Mary Beth Burns: The Woman Behind the Habit

Performing a one-person show is a daunting task. The real talent lies in the actor’s ability to hold the audience’s attention throughout the production, and Mary Beth Burns is no stranger to this art. Starring in the smash hit Late Nite Catechism, Burns is not only able to command the crowd’s attention, she has the ability to entertain them at the same time.

Hailing from Chicago, Burns honed her skills in the classroom. She has been a certified Montessori teacher for 14 years. However, having been bitten by the acting bug all the way back in the fifth grade, Burns knew she would eventually return to the theater. “My first play was Winnie the Pooh. I was cast in the lead role. These little kids came up to me afterward and asked to shake Pooh’s hand…that moment sealed the deal for me.”

Feeling the need to get back to her theatrical roots, Burns started taking classes at the legendary Second City Conservatory. As she was getting ready to graduate, she learned there was a group of gay, lesbian, and bisexual improvisers getting together to form their own group, GayCo, and joined. Some of the shows that they produced include Whitney Houston, We Have a Problem and Weddings of Mass Destruction.

Serving six years in GayCo, Burns then toured with the National Company of Second City. Through her travels, she kept running into people who told her she would be perfect for the Late Nite Catechism show. While she always kept it in the back of her mind, Burns decided to take a chance and mailed her headshot to the producers and then forgot about it. As fate would have it, the producers—as well as Maripat Donovan, the original “Sister”—felt Burns was a perfect match for their touring show.

I asked Burns what were the most challenging aspects of doing a one-woman production. “Well, since I am playing a nun, the audience assumes I am a nun in real life and they expect me to know everything about Catholicism. I am constantly learning and trying to apply these things into my show. The other difficult trick is knowing who in the audience will be able to play with the show.”

While there is a script for her show, Burns often has to rely on her improvisation to get herself out of some tight spots. I asked Burns how she deals with questions she doesn’t know the answers to. “That is a tough one, but somehow I manage to turn it back on the student to see if they can answer their own question. It usually works.”

With this show, Burns helps raise money for the nuns who have made their way to the Mother House. To date, this St. Louis run has already raised approximately $6,000. But Burns doesn’t stop there; she also donates any free time she has to give. “I called up the Sisters and told them I would really like to volunteer: stuffing envelopes, moving boxes, whatever. They knew I had been a teacher, so they asked me to donate my time in the classroom. It was a perfect match.”

Locally, Burns enjoys exploring St. Louis and all it has to offer. “I think the architecture is amazing. I am also fascinated with Forest Park; I am in the park almost every day with my dog, exploring. I heard a legend that the original axle from the big Ferris wheel is hidden somewhere in Forest Park and I am trying to find it.”

Looking to the future, Burns will head back to Chicago once the St. Louis run wraps up in January. She did “confess” that Maripat Donovan has informed her that she needs to learn the script to Late Nite Catechism II. A sequel? “Sure, it’s called Late Nite Catechism II: Sometimes We Feel Guilty Because We Are Guilty. The show is great; it teaches The Ten Commandments and even has a filmstrip.”

So consider yourself warned; this “Nun with an Attitude” may be back for the attack at a theater near you.

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