The Sisters singing "Take Me to Heaven"

Little Sisters of Toby’s Dinner Theatre: Inside the Cloister of Sister Act with Ashley Johnson and Lynn Sharpe Spears

Gloria in excelsis Deo! Hallelujah! Raise some heat— raise some Cain— raise it to a higher plane! Raise it up and rejoice— raise your voice! Closing out a sensational practically sold-out ten-week run, the very last of The Littler Sisters of Toby’s interview series has graced the readers with its arrival! Featuring Ashley Johnson and Lynn Sharpe Spears in the leading roles of Deloris Van Cartier and Mother Superior, we take one last trip into the convent to get real with the sisters of Toby’s Sister Act.

Thanks so much for sitting with us, ladies! If you’ll give us a quick introduction, we’ll get underway!

Ashley Johnson (left) and brother James Johnson (right) after an evening performance of Sister Act at Toby's Dinner Theatre
Ashley Johnson (left) and brother James Johnson (right) after an evening performance of Sister Act at Toby’s Dinner Theatre Ashley Johnson

Ashley Johnson: I’ll start! My name is Ashley Lauren Johnson. In a few weeks it will be Ashley Lauren Moore— I’m very excited! I play Deloris Van Cartier as in the Cartiers. And let’s see in the last year, well I was just in Hairspray over the summer. I was a Dynamite. I was also in the ensemble for Ragtime. And prior to that I was Felicia in Memphis, which was fantastic.

Lynn Sharpe Spears: I am Lynn Sharpe Spears. I play the Mother Superior. Let’s see, the last theatre things— mostly were directing— I direct new works for Spooky Action Theatre in DC. I think they’re the only experimental theatre company in the city; they’re a really wonderful company. But as far as performing, There is a Happiness that Morning Is, I played Ellen. It’s a two-person show. It’s modern language in verse and I did that with WSC Avant Bard.

What was the appeal to want to come out for Sister Act?

Actress Lynn Sharpe Spears
Actress Lynn Sharpe Spears

Lynn: It’s been three years since I had done a musical. And I wanted to do a musical, I love the Sister Act story so I thought, why not? So I did.

Ashley: I really loved the music when I heard it. I was actually not sure that I was going to audition because of the wedding planning and how that might conflict. I had actually had informed them that I wasn’t planning to audition and they said, “Maybe you should reconsider that. It’s a great show!” Listening to the music, I thought “Wow! This show really is great.” I hadn’t heard the musical before, I had just grew-up with the movie. And it’s not just Sister Act the movie, I am in love with Whoopee Goldberg. I have always been in love with Whoopee Goldberg. Gosh, she’s just amazing! The first time I saw her in The Color Purple as a kid, I knew she was really good, and she was much younger then too! Just growing up watching her and the way she pours herself into characters made me say, “You know what let me give this role a shot.” If she can do it I can do it, mentality. I had no idea that I could do it, but I wanted to try.

Lynn: You’re doing it.

Ashley: Thanks, girl! I think my love for the movie really drove me to want to be a part of the show.

Have either of you played nuns before?

Lynn: Oh my, yes. Toby loves to put me in a habit, what can I say? I have played The Mother Superior twice in The Sound of Music: once here in Columbia and then up in Baltimore. I’ve done the role twice with different Maria’s. I had Jess Ball (actress Jessica Lauren Ball) as my Maria here in Columbia and Beth (nunsemble actress Elizabeth Rayca) in Baltimore, and now she’s here in my cloister in Columbia.

Ashley: I’ve never done the habit before.

The Sisters singing "Take Me to Heaven"
The Sisters singing “Take Me to Heaven” Jeri Tidwell Photography

So what is it like for you, Ashley? What’s it like being a nun for the first time?

