We get intimate with the Sister of the infamous Late Night Catechism Series! Spoiler alert - she's MARRIED!

By: Feb. 20, 2024
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Interview: Denise Fennell of SISTER'S IRISH CATECHISM: SAINTS, SNAKES, AND GREEN MILKSHAKES! at STAGES HOUSTON Denise Fennell is known to Houston area audiences primarily as the Sister of the Late Night Catechism series that has run at Stages Houston for many years now. It is a one-woman show where Denise dons a habit and transforms into a feisty Catholic school teaching nun, and guides the audience through a class. She has done other work for Stages Houston, but this year, we get a world premiere with this Sister and the Irish Catechism. It is perfect for St. Patrick's Day! The shows sell out fast, so don't miss your chance to see this hilarious performance. Brett Cullum was lucky enough to sit down with Denise and discuss this twisted Sister, her struggles in her career, and how getting married later in life was the ultimate blessing.   

Brett Cullum: So tell me, is there a formal name for this nun that you play, and how long have you been doing these? I feel like I see you every year with a new one here in Houston. 

Denise Fennell: Well, there isn't a name. Her name is Sister, and that's it! It's interesting because I get that question a lot. But the character's name is Sister. Some people in Houston now call me Sister Denise. Which is wild but really sweet because I've become so connected to this community. And yes, I am spending more time in Houston than at home at this point in my life. The theater community here is thriving. People have embraced not only Sister, but other characters that I have come to town to play, and I truly do my best work here. This is where I've grown as an actor more so than any other city. Everybody says to me, “Oh, you know New York is where it's at.” I'm like, “You guys are missing the boat here." Houston is thriving. The theater community is dynamic, and the talent pool is outrageous, and I love Houston. 

Brett Cullum: So, where is your home base? Where do you live? 

Denise Fennell: So now, Los Angeles. Oh, I was living in New York. I had a cute little one-bedroom apartment in New York, and then, over the past couple of years, my life just changed. I ended up getting married a little bit later in life. I found my person, and that was super exciting. He's a crazy, talented human being. So he wrote me a play based loosely on our wedding, which Stages presented in their season last year (THE BRIDE), which ended up being a huge hit. And now that is getting booked and toured all over the country, so be careful what you wish for. All of your dreams can absolutely come true. 

Brett Cullum: Now I notice the first writing credit for the show is Maripat Donovan. Who is she?

Denise Fennell: Maripat Donovan actually is the writer. She created Sister and all of these catechisms. My goodness, the show has been in existence, I think, thirty years. It all started in Chicago at Second City. It was a very late-night performance. That's how it got the Late Night Catechism name. She was the original Sister. So it was all of the material that she created, and the show became so popular that she had to find nuns across the country so that we could fill all the roles. I came in about ten years ago, and I had been part of a kind of relaunching of the production, and this particular one, I got credited as a writer, and that was such a gift to me! To have my name next to hers and to know that I'm being able to contribute now in different ways than just performing. So this one is the world premiere. So this show has never existed in any other city.

And I just am so grateful. Stages really produced this one for me. So I'm super excited about that. That I could give this to this theater community, and for the rest of the world to know forever and always. That Irish Catechism originated here in Houston, and it will be developed here over the next six weeks, judging from my last preview performances and opening last night. This one is next level, next level!

Brett Cullum: This role feels like you! Do you improvise a lot in the show? Or is it just completely scripted and ready to go?  

Denise Fennell: Yeah, it's highly interactive. There's a wonderful script that supports the kind of path that I'll take. But the audience almost becomes like a Rocky Horror Picture Show experience where there are calls and responses that they want from me from seeing previous performances. So if somebody's dressed inappropriately. The audience is ready. They can't wait cause they know what's gonna happen. If somebody's chewing gum. They know if I go to pull a tissue. They're screaming! The second I walk into the room. So it's highly interactive. It's like a live wire act. I have no idea what is going to happen. And in the last five performances I've experienced stuff that I'm being challenged as a performer, as an interactive artist. And I love it. It's like they almost practice at home before they get there! 

Brett Cullum: Well, I have to admit, every time I've come. I think I've gotten in trouble with Sister 

Denise Fennell: She's really feisty! With all the different versions of the show, Sister also takes on very different personas. And then this one look we're dealing with Irish catechism. Does drinking really have anything to do with the history of St. Patrick's Day? No, but somehow, it's become associated with it. So everybody's coming feeling really good about themselves. There are signature cocktails in the lobby. People are dressed in green, so I have to gain control of the classroom immediately when I come in because everybody is a little buzzed, and I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Brett Cullum: I know you as an actress as well. And do you do shows that are not just one-woman shows?  

