A Divine Chat with Mother Superior: Mary Martello of Walnut Street Theatre’s ‘Sister Act’

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“I live my life as a flawed character”

Mary Martello started performing at the age of seven and “has continued through four kids and fifty years.” She began in Michigan (where she trained at BoarsHead Theatre in Michigan, performing everything from Shakespeare and musical comedy to original plays and musicals) and then performed all over the United States, including Virginia (Barksdale Dinner Theatre, Theatre IV, and Virginia Museum Theatre); New York (Light Opera of Manhattan, the Public Theatre and a variety of off-off Broadway); Colorado (Denver Center Theatre); New Jersey (Foundation Theatre, Passage Theatre, Theatre Intime, and seven seasons at McCarter Theatre).

Mary Martello. Photo courtesy of her website.
Mary Martello. Photo courtesy of her website.

In Philadelphia she found a creative home and considers it a “privilege” to have performed at the Arden, Azuka, InterAct, Lantern, Peoples Light and Theatre, Prince, Walnut, Wilma, and 1812. She also has performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and continues to perform cabarets she developed over the course of time. Mary is one of the stars at the Walnut Street Theatre, America’s oldest, continuously running theater.

What were the first signs in your childhood that you liked to play and sing and dance? 

In 2nd grade, I gathered neighborhood kids together to sing. I specifically remember “Do Lord, O Do Lord, O Do Remember Me.” At 10, I used to get called out in class to sing responses for funeral masses. At age 7, I started performing.

Who were some of the most influential teachers in your life and what did you learn from them?

Dr. David Machtel, my first voice teacher; Ursula Klein, my choir director from grade school through adulthood; and Richard Thompson and John Peakes, my acting teachers in college. I learned to persevere and be present from them all.

How many shows have you performed in at the Walnut?

At least 20.

You’ve played a wide range of roles, from saints to sinners.

I live my life as a flawed character, so I embrace those characters with affection. And I can always see the good and the love in them.

Now, you are one step away from sainthood playing Mother Superior in the popular Sister Act. What did you do to get into this role?

Mary Martelo as Reverend Mother. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Mary Martelo as Reverend Mother. Photo by Mark Garvin.

I sang with Florence Henderson when she was on tour with the original Sound of Music. I went to Catholic school and sang with nuns and priests. At 12, I wrote to the Dominican Motherhouse in Adrian, MI, begging them to take me as a postulant. They said I was too young.

Is there one role that you haven’t had a chance to play, but that you would love to take on as a real challenge? 

Every role is a wonderful challenge and this year I get to do Shaw [at the Lantern Theatre in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, playing Mrs. Kitty Warren, who pulled herself out of the London slums and now lives a mysterious life abroad], Wilde [at the Walnut Street Theatre, playing the formidable, the larger than life Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest], and take on Mama Rose in Gypsy [at the Arden Theatre].

You’re one of the most beloved actors and singers in Philadelphia. Could you share one thing with us that only your best friends know? 

I’m a curmudgeonly book worm who goes to the library every two weeks.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you and your life?

I have four kids and three grandkids. And I’m happy. Older is better!

I second the motion. And everyone that I know has always been happy with any role you have ever tackled. Thank you for having enriched Philadelphia theater with your very personal way of making characters come alive.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.

Sister Act plays through July 17, 2016 on the mainstage at the Walnut Street Theatre – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 982-2787, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
Mary Martello’s website.

Tim Dunleavy’s review of Sister Act.

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Henrik Eger
HENRIK EGER, editor, Drama Around the Globe; editor-at-large, Phindie. Bilingual playwright, author of 'Metronome Ticking', and other plays, poems, stories, articles, interviews, and books. Member, Dramatists Guild of America. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Taught English and Communication in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published both in the US and overseas: Tel Aviv, Israel; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Khedmat, Kabul, Afghanistan; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Talkin’ Broadway, and The Jewish Forward, New York; HowlRound and Edge, Boston; Windy City Times, Chicago; Broad Street Review, Dance Journal, Jewish Voice, Philadelphia Gay News, Phindie, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com