Ashley: To be honest, I originally struggled with it because I was not used to having something on my head that had weight to it. Not only that but it created a real challenge with it covering my ears. I’m the type of performer who needs to feel and hear the music. If I can hear the people singing, my cast mates and the instruments, that’s what makes me perform; that’s what makes me feel. So with the habit blocking my ears it was hard for me to connect at first. I was whining! But I guess I got used to it. The thing was, I had to realize, “Hey, Ash. It’s not just about hearing and feeling the music, it’s more about connecting with everybody individually.” I found that with connecting to each individual nun and as different people I was actually able to better hear and feel that music.

What about you, Lynn? The habit a little different this time?

Lynn: Oh this is a very different character. She has a very interesting journey. The Mother Superior in Sound of Music is pretty flat-lined. Yes, she has some emotional moments, but they’re nothing like the wild emotional ride that this Mother Superior is going on. Everything this Mother Superior believes in is being challenged and ripped apart. It’s a rich, wonderful, emotional journey that she goes on that I get to do every night. And I love it!

Now when you’re not Deloris, and you’re playing Sister Mary Clarence—

Lynn: Named for St. Clarence of Vienne…

Ashley: That’s right!

Lynn: Patron Saint of prisoners everywhere!

Ashley: Oh I didn’t know that part!

Does Mother Superior have a name?

Lynn: Oh yes, she’s Sister Mary Mary. It’s the way that I could validate that “Mary, you are fierce”, which is written in the memo of the check, and her line is “How did they know my name was Mary?” So I don’t think that she’s stupid. They’re all Mary-something, so she’s Mary Mary.

Ashley: That’s smart and cute!

What is the biggest challenge you guys have faced so far?

Lynn: She blows my mind.

Ashley: Thank you, girl.

Lynn: This is an incredible, physical demanding— boom-boom-BOOM— show. The costume changes that the ensemble has— and the ensemble they blow my mind too— but this woman right here is giving 150% for 99.9% of the show. It’s incredible.

Ashley: You are too kind!

Lynn: Well, it’s true. This show is very physical, it’s emotional, it’s rich and wonderful, but it’s eight shows a week. And that is very demanding.

Ashley: Five show weekend that weekend. It was crazy, Friday night, Saturday-Saturday, Sunday-Sunday. But we had a blast.

Lynn: We are having a wonderful time. We cook-out in-between! It’s an incredible cast and we’re having a wonderful time together, that makes the challenges easier.

Ashley: Other than getting used to the habits, and I think we’re all pretty used to that stuff now. Challenges? I mean I think the only real challenge you deal with in the beginning? Okay, so you have the same cast every night. But you don’t necessarily have the same orchestra director every night. You don’t necessarily have the same props people every night. We have these rehearsal processes and the tech week that we go through together. But then it’s like for the first couple of weeks we’re still adapting to who’s conducting and who’s running crew. That’s really the challenge because they don’t get a full tech week with us. We get used to each other. The real challenge is getting used to who’s going to be back stage and how they move and their rhythm. The rhythm of backstage motion is a challenge, but once you get over that hurdle of which run crew you’re working with or who’s conducting what, you have a feel for what to expect and you get it.

Ashley Johnson (left) as Sister Mary Clarence and Lynn Sharpe-Spears (right) as Mother Superior
Ashley Johnson (left) as Sister Mary Clarence and Lynn Sharpe-Spears (right) as Mother Superior Amanda N. Gunther

How are you similar or different to your characters?

Lynn: I’m not Catholic. I think of myself as a spiritual rather than a religious person. I don’t think you have to go to a building in order to be in touch with God or The Goddess or Gaya or whatever you happen to believe in. That’s definitely a big difference. But I do feel that I’m a spiritual person and that’s a connection for us. She’s a very strong, spiritual person. She loves and cares about her family— the sisters— and I love and care very much for my family so that’s another similarity. I have to think so more that’s all I can think of off the top of my head.

