There’s no doubt that Patti Hannon is the East Valley’s most popular actress. About to celebrate her sixth anniversary as Sister in the irreverently reverent one-nun comedy show “Late Nite Catechism” at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, she continues to break the record for longest-running Valley stage production.
She’s an icon of the center, having played for tens of thousands of audience members and counting. New converts come every week to St. Bruno’s adult catechism class, ready to learn a lesson in saints and sinners and to endure the gentle ribbing of Sister — a pious counterpart to insult comic Don Rickles, ever-ready with a tissue to cover low-cut blouses and exposed knees in the audience; her gum-chewer radar at full acuity.
The show has spawned a sequel (which debuted at the center two years ago) and, coming in late November, a Christmas show.
Yet for all her local renown, you’ll find no hint of diva in Hannon.
Like any proper papal servant — even a phony one for laughs — she’s entirely humble. Her pre-show warm-up still starts with ironing her habit.
“Doing your own clothes is a sisterly thing,” she says. “Nobody ever did for them. They had to do for themselves.”
It helps, probably, that Hannon is hardly ever recognized on the street.
Or even by fellow arts center workers.
Funny story: At a recent get-together for volunteer ushers at the center, Hannon walked around introducing herself and offering thanks. She was met with bewildered looks.
“No one knew who I was,” Hannon says, “until I added, ‘I’m Sister from “Late Nite Catechism.” ’ Then they were so glad to see me.”
Blame the outfit. The shapeless robe disguising the compact, sturdy actress within. The penguin wimple covering her ears and short, graystreaked hair, squinching her cheeks until the most comfortable expression is a loose scowl.
It’s an outfit Hannon, 62, has been donning for well over a decade, from her hometown Chicago, in 1995, to Boston to off-Broadway. Her longest stint has so far been in Scottsdale, and in recent years — though the anchorless gypsy impulse of being a working actor nips constantly at the back of her mind — she has begun digging roots here.
On the eve of her anniversary, Hannon can’t help but be amused. After all, she almost turned down what’s shaping up to be the role of her lifetime.
THE HOUSE THAT SISTER BUILT
Hannon came late to acting. Before becoming a professional actress, she was everything from a social worker and infant nurse to singing telegram and house cleaner. It wasn’t until the death of her mother, in the 1970s, that Hannon started to pursue her craft seriously, taking classes in improvisational comedy and acting at Chicago’s famed Second City theater alongside “Saturday Night Live” alums Mary Gross and Tim Kazurinsky.
“I was always the oldest one,” she laughs.
Hannon did straight plays and comedies, took part in a few comedy troupes, and won local awards. When she was first approached by producers to play Sister in Chicago, she turned them down. She was holding out for another show, she says. Plus, the idea of playing a nun appealed to her, as a Catholic school survivor herself, about as much as getting whacked across the knuckles by a wooden ruler.
“It took me too long to get nuns out of my life,” she says.
A year later, she was approached again. She accepted, and before long was understudying for head Sister Maripat Donovan (who cowrote the play with Vicki Quade), joining the ranks of some half-dozen actresses who perform the role in ongoing engagements across the country, according to producers, who dispatch their funny nuns like a mini-Vatican missionary service.
Hannon’s Sister is a hodgepodge of influences, from the nuns who taught her in school and worked with her at a Catholic orphanage to Hannon’s own bad knees, which exaggerate her walk. (For a while, she used a mobility scooter to get to the theater. Now it’s a bit she uses in the show.)
Her Sister is stern but hides a kind heart.
“She has a steadfast quality. She’s just gone through so much,” she says, adding: “Sister dated, but she didn’t get it, you know?”
Hannon’s Sister is also less strict — a lighter shade of nun than Donovan’s, she says.
“I give out chocolate (to audience participants),” Hannon says. “Maripat would never do that. She’d probably tell me not to.”
In February 2000, the Scottsdale Center for the Arts booked a two-week stint of “Catechism” starring another actress. It was such a hit, the center booked a return engagement four months later.
That’s when Hannon showed up.
“I was coming from New York,” she says, “and everything (in Arizona) seemed so pristine to me. Now I’m like, ‘Look at all the trash! Why doesn’t someone clean this up?’ ”
Producers never expected “Catechism” to run as long in Scottsdale as it did in cities back east, places with more Catholic populations.
For the first two years, in fact, Hannon lived in hotels.
Critical buzz was strong for the show, and an ever-expanding influx of locals began swarming to the arts center’s 136-seat Stage 2 Theater, which became Sister’s home theater. Die-hard fans started logging over a dozen visits each to catechism. Word-of-mouth spread, and new arrivals to the Valley were constantly supplying fresh energy to the audience-driven show.
In those first few years, “Late Nite Catechism” was bringing in $300,000 annually to the center’s bottom line, says center director Kathy Hotchner.
Eventually, Hotchner suggested Hannon look into buying a house here. For an actress with no retirement investments, who’d never owned her own home before, who was used to living in hotels and out of suitcases, it was a strange notion.
“It took her about a year to work up the courage,” Hotchner says.
Now, Hannon lives in a charming, cozy, 1960s twobedroom bungalow near the arts center and Hotchner’s own home. There’s a cute garden out back. Hannon serves on the homeowners association.
The initial success of “Catechism” bought her the house, that tangible anchor, and paid down some debts.
But now, as the show has slowed somewhat, Hannon is looking once again to an uncertain future.
A HARD HABIT TO BREAK
At its peak, Hannon was doing “Catechism” eight times a week, and during summers — when attendance naturally lightens — that would drop to doing shows just on weekends. But last year attendance slowed enough that the center limited Hannon’s entire season schedule to Fridays and Saturdays, three shows a week: “Late Nite Catechism,” the original, on Saturday afternoons, and its sequel on Friday and Saturday nights.
The money, of course, isn’t as good. She’s back to taking a day gig, though it’s one she enjoys: Teaching improvisational acting to high schoolers through a Scottsdale Cultural Council program.
“It’s teaching them to feel whole even when they feel fearful,” Hannon says.
Having more free time on her hands also means she’s looking ahead. She admits she hasn’t put herself out into the greater theatrical community — she grilled a theater reporter recently about which theaters she should consider — and would like to try acting or directing elsewhere. (She loves preparing new roles, a skill she hasn’t really put to use in years, she says.)
Hotchner says the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts fully supports Hannon (“She’s the key to our success,” Hotchner says) and would be willing to put “Catechism” on six-week hiatus while Hannon performed with another company.
But everyone involved is looking forward to the Christmastime “Catechism” to do well. It’s being staged in the arts center’s 326-seat satellite show space, Theater 4301.
“We’re hoping it can build into (being) our ‘Nutcracker,’ our ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ” Hotchner says.
Meanwhile, Hannon continues to don the habit with a grin — though she’s quick to conceal any grin as she works her way onto the stage and takes command of yet another catechism class.
“Here,” she says, “is home to me.”