When I asked comedic actress Nonie Newton-Riley what it’s like to play the same role on tour across the United States for seventeen years, she responded that the steady gig is “a gift and a mitzvah.” Interesting choice of words for someone who has spent the better part of two decades portraying a nun. But as Newton-Riley is quick to point out “you don't have be to Catholic to have fun” at one of the eight “Catechism” shows she regularly performs in. “It doesn't matter if you grew up Jewish or Lutheran or whatever,” she says, “you get in that show and it taps into something familiar for everyone who grew up in the '50s and '60s. Everybody remembers getting in trouble at school or enjoyed watching someone else get in trouble.”
Newton-Riley has performed as Sister all across the country, but says she’s especially excited to return to Long Wharf Theatre, a venue she’s played multiple times over the last few years. “I have dear friends there,” she says when asked what she’s most looking forward to doing in New Haven, “but, I’m not gonna lie, the pizza's really good.”
From December 5 through the 17th, she will bring the one-women show (or is it one-nun show?) “Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery Of The Magi’s Gold” to Long Wharf. Although Newton-Riley was coy about the show’s plot, the performances include plenty of jokes, audience participation, local carolers and even a singalong. To learn more about the show and Newton-Riley’s long history in Sister habit, I spoke to her over the phone. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the show about?
NNR: We have eight “Catechism” shows in the series now. This particular version is the Christmas show. The conceit is that it's a Catholic classroom and it's a one-women show. But it's really not because you're interacting so much with the audience. I bring up people, they participate in the living nativity, I give away prizes and gifts. To let other people behave so they can get a laugh is the genius of this show. You'd be amazed what comes out of people's mouths after all these years. I'm constantly amazed. It's fun and funny.
How long have you been involved in the "Catechism" shows?
NNR: I opened three shows mainstage at Second City in Chicago. Then moved to California and performed in some sketch comedy, wrote for some very forgettable television shows. Someone showed me the tape of Maripat Donovan [in 2000], the original writer and Sister. It just knocked my socks off. I grew up in family with nine kids and in Catholic schools. I had really scary nuns that fit the stereotype but I also had a lot of really wonderful nuns that were committed to social issues. This is something that tapped into the whole culture that I grew up in. I thought, ‘wow, I really want to do this.’ It started with the very first show in Chicago and then it just exploded. All the sudden, she booked professional venues all over the country. So Maripat started hiring other actresses, because she didn’t want to be on the road all the time. To show you how popular these shows are, at one point in time we had the show running at four theaters in the Los Angeles area at the same time. That went on for years.
How much input have you had making the character and the scripts your own?
NNR: The note I got when I first started doing it was, ‘play Sister as if you personally had become a nun.’ So, yes, I've had quite a bit of input in all of these shows. I've added material that's actually part of the scripts. I think that's the fun of it for an actor. Others actresses that do this show bring a different background. Mine was comedy. Some people have more of a straight musical theater background. Just depends on who you are. But it taps into all your experiences leading up to this point in time. These scripts are a loose structure and the interaction brings different material, different surprises every single night. It's not "Hello Dolly" where you're saying the same words over and over. It's always different, so that's what keeps it alive for me. I run at it with as much energy as I can muster.
Why should New Haven residents visit Sister’s classroom this Christmas?
NNR: It's a really different and light-hearted approach to the holidays. It's just a great, good laugh. It's a gift you give yourself. Go out, have a good time, step away from what's going on in the world for a couple of hours. Which, believe me, in the last couple months I think is money well spent. That's the great gift theater gives you. You uplift, you come together. You go home with a laugh.