Ashley: I guess I would have to say the big difference is that her upbringing is very, very different from mine. Even in the beginning when she first establishes that she never knew her father because he walked out on them? I can say that I think I have the most amazing father and he is fantastic. If I could marry my father, I would, he’s that great of a guy. I saw so much of my father in my future husband. That’s the major difference, she’s always been alone and always had to fend for herself, whereas I’ve always had loving parents, I’ve always had a brother. I’ve got grandparents, they had seven kids, and there’s 23 of us and we’ve all got kids. So I come from this big family and not only is it big but we’re all close. It’s insane how close we are.

The more I think about it the more I’m thinking we’re really very different. Even with her risqué dressing, I’m very, very conservative— that’s just how I am, it’s not like somebody told me to do it, I just do. Now I can say that we do have a similarity. It’s our passion for music and our want to sing. I’ve been working at Toby’s for almost ten years now, it’s nine years this year. I’ve always worked a full time job and I’ve always worked at Toby’s full time too. And now I’m getting married. My life is about to slow down. If I could sing at church and I only got to sing at church? I would be okay because I love music. That feeling of spreading love and joy to everybody else through music? That’s the real connection I have with her.

What has it been like working opposite one another in these roles?

Ashley: It’s so weird because we get along so well backstage. It’s actually kind of funny— because the first time I meet her on stage I’m very “BAM!” and in her face. And then we have this awkward moment of silence. My reaction to her every night is different. Sometimes I’m kind of smiling, sometimes I’m looking at her evilly. Ooh, evilly is not a word, I don’t think. But we just get along so well backstage! We’re always checking on each other and stuff. It makes that moment when we come together at the end— with the holding hands and sometimes crying and almost passing out with so much joy— it makes that moment so real. It’s because we just care about each other so much. It’s been fantastic!

Lynn: I agree. It’s been wonderful working with you.

Ashley: You too!

This is not your first Mark Minnick show, Ashley, right? Because you were just in Hairspray?

Ashley: That’s right! Now, that was my first Mark Minnick show.

Lynn, you’ve done quite a few shows with Toby’s, is this your first Mark Minnick show?

Lynn:  This actually is my first Mark show. I think he’s amazing.

Ashley: He’s fantastic!

Lynn: He just tickles me. And when he’s here backstage? He’s dancing with what they’re dancing to on stage and I love to watch him. He’s just delightful.

Ashley: His passion is infectious.

Ashley Johnson as Sister Mary Clarence singing "Raise Your Voice" in Sister Act
Ashley Johnson as Sister Mary Clarence singing “Raise Your Voice” in Sister Act Jeri Tidwell Photography

How are you finding his choreography?

Lynn: I don’t dance so much except for in the finale. He was very kind to me.

Ashley: His choreography for this production is flawless. The way he literally just cleaned every single number is amazing. And we’re working in the round so he’s not just sitting in A and calling the shots. He’s in A, he’s in B, he’s in C, he’s in D, he’s at the bottom, he’s at the top.

Lynn: He’s literally all over the place.

Ashley: You know? He’s just trying to make sure that everybody is going to see the same spectacular show! Golly!

Lynn: He’s masterful.

Ashley: Yes! That guy— I know you can’t type this, but I’m physically bowing right now. Mark Minnick is just— good Lord, he’s amazing. He cares. Not one time did he come to rehearsal tired or lacking energy. He rolls in like “Here we go!”

Lynn: Even when he was sick he was like that. He doesn’t miss a beat. He’s just driven.

Ashley: That’s a great word, driven. Mark is driven.

Do you have a moment in the show that really stands out and speaks to you as the moment that defines the show for you?

Ashley: Yes. “Bless Our Show.” It’s when the nuns come in and wake her up and they ask her to pray for them. Now, remember in Act I when she’s asked to pray it’s kind of ridiculous. She’s pulling stuff from the bible, from wedding vows, Martin Luther King speech, she’s literally pulling stuff out of her butt trying to find stuff to stay. But in this moment, they’ve asked her to pray— again— for all of them. So she’s standing on the bed and they’re all standing around her holding hands, it’s a wow moment. Because here are these people— these ladies— these nuns— who really care about her and really care about what she has to say, they trust her. She’s never felt that before, somebody trusting her or really truly loving her. That’s my favorite song to sing and that particular number defines the show for her. In her wanting to go back with them at the end to sing with them for the Pope. She had her time, she could have left; that song for me is what makes her go back.