Denise Fennell: Well, I started out touring with Sister, and I just loved the community that Stages Theatre itself represents. One day, I would see somebody working the box office was now directing a play, or somebody that was directing a play is now starring in the play. And I was like, “Wow! What an incredible theater company!” Like a true theater company, where everybody just kind of shifts their jobs. Nobody's put in a box like one day you could be starring in something. And one day, you're selling tickets. I started to see the same people year after year and thought what a beautiful place it must be really lovely to work here on a regular basis, and be able to create. So I started basically begging Kenn McLachlan (artistic director of Stages) to involve me in the theater company. And he was like, “You don’t really live here. It doesn't work like that.” I was begging to work with these other actors. I would love to have the opportunity to grow as an actor and a person with you all. And he gave me the script for the Lily Tomlin piece SEARCH FOR INTELLIGENT SIGNS OF LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE. 

So, of course, as an actor, you say yes to everything, and I didn't do a lot of research, I'm embarrassed to say, and I just started reading the play, and I was like, “I would love to play Trudy the bag lady.” I'm like, “This will be great! And look at all these other fun characters. I'll get to work with all these actors!” never realizing it was a one-woman show.

I called the drama a bookstore in New York 'cause they have recordings, and I was like, “Oh, maybe I should watch the recording of this play of Lily Tomlin, who's a brilliant genius? Right?” So the guy at the bookstore is like, “Why do you wanna see that archive?” 

And I said, “I was just cast in that in Houston.” Nothing but silence. And then he said gravely, “Oh. That's a REALLY difficult piece to perform.” 

So that was an experience “outside of the habit” in Houston. And I ended up getting to meet Lily Tomlin because of it. They say don't meet your idols or legends because they'll disappoint you, and she was so awesome. We were at an Emmy party in Los Angeles. My husband (Rick) went right up to Lily, and he said, “Denise here just performed SEARCH FOR SIGNS in Houston.” 

She stopped everything at this party and sat down, and we talked for 45 min about the production and what my favorite characters were. She didn't care what was going on. She wanted to talk theater! She said my name so many times. “Oh, Denise, that's so wonderful!” And I was like, “What a gift!” So Stages brought me Lily! 

During that production, I had been asked to join the off-broadway company of SHEAR MADNESS in New York City. I was living in New York City at the time, but I had to turn it down because I had accepted the role of all the characters in SEARCH FOR SIGNS. And Kenn was so wonderful, he said, “You know what? Thank you for choosing us. We'll just produce SHEAR MADNESS here, and you can be in it here!” 

So then I got to be in a play with Deborah Hope, who is a wonderful, incredible actress here in Houston. Also got to be with Mark Ivy. Mitchell Greco directed it! I was in my glory, being able to perform with some of Houston's most incredibly talented people. We had a ball that was that was a well-received show also. So I've really gotten to do a lot of stuff here in Houston and really become part of this incredible theater community here. And they've embraced me, which is really, really such a gift.

Brett Cullum: I just realized on the billing for this show. You've hyphenated your name, right?

Denise Fennell: I'm gonna tell you why I hyphenated my name because of my husband, Rick Pasqualone. One of our previous partners in the Sister shows, Mark, passed away from lung cancer as we were developing this script. It was devastating. But it did not stop us. 

Maripat Donovan was really gracious about it, and she brought me in as a writer for the first time and said, “You'll work on this with me now.” I'd love to say that I'm a wonderful writer, but I'm not great at structure, and my husband is, so as you know, in this business, there are a lot of ghostwriters that don't ever get recognized for the work they have done on this project, and Maripat knew all along that he was helping. And that's how I gave credit to him, because I knew as a writer he wasn't gonna be credited in the program, and it was really important to me that he was recognized for the work that he did on this play because he really wrote some really beautiful lines for me. He wrote some really beautiful jokes for me, and he jumped in, and he didn't want to be credited. He didn't need to be credited. He just wanted to be part of the process, and he also wanted to give this gift to Maripat and to Mark, who had passed away, to uplift him to keep his name out there and let people know that you are gone, but not forgotten, and we will continue to have your legacy live on through your words. 

It was hard. I'm not gonna lie because a lot of people think that I just go out there and make it all happen. And it just takes a village to put this show up. Stages Theatre in Houston stepped right in. They helped build the props. They did the lighting and sound design. They produced this show with me, with Mary Pat, with my husband, and it, really was such a beautiful gift. So when I'm out there, the fact that I can give this world premiere to Houston means so much more to me than most people know to be able to stand out there and speak these words for my husband, for Maripat, for Mark, for Kenn, for all of the crew and staff and Stages Theatre for everybody that has put their heart and soul into this. So I'm the vessel now. It's my job to uplift the whole experience. I could not have done this without any of them. So that's why I hyphenated my name. My husband's an incredible writer, and he's a really talented artist, a wonderful actor, and a voiceover guy, and he's amazing. 

I'm grateful, you know. It didn't happen for me until later on in life, and you know, as a woman, when you turn 50, everybody kind of looks at you a little differently. But for me, when I turned 50, everything that I ever hoped and dreamed of came true. I got a husband. I got a family, I got a wonderful career and an opportunity to be once again blessed to grace the stages here in Houston.

SISTER'S IRISH CATECHISM runs through March 17th at STAGES HOUSTON. You can buy tickets below through the link provided. STAGES does have its own parking garage, and a fully stocked bar with special Irish cocktails if you need those to get ready.