BOX OFFICE 610.644.3500

Auctioning the Ainsleys

By Laura Schellhardt

Directed by Abigail Adams
October 14-November 8, 2015
Steinbright Stage

REGIONAL PREMIERE. The fast-talking Ainsleys can auction off an estate in a heartbeat. It’s been the family business since the siblings were kids. However, now it’s time to sell the auction house they call home and their own emotional antiques start to get in the way. Featuring Carla Belver as the family matriarch, Auctioning the Ainsleys is an endearing, dark comedy that begs the question - can you put a price on your past, and would you sell it if you could?

Contains adult language. Best enjoyed by ages 12+

Scoop on Wednesdays: History, Context, and Gossip

Join us for a lively discussion before Wednesday 7:30pm performances. Resident Dramaturg Gina Pisasale will host an artist from the production and get the inside scoop about such things as the rehearsal and production process, design choices, and the world of the play. The program begins at 6pm in The Farmhouse Bistro on October 21, 28 and November 4. Cost of $15 includes light fare. Call the Box Office at 610.644.3500.

Dinner & A Show Packages

Enjoy a prix fixe dinner and a show package for $73 (Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday matinee, Sunday evening) and $82 (Friday, Saturday evening, Sunday matinee) at The Farmhouse Bistro prior to the Wed-Sun evening performances. That's a savings of up to 15% off the single ticket price. Click here to view the menu.

Alice Ainsley: Carla Belver*
Avery Ainsley: Mary Elizabeth Scallen*
Annalee Ainsley: Teri Lamm*
Amelia Ainsley: Julianna Zinkel*
Aiden Ainsley: Jesse Pennington*
Arthur: Brian Lee Huynh*
Director: Abigail Adams
Set Design: Luke Hegel-Cantarella
Costume Designer: Anne Kennedy
Lighting Designer: Dennis Parichy
Sound Designer: Karin Graybash
Production Stage Manager: Audrey M. Brown*
Dramaturg: Mary Elizabeth Scallen*
Line Producer: Zak Berkman and Charles Brastow

* Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers.


Highlights of this production
Themes of the play
Why did People’s Light choose this play?
The Story
The Playwright


  • Will star the familiar and celebrated company member Carla Belver, last seen at People’s Light in Trip to Bountiful in the 2013-14 season.
  • Will involve 3 more of our company’s core women artists: Mary Elizabeth Scallen, Teri Lamm and Julianna Zinkel.
  • Female playwright Laura Schellhardt creates wonderfully strong, multidimensional, passionate, and smart women characters.
  • Unique, funny, and endearingly idiosyncratic characters and an engaging, fast-paced, and artfully witty script.
  • Unique theatrical poetry in how objects are handled and literally appear/disappear during the show; this becomes an integral and delightful part of Schellhardt’s storytelling.


  • Can we separate ourselves from our roles within our personal and professional lives?
  • Can we ever escape the family ties that bind?
  • (How) do possessions and material objects define and validate our lives?
  • How does wrestling with the past allow us to move into the future?
  • How do we break away from roles, responsibilities, and objects that have defined us?
  • What are our strategies for dealing with chaos?
  • How do our families both madden and fuel us?


“Artistic Director/CEO Abigail Adams is keen to direct this dark comedy with Carla Belver and our company women. It possesses a slanted, fun view of a dysfunctional family that balances out the heart-wrenching epic quality of our first show this season, Miller’s All My Sons. Written by a writer we have been tracking for a few years, it has a different tone and voice than many of our other offerings that we hope might appeal particularly to our subscribers and female audiences.”

—Producing Director Zak Berkman


Plot Summary

Time: In and around the present
Place: In and around a Midwest auction house

The play is a dark comedy about a family of auctioneers who identify fiercely with the physical objects that surround them.

In a small Midwest town, the Ainsley auction house has been a family business since all of the kids were young. Matriarch Alice is nearing the end of her life and hires Arthur from an aide service to catalog her diminishing memories of the family history that are integrally tied to quickly disappearing keepsakes all around her. More pressing is her need to free her adult children - defined by objects she keeps on a silver tray - from the possessions, anxieties, and fixations that have kept them tied to the house. Alice shocks her children by putting the house and all its “trappings” up for auction.

This ticking clock forces the return of prodigal daughter Avery and the family must finally confront each other, the secrets they keep, and their own individual powerful connections to the possessions in their lives. In the fast-paced and funny liquidation of their lives, the Ainsleys find they are capable of great things - if only they can let go, grow up, and move on in time to accomplish them.

Who’s Who

Alice Ainsley
The mother and matriarch. Late 60s. Has lived relatively isolated in an upstairs room for 15 years.

Avery Ainsley
The oldest daughter. Fast-talking, blunt, and direct. Returns to the house after being away 15 years.

Annalee Ainsley
The middle daughter. In charge of “social relations,” which involves acquiring auction items and their histories. She has a very complex organizational system and various peculiar methods for “managing chaos.”

Amelia Ainsley
The youngest daughter. The family “matchmaker,” in charge of assembling the lots for auction.

