass barritone…because I’m working all these muscles a lot. And when I get a day off, it’s all about vocal rest. But I’ve been doing character acting forever – from Davy Crockett to the Jolly Green Giant! (laughter) and I admit to it!
JW: And then along came sister…
CM: Along came Sistah! It’s all character work. And in character work, there’s always a certain anonymity. And the anonymity part is what I simply adore. People don’t know who the hell I am. I like that.
JW: In the habit, with the wimple, you have no sense of – your face is so different…
CM: It’s a padded cell. It’s like going into a padded cell. You have to be a little bit insane to be an actor – and as a dramaturg, I’m sure you’re very well aware of that! I mean, we’re all a little bit off! It’s disappearing into a character and just giving it free reign. And I think that the freedom that that allows is wonderful. I look at these poor little Hollywood starlets and I think that they’re sort of boxed in. And that’s what they have to be – you have to be a cute little blond thing. And I think that’s a horrible thing to do to an actor, to peg them, to pigeonhole them. So that’s the wonderful thing about character acting.
JW: Earlier, you said that everyone you know who went to Catholic school had one nun that they just adored and one nun who scared them to death. Can you tell me about your nuns? Who did you adore? Who scared you to death?
CM: I adored Sister Mary Baptiste who taught me Latin for two years at St. Mary’s Academy in Alexandria, VA. She was tall, thin, gaunt and ancient, and I think she appreciated me. She knew the constellations well and could pick out three leaf clovers from her height. Also at St. Mary’s, Sister Dorothy Ann was a presence. She did scare me a bit. She could look at me and I felt like she could see right through me and I’d cry. On the spot. She was a wise and loving woman.
JW: Where does Sister fall in that continuum for you?
CM: My Sister doesn’t fall there with those two Sisters as much as this other nun whose name I don’t recall but I do see her face. She caught me and one of my best friends spitting out the girls’ bathroom window at St. Mary’s one day. We were enjoying sending loud hockers out the window at the girls below. She came up behind us as we were spitting and when she realized what we were doing she burst out laughing. I always loved her for that.
CM: I have been playing Sister for about 12 years, and there are now 6 shows. I’ve been doing the first five shows fairly regularly for a long time. I got that first audition because a very dear friend of mine got a call from her agent to audition for this show. And she said that her calendar was full, and she didn’t want to do a one-person thing. But she said, “I know somebody who will!” And she called me and she said, “are you interested in auditioning for this one-person blah-biddy-blah.” I had never read the script, but I was told to show up at St. Luke’s Church Theatre, in midtown in New York, and I did. And a casting agent was there, and Tim Flaherty [President of Entertainment Events, who produces the Sister shows]. And I read it cold. Cold, cold, cold. But, I know the Catholic drill, I understand the whole Catholic culture – it’s a culture thing. And, having been taught by nuns for 12 years – that helped enormously. And I did a lot of improv because I didn’t know the show and it worked! And they called me up the next day and said, “When can you start rehearsal?” And I was like, “Okay…um, tomorrow?” I was all set. And it’s a huge challenge. Every single time I do this, Jenni, I go through the same thing. All the other actresses who play Sister do as well. Just the ball of utter terror – the stage fright, the hyperventilating, re-tying the shoes again and again…it’s really crazy.
JW: What is the nervousness about?
CM: It’s – you’re carrying it. You’re alone onstage.
JW: Yeah – it’s all on you.
CM: It’s all on me, and every audience has it’s own personality. And if I get a bunch of grumpuses out there who sit on their hands and look at their shoes, then, it’s more work. But when I have a house full of people who are – you can tell by the body language that they’re with me, and if they’re hanging onto me, it’s like surfing. It’s so much fun. It’s so rewarding. Every show isn’t going to be like that. Some shows I have to work harder than other shows. Every single show is different. So that adds a little layer of stress. What is it going to be tonight?
JW: So, what’s the best part about performing this?
CM: Oh, man. When you get a house full of people laughing. It’s just the best. It’s a tonic. It’s the best ambrosia in the world. You just think, “Wow…I made all those people laugh!” It’s my job. I’ve done dramatic roles, but comedy…
CM: No. It’s not. It requires a whole balancing act. You need a wet suit… Yeah, it’s work. I definitely work for a living! But there’s nothing like doing what you love.
JW: And getting that feedback from the audience.
CM: Oh, it’s glorious. Yes, it is.