Lynn: This is hard to pick a single moment because I have more than one. I think for the character, “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” is it. It’s the power of belief. It’s mixed feelings for me personally because the song is really a challenge for me vocally, it’s literally all over the map. But the number is so incredibly powerful and so emotional and it’s the epitome of what this woman is all about. And then she gets this answer from God. She gets the sign that she’s been asking for throughout the whole show. She finally gets it and he answers her. And it’s like— holy mackerel!

Ashley: Holy mackerel! How do you even spell that?

Lynn: M-a-c-k-e-r-e-l.

Ashley: Really? Oh wow! Haha!

Lynn: And I love our moment at the end.

Ashley: I do too!

Lynn: It’s both. It’s being human and it is having a spiritual approach to life and treating people with respect. Particularly at this time when there is so much ugliness in the world and so many horrible things being said and done I love this moment we have.

Ashley: Sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes I cry.

Lynn: It is, it’s overwhelming. We really have to try and keep it together—

Ashley: Right? Because then we gotta sing!

Lynn: We’ll be hugging each other and sniffling into each other’s ears, “keep it together, keep it together.”

Ashley: It’s literally like that. And I get on my tippy-toes.

Lynn: You do!

Ashley: I want to be up there with you in your ear. It’s that moment.

Lynn: It is.

What does it mean to you personally to raise your voice?

Ashley: Raise your voice is every line that she says in the song. Be yourself. And be proud of it. That’s literally what it means to me and what I try to impart to them. Don’t downplay it, stand and say it! Just do it! That’s the line in the show but it’s not wrong. She literally is just trying to tell these girls that it’s okay to have a voice. Be yourself and be proud.

Lynn: Absolutely. Use your gifts. Get rid of the fear. There is so much fear. Don’t hang onto that.

What is your favorite part about being a nun?

Ashley Johnson (left) as Deloris Van Cartier and Hasani Allen (right) as Sweaty Eddie in Sister Act
Robert Biedermann 125 (left) as Monsignor O’Hara with Lynn Sharpe-Spears (center) as Mother Superior and Ashley Johnson (right) as Sister Mary Clarence Jeri Tidwell Photography

Ashley: That big old black— the what do we call it? Our costume…

Lynn: The habit?

Ashley: Yeah. Getting to wear the habit. Because you can be bloated that day and nobody knows! Nobody knows…you can eat what you want— I mean I can’t eat what I want with all that jumping around— but at the same time if I’m having a bloated day? Nobody knows!  

Lynn: Well…I don’t know how to follow that. I don’t have to worry about extravagant makeup, wigs, or doing my hair or any of that. That’s nice. I love the camaraderie we have with the sisters. I love the connection we all have together, it’s really quite nice.

What is your nun’s guilty secular pleasure?

Ashley: Oh, I have a lot!

I believe Sister Mary Martin of Tours, played by Jane C. Boyle, said her guilty secular pleasure is sneaking into Mother Superior’s office to watch Johnny Carson on the TV.

Lynn: Well she hasn’t found the drawer that has the single-malt scotch in it.

Ashley: Oh! Mother Superior has the drinking problem! Oh, girl! Now, see my guilty pleasure is rolling dice with the altar boys.

Lynn: I knew it!

Ashley: I just feel like that’s what we do. When we got down-time and nobody’s around? That’s what we do.

If you could play any role in the show, regardless of gender, age, race, vocal ability, etc., who would you play?

