BEVERLY — Anyone who had strict teachers in school probably didn’t think they were funny.
But “Late Nite Catechism,” a play that re-creates a parochial school classroom, has proved to be so hilarious that it has spawned six sequels since debuting 20 years ago.
“Everything I talk about is true, I don’t make anything up,” said Maripat Donovan, who co-wrote the play with Vicki Quade, and the sequels with Marc Silvia. “You’re going to learn a lot about Catholicism, whether you want to or not.”
The play, which will be at the Larcom Theatre in Beverly for 16 performances starting Tuesday, is presided over by a nun in full habit known simply as Sister.
She leads the audience through lessons in doctrine, explains the nature of sin and asks lots of questions.
“It’s all about having a conversation,” Donovan said. “That’s the secret to it. Most of the material comes from improvisation. Sometimes the audience gives you the joke.”
Sister has also been known to discipline any “pupils” who dare to wear revealing clothing or display other inappropriate behaviors.
“Keeping in mind it’s a comedy, and we want to have fun — why don’t you come to the play chewing gum?” Donovan said.
Donovan said she got the idea for the play at dinner one night, where she started telling stories about the lives of the saints, and her friends were all laughing.
“One friend says, ‘This is really funny stuff, you should do something about this,’” she said.
The play, which was named “Late Nite Catechism” because its first performances were held at 11 p.m., was originally slated to run for 12 shows over six weeks.
It has drawn audiences continually since then, moving from stage to stage in Chicago as theaters shut down but continuing to draw audiences.
Donovan played Sister for the first two years but gradually took over the job of selecting actresses and directors for new productions.
The first show staged outside Chicago opened in Boston in the 1990s, and since then has appeared in “every country in the world,” Donovan said.
The first key in choosing someone to play Sister is that she has to be comfortable doing improvisation.
“You have to be able to hold up the show by yourself,” she said. “And you gotta have some kind of contact with nuns, or they’ll know it’s not real. You know you’ve done your job as a performer if, on the way out, they ask you if you were a nun.”
Colleen Moore, who lives in New York and will appear in “Late Nite” at the Larcom shows, has been playing Sister for 13 years.
“If anyone had told me when I was going through Catholic school that I would play a nun, I would have laughed,” she said. “I was one of those kids who was constantly in trouble.”
Moore had 12 years of private Catholic education, which gave her an understanding of the culture that, like Donovan, she feels is integral to the show’s success.
“The doctrine is correct,” she said. “It’s all the stuff around it that makes it fun.”
Moore said she doesn’t overdo the interaction and over time has learned to sense when audience members would rather be left alone.
“If somebody is literally looking at their shoes, I don’t pick on them,” she said. “I’ll pick on somebody who’s acting like they want to interact with Sister.”
Moore has also learned, over the years, to recognize when there are actual nuns in her audience.
“I’m pretty good at picking them out. They are so cute, first of all,” she said. “They always look like somebody’s aunt, whether they are in habit or not.”
But Moore’s attitude about nuns has changed since her early days in school.
“I now have such complete respect for these women,” she said. “They do great work. They do outreach into the community well in their 90s.”
Donovan said the only people who ever complain about her show, or feel it’s disrespectful to the Catholic faith, are people who haven’t seen it.
“We’re not out to bash the Catholic church,” she said. “We have respect for religious sisters and for all religions. We used to believe only Catholics went to heaven. Now we think all religions go to heaven, but they are not going to get as good a seat as the Catholics.”
When Donovan discovered that living in California was a kind of heaven on Earth, she moved to Los Angeles more than a decade ago, leaving the snow in Chicago behind.
“The weather’s exquisite, it’s so pretty every day,” she said.
At first, Donovan took over an apartment lease from a prop man at a theater where “Late Nite” was appearing. Now she lives in Bela Lugosi’s old house, right under the “Hollywood” sign, between Hollywood and Sunset boulevards.
But she hasn’t lost sight of the hilarious play that brought her this far and is looking forward to the June premiere of its latest installment.
“It’s called ‘Summer School Catechism: God Never Takes a Vacation,’” Donovan said. “So far, it’s my favorite, because Sister’s really mad — she has to teach summer class.”
If you go What: "Late Nite Catechism," a play by Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan When: April 23 and 25-28 and May 1-5 at 7:30 p.m.; April 24, 27, 28 and 30 and May 4-5 at 2 p.m. Where: Larcom Theatre, 13 Wallis St., Beverly Tickets: $35 at 617-531-1257 or www.latenitecatechismshow.com