For weeks, Rosie Ayers’ kids have been eating their cereal standing at the breakfast bar. The stools they usually sit on are gone, confiscated for their mom’s newest theater production, a reimagining of Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters called The Three Sisters of Weehawken. The play’s set is being built by Ayers’ husband, Michael (a carpenter who also happens to be running the lights), and painted with leftover house paint supplied by Teresa Waldorf, the play’s main producer.
Ayers and Waldorf are staging the show this weekend at the Roxy, along with actors Salina Chatlain and Bridget Smith. It’s the third time they’ll be producing a play together in Missoula, but far from the first time the group has collaborated over the past few decades in genres including traditional drama, sketch-writing and stand-up comedy. All have the experience and talent to land roles in bigger (and better-funded) theater productions, and they do: Waldorf and Chatlain both work at the Montana Repertory Theatre, while Ayers is a freelance theater director and teaching artist. But returning to their core group to perform is their true love and passion. And their low-budget, do-it-yourself production style is par for the course.
“We literally beg, borrow and steal,” Waldorf says.
For past productions, they created a waterfall with a water bottle and used a propeller hat as a stand-in for a helicopter. A flashlight has been transformed into a spotlight. In other words, they find the humor in their shoestring budget.
“For sound design once, we just took turns singing songs into the mic during set changes—‘Closer to Fine,’ ‘Islands in the Stream’—Ayers says. “[Design] is just not our focus. Our focus is amazing performances, amazing scripts and amazing directing.”
In 2008, when Waldorf first had the idea to stage the group’s first production, Wonders of the World, it was mostly out of frustration.
“I personally just got tired of waiting around,” she says. “You get to the point when you don’t want to say anymore, ‘I really wish I could play this role.’ You can say you really want to do more theater, that you want to get paid, but waiting around isn’t going to get you anywhere. You get impatient and then you get brave.”
The result, slightly by accident, is an act of feminism. The all-woman troupe picks plays that feature multiple roles for strong leading women (though they’ve happily involved men in past productions) and they don’t rehearse late into the night or on weekends, to make sure their schedules take kids and family into account.
“It’s about taking control,” Waldorf says. “It’s about asking who you want to spend your time with, which scripts you do. It’s about not giving your art away for free.”
Ayers recalls years in which she has directed plays with a baby latched to her breast. “I wanted to work with people who understood the value of working around a family life, while creating hilarious and important art,” she says. “When I’m not directing at regional theaters, I prefer to be in a project with one or all of them.”
The Three Sisters of Weehawken was written by award-winning contemporary playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer. Taking inspiration from both Chekov and Samuel Beckett, the story follows three aging sisters in Weehawken, New Jersey, who dream of returning to their childhood home of Manhattan. But decades pass without action, and the walls literally close in on the group, making for a funny but poignant 90 minutes about how to live a meaningful life.
Chatlain had been involved in an early reading of the play with Laufer at the Montana Repertory Theater’s playwright event, the Missoula Colony. She loved its dark wit. She loved that it contained four complex roles for women. And she loved that they could get the rights without breaking the bank.
Like so many of their other projects, this one emerged simply because the group felt they needed it in their lives. In the past, the group—and theater itself—has helped Ayers through a miscarriage (her friends took her to see a show when she was too sad to stay home another day), Chatlain through a medical emergency, Smith through the loss of her mother, and, most recently, Waldorf through the loss of her husband, Rick. The play goes up just a couple of weeks before the second anniversary of his death, and that’s not a coincidence.
“[Theater] has been much more difficult,” Waldorf says, “and thank God I have it. I’ve learned so much about my anxiety and my grief through this experience. And that’s another piece of why I like having this control. I would not have gone into my first memorized show after the death of my husband with anyone but these guys.”
At this statement, the group (and the reporter) starts crying. It’s not unusual, they say, for rehearsal to be delayed by a blend of laughing fits and tears. This play, which at its core centers on the relationship between sisters, informs the relationships of the actors. And the relationship of the actors makes the play come alive.
“At its base, the play is about the fear of change and the fear of loss, the fear of everything happening and nothing happening,” Waldorf says, paraphrasing a line from the script. “I am such a better actress, I’m more honest and more truthful, I’m less fearful, because of my life experiences and because of these women.”
“Some people say you should leave your personal life at the door, but we use it,” Ayers adds. “It heals us.”
And when you have such a strong script, bolstered by such powerful emotion, it’s easy to forget that the spotlight is a flashlight.
The Three Sisters of Weehawken stages at the Roxy Fri., Dec. 8, and Sat., Dec. 9, at 7:30 PM. $19/$16 advance.