Creating Sister at Stages

December 9, 2021

An Interview with Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin

We’re now in our tenth year of producing iterations of Late Night Catechism with none other than Denise Fennell as Sister. And Houston has absolutely fallen in love with Denise in this role. To you, what does Denise bring to the stage when she’s here with us? 

Kenn: Well, this show is just unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and the reality is that Denise is absolutely brilliant at it. The amazing thing about this show is, ultimately, that it’s all improvisation. It has a forma framethat the actor needs to follow, but then the actor also needs to allow for whatever happens in the audience to shape the performance. It’s literally watching someone create a play live. And I think the reason Houston loves this show is because they agreea human being that can take threads of data from all over the room over a two-hour period of time and weave them together, set them up, and transform them into one-liners or a whole string of jokes and connections: it’s all Denise’s unique capacity to think on her feet, not only as an actor in character, but as a playwright.

So what is it like to experience this kaleidoscopic performance, night after night?

Kenn:  It’s a high wire act that Denise performs every single night. And people say all the time: it’s a different play each night, no matter how many times you see it. It all comes from her way of spinning a story out of what the audience is doinghow they react and respondon a given night. This show can be anything, and that’s why I love this show. It’s all about who is in the room. And that’s why I celebrate this so much. And to me, that’s the magic of theater. It’s always a different performance, and in Catechism, the magic of theater is elevated.

And it’s not just magical—it’s funny. But it’s also heartwarming. She’s built up a real, tangible relationship with the Stages community. 

Kenn: I’ve never known such a quick-witted comedian in my entire career. She’s someone that can move so quickly from comedy to true human connection in a heartbeat. And because she’s been a part of the Stages family for over 10 years, watching her reconnect the relationships in our community, year after year, and continuing to build off of something that happened in the audience three years ago when an individual comes back to see a showit makes the audience feel the real connective power of coming back to the theater over and over again. It’s a visceral experience of being known, respected and valued. And that’s the power of real theater. In Denise’s hands, it’s the essence of theater: A great artist working with an engaged audience creating some true human moments. That’s what happens, and that’s why we keep doing this show!

Ten years is a long time—a lot of performances. Do you have any favorite memories with Denise?

Kenn: There are millions of these types of moments. But there’s one that sticks out to me, and I think that anyone who was there that night would remember. Just as we had come back from intermission, a man was clipping his nails in the audience, and Denisehowever she heard itwell, I don’t even know if I can describe what happened next. She heard it, and then she got into a conversation with this guy about why he was clipping his nails, and how he was on his first date, and he was nervous, and it was just one of these things that was so humanand so absurdand so hysterically funny at the same time. I don’t know if an audience has ever laughed as hard as the audience that night. I fell out of my chair onto the floor with tears of laughter rolling down my face because it was one of the funniest moments I have ever seen in my life. I’ll just never forget it. People still talk about it. Like, “Oh, that time you caught the guy clipping his nails!” And he really was! He was legitimately clipping his fingernails on his first date, off to the side so she wouldn’t see! It was incredible. Denise is just so awareso hypersensitiveof what’s going on around her so that she can pick up these stories that she tells, basically through the audience. 

And that takes a true mastery of the art.

Kenn: Denise crosses that threshold and becomes Sister in a way, night after night, that shows she really is a top notch artist. And while the vehicle she uses to achieve this work might sound strangeit’s rare to think of top notch artists doing improvisational comedybut to do top notch comedy right, it takes a top notch artist. The skill that it takes to accomplish the success of Sister is as high a level of artistic skill as I’ve ever known. And Denise possesses just that.