WEIRD SISTERS THEATRE PROJECT, a newish Atlanta theater company, throws caution to the wind by taking its name from the witches of Macbeth. Given The Scottish play’s reputation for theatrical bad luck, the name “Weird Sisters” might tempt fate, but the company enters its 2013 summer season seeing lots of excitement and no signs of supernatural blowback.
The company’s five co-founders — Kelly Criss, Veronika Duerr, Jaclyn Hofmann, Tiffany Porter and Megan Rose — are Atlanta actors and theater artists whose decision to form the group dates back to a night at Manuel’s Tavern in 2011. As Hofmann recalls, “We were all involved with the New American Shakespeare Tavern, but Shakespeare didn’t write enough female roles for us to do many shows together. We wanted to work more with each other, and one of us asked, ‘Why don’t we just do our own thing?’ ”
As Criss recalls, “Jaclyn had previous experience self-producing a show with friends from school, so she really took the initiative in making this happen.” Shakespeare Tavern artistic director Jeff Watkins gave the group permission to produce Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief that summer. “That show has an all-female cast and female playwright,” Criss says, “so I feel like that planted the first seeds of what would become our mission statement: Theater by women, for everyone.”
Porter leapt at the chance to work regularly with her friends. “I came to see the first show of Desdemona and basically never left!” she says. “ I enjoyed Desdemona so much so that I begged to house manage or run lights every performance thereafter.”
IN 2012, THE GROUP FOLLOWED with the backstage comedy Anton in Show Business, which gave Duerr, a rising star as an Atlanta actor, a long-awaited chance to direct a show. “For the past three years, I’ve noticed in American theater that artistic directors are getting flack for not hiring female directors or choosing female playwrights,” Duerr points out. “It’s more likely for a young male to get a directing job than a young female. I really wanted to direct prior to Anton, but there were no opportunities for that.”
Duerr relishes the way Weird Sisters gives women more artistic chances. “We want to empower as many women as possible. We want to spread [the opportunities] around as much as possible,” she says.
They don’t want the group to cater to stereotypes about female-oriented theater, though, says Hofmann. “We don’t want to be known as an ‘angry female group’ or ‘angry feminists.’ This is about raising women up, not putting men down.”
While preparing to stage two shows this summer and see their profile rise, the five women wanted to prove that they’re serious about theater — but not too serious.
“Anton gave us a reputation as a comedy company and we wanted to play to that,” says Duerr. Rather than follow a single artistic director, the company makes its major decisions by five-way vote and, for this year, chose two highly dissimilar plays that share comedic elements. The broadly comic 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche runs July 3-15 at the Shakespeare Tavern, while the witty, cerebral Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, directed by Shannon Eubanks, runs at Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre in August.
ATLANTA-BRED PLAYWRIGHT Lauren Gunderson brings her signature interest in science and history to Emilie, an offbeat character study of Madame du Chatelet, a pioneering female mathematician during the French Enlightenment. Duerr, in her first onstage performance with Weird Sisters, plays the title role.
“She spent her entire life in the sciences, and translated Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica from Latin to French, simplifying the geometry to make it easier to understand,” says Duerr, who describes the play’s costume design as “Lady Gaga does the Enlightenment.” “Throughout the play, she’s trying to figure out the point of her life. It’s very much about math and science, but at that time, to these people, these elements also had to do with God and love and relationships, with the way society was run and more.”
With 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, Weird Sisters focuses not on 18th-century France but Middle America in 1956, with a meeting of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein in a church basement. Criss, who directs, explains that she kept coming across the title while working her part-time job as Horizon Theatre’s artistic and education assistant. “It made me giggle every time I saw it, so I decided to check it out. It’s fun and wacky, but also a great testament to lasting friendship and not being afraid to be yourself. I think that ties 5 Lesbians to Emilie: Be yourself and be proud of it.”
Weird Sisters’ 5 Lesbians includes some unconventional casting, including actor Bryan Lee as one of the housewives, “even though his character is the pristine China doll that all the other woman want to be,” Duerr says, laughing.
The casting emphasizes how the Weird Sisters want their group to be more inclusive than the name initially suggests. “The weird sisters in MacB. can be cast in so many different ways,” says Hoffman. “We like to think of the company as a place where everyone belongs, that’s open to people of all shapes, sizes and types. And we’re all a little weird.”