Leah Joki is fond of the Mark Twain quote, "comedy equals tragedy plus time." After six years of work, she's drawn on her Butte Catholic family history and people she's known to create an original play, "The Poppovichs."
It's a "very dark comedy" centered on three sisters as they deal with family and the difficulties involved with aging and death.
"This is a play about mortality, and there is humor in mortality," she said. (She notes that the outcomes are not true to the real people she knows.)
It's a very Montana play — she said she tried to stay true to Butte — how people speak, the humor, the attitude.
"They stick together through thick and thin, right?" she said.
The main characters are three sisters, one of whom she plays, while also holding down the director's chair. One of her goals for the project was to write roles for herself and her peers.
"It's really hard to find material, particularity for mature women, that are not just a grandmother, but mature, strong women that are good role models," she said.
Other Montana references involve (no spoilers) a cross-state road trip of a kind, with stops and references to places like Clearwater Junction, Wheat Montana, Teasers and "all these odd little iconic places that people know," she said.
The play originated with a bare-bones prompt in a playwright class taught by Randy Bolton: Write a scene, where the only thing on stage is a chair. It took Joki back to an incident in her family, in which someone tried suicide, and she wrote what became the first scene of the play.
"It's about life, and family, and mortality and we all trudge on, don't we? And especially the women. The women are the ones who just keep moving forward," she said.
Most of her work tends toward the autobiographical. Joki attended the University of Montana for her bachelor's and master's degrees, and then attended Juilliard School in New York.
She's spent more than 20 years now teaching theater in prisons in California, an experience she wrote about in her book, "Juilliard to Jail." She's interested in bringing that work to Montana, and believes it's transformative work for people often dehumanized in the eyes of society.
An example of the work she and a team do at a maximum-security men's prison: They pick a theme, such as addiction, and develop scripted material and then put together a show with scenes based on the themes. She works with them on producing original material that they can perform after having a few months to write.
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The nine cast members of "The Poppovichs" are mostly University of Montana alums, at least five of whom know each other from college in the late 1970s and early '80s.
"It is definitely a piece for mature actors and a mature audience and the issues that arise with age, as people pass or not, or tragedies come up," she said.
Joki knows Tom Morris of the Bozeman area from their time at UM together in the late 1970s. She said it's a demanding role for actors in their age bracket who want to take on a part like this.
Outside that group are Megan Folson, who returned to Missoula after working in California; and two recent graduates, Zach French and Hudson Therriault and an MFA candidate, Ellie Caterisano.
The play is premiering at the Downtown Dance Collective as part of the Montana Playwrights Network, a statewide group started by Pamela Mencher that's helping promote original theater. The Montana Actors Theatre in Havre performed "The Vorbit Incident" by Jay Kettering, and a new theater, Helena Avenue Theatre, will produce "Plumb Local," a night of one acts, this winter.
Heather Adams, the artistic director of the DDC, said she was presented with around 10 scripts sans author names and asked to take her pick, based on what would work for the community and her space, from a production standpoint.
"Leah has a way of crafting multiple story lines and weaving them together. I love that she is tackling topics that are tough for most of us to talk about," she said, such as family, suicide, death and addiction.
"You don't feel like you're watching a show that's contrived. You get to know real people," she said.
Adams, who's producing the play, said she wants to host more theater, dance and performance at her space. The studio already has an artist in residence program, of which Joki is an alum. (She produced a one-woman show, "Prison Boxing," there.)
She thinks that through the network project, artists in her program might find their voice and then get selected for a larger production and support.
She wants the DDC to carve out a niche for dance and theater as more performance spaces open up. She points to the popularity of events centered on original stories, such as Tell Us Something and MAMAedy.
"It needs to be supported, so that's something that in this coming year we'll focus on," she said.