Ashley: I don’t even know Russell’s (actor Russell Sunday) character’s name. Is it Joey? I would play Joey. He’s just like pretty darn smooth. He’s so smooth in that turtleneck and those polyester pants!

Lynn: I want to do DeCarlo’s (actor DeCarlo Raspberry) part. I want to play Curtis. It’s fun to play the bad guys. He’s sexy dangerous.

What is it that you are hoping people will take away from seeing Sister Act?

Lynn: Love one another. It’s pretty simple. It’s pretty straight-forward. Care about one another.

Ashley: I definitely hope that at the end of it people— and this might be a stretch— but I would love for people to stop judging books by their cover, you know where she starts and where she ends? It’s all about acceptance. Just accept everybody for who they are and love them for that. Don’t try to change anybody. We all have good in us. As long as you’re connecting with that good? That’s all that really matters.

What has taking on this experience taught you about yourself, what have you learned?

Ashley: Well, I learned that I have stamina. I thought, “Good Lord, I don’t think I can sing this every night!”

Lynn: You do, honey.

Ashley: Thanks, girl. That is definitely one thing I learned about myself. Whatever I put my mind to I can really do it, I can’t doubt myself. Before we opened, literally like tech week, I was still doubting myself about whether or not I could do this. And it just so happened that Mark called me at work. It was our last tech-night. And he said, “Forget everything around you just go out there and be.” And I said okay. In that moment? That was the moment that I finally clicked with Deloris. When Mark just told me to let everything around me go and just do it? I learned that I could do it. After him telling me those simple few words? I just learned that I need to believe in myself. Mark believes in me; I should believe in myself too.

What about you, Lynn? What are you learning?

Lynn: I know I said I hadn’t done a musical in three years.

Ashley: You sound amazing.

Lynn: You are a sweetheart.

Ashley: It gets on my nerves! I’m like, “Girl! Stop stealing the show!” I’m kidding— I love being out there with her.

Lynn: This is a very challenging vocal role, I’m just happy I’m doing it. It’s joyful to be doing what you love to do and to get to do it every night with people you love? What more could you ask for?

If you could sum up the Sister Act experience in one word?

Ashley Johnson (center) as Deloris Van Cartier and her sisters in Sister Act at Toby's Dinner Theatre
Ashley Johnson (center) as Deloris Van Cartier and her sisters in Sister Act at Toby’s Dinner Theatre Jeri Tidwell Photography


Ashley: I’m pretty sure everybody said that.

Actually, nobody has said that yet.

Ashley: No way! You stole my word!! Golly! I feel like I say it so much in this show. Damn! I was going to say that! Now I’ve got to think.

Lynn: I’m sorry honey. See our stations are right next to each other, so we’re simpatico.

Ashley: Incredible. But I want it known that I thought ‘fabulous’ before Lynn said it.

Lynn: I just read her mind, that’s all.

Why should people come and see Sister Act?

Lynn: Oh my goodness. If you want to come and be entertained and have a wonderful, joyful, fulfilling theatre experience— because this show has everything. It has wonderful dancing; it has wonderful costumes. It has great music; it has incredible talent. Everyone in the show is incredibly talented, there is no one in this show that does not hold their own. It blows my mind on stage every time with that sound. You can feel— it’s palpable— the energy coming from this cast. You’d have to be dead to not pick up on that and feel joyful. We see it in the faces of the people. When we do that pinwheel at the end? Everybody is smiling.

Ashley: My answer is literally the same as hers. All I can say is ditto. She said it all. It feels good. Why not come and feel good and get something to eat? Get some feel good food, get a feel good show.

Sister Act plays through November 13, 2016 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (301) 596-6161 or purchase them online.

To read the TheatreBloom review, click here.

To read Part1 of The Little Sisters of Toby’s series, click here.

To read Part2 of The Little Sisters of Toby’s series, click here.

To read Part3 of The Little Sisters of Toby’s series, click here.

To read Part4 of The Little Sister of Toby’s series, click here.

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