Aiden Ainsley
The son. In charge of restoration. He tries to lead an “uncluttered” life.

The unrelated. Medical aide to Alice. Early 30s. He is very easy to talk to and is “good with a pen.”


Laura Schellhardt is a playwright and adaptor. Her original works include The Comparables, Upright Grand, Air Guitar High, Auctioning the Ainsleys (Jeff Award Nominee), The Apothecary's Daughter, How to Remove Blood From a Carpet, The K of D (Jeff Award Nominee, 2010 NYC Fringe Festival Best New Play Award), Courting Vampires, Shapeshifter, Inheritance, and Je Ne Sais Quoi. Adaptations include The Phantom Tollbooth, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, The Outfit (Jeff Award Nominee), and Creole Folktales. She is also the author of Screenwriting for Dummies. Schellhardt is a recipient of the TCG National Playwriting Residency, the Jerome Fellowship, the New Play Award from ACT in Seattle, a Dramatist Guild Playwriting Fellowship, and A Contemporary Theatre’s New Play Award and American Alliance for Theatre and Education Distinguished Play Award. She has participated in the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, the Ojai Playwrights Conference, SoHo Rep Writer/Director Lab, the Women Playwrights Festival at SRC, The Kennedy Center's New Voices/New Visions Festival, The Bonderman TYA Symposium, and the O'Neill National Playwright’s Festival. Schellhardt received her MFA in playwriting from Brown University under the direction of Paula Vogel. She currently heads the undergraduate playwriting program at Northwestern University.

Laura Schellhardt Takes Auctions Personally
By Mary Elizabeth Scallen

Theaters across America are producing Laura Schellhardt’s work, including Auctioning the Ainsleys.
We asked her about the origins of the play,
Which aspects of the story mean the most to her,
And how she came to center the play on a character that never appears.

MES: What was the “seed” of this play for you?

LS: This play had a two-fold start.

First of all, my family loves auctions, particularly small town, Midwest auctions. I spent many of my childhood summers going from one small town auction to another, maybe 2-3 auctions over the course of a summer. Not usually to buy anything, although sometimes my parents might bid on an item.

Now that I’ve been to fancier auctions, like the ones run by Christie’s, I can see that small town auctions are all about community. Kind of like funerals. For example, at small town auctions there are no catalogs listing the items for sale. Instead, many of the people there know the owners, they’ve been inside the owners’ homes as guests. They come to the auction knowing what they want to buy because they’ve seen a certain item in the house for years, and they wait for it to come up for bid.

I noticed that some people have specific auction personalities—they can get competitive in that setting even if they might not be in the rest of their lives. People can also have auction circles of friends—they keep their eyes on the local papers for auctions in neighboring towns, and go every week as entertainment with the same group of friends.
Auctions are very theatrical, starting with the auctioneers themselves. Every auctioneer has a different patter and a different approach to the job. Most of the auctioneers recognize people in the crowd, and the crowd knows them as well. I’ve noticed there aren’t many female auctioneers. There are more now than when I was a kid, but it’s still mainly men.

I knew I wanted to write a play that included small town auctions and a female auctioneer. But I still wasn’t sure what the story should revolve around.

Then right around the time I was considering all this, a couple of my family members began suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. That brought up the idea of memory, and how our memories can be locked in objects. We all have keepsakes that have no value to anyone but us, and we value them for the memories they hold. What happens when those memories go? What happens when the object remains but the memory locked in it disappears?

So the second piece of the play fell into place when I decided to write about a woman in the later stages of her life who was struggling with memory issues. I wanted her to be involved with auctions, and I wanted to include auctioneers who know the community and vice versa, so the auctioneers could say, “We’ve been in charge of selling off your stuff for years, but now you’re coming here to buy our stuff.”

MES: With which of the play’s themes do you feel most strongly connected?

LS: The scenes between oldest sister Avery and youngest brother Aiden are particularly meaningful to me. This play is not autobiographical, but there are parts of my family members in some of these characters, and Aiden is definitely inspired by my younger brother. There was a big age gap between me and my brother as there is between the characters; I left home before he was out of high school. In this play, the kids are trying to figure out how to cope with their aging mom and the family estate. My parents are aging too, of course. So the question of, “What is the responsibility of the older sibling versus the younger sibling as your parents age?” is very close to my heart.

Also my brother is very funny, and since I love theatre that has humor in it, that aspect of him became part of Aiden as well.

I’m impacted by the moment in the play when two of the characters discard some beloved items. I think we all have a desire, and yet a fear, to throw our material possessions away. We wonder, “What would happen if all my stuff disappeared?” Intellectually, we know these accumulated items don’t really matter. But there are things we own that, because of the way they came to us, seem priceless. So there’s a tension between being bound to the stories in those objects, and not wanting to be bound to any objects.

One of the characters uses mantras to calm herself down when she gets anxious. I can relate to the impulse to try to control chaos, especially now that I have a child in my life! Some of the people I’m drawn to in life are endearing to me specifically because they’re trying to control things that are uncontrollable. Like the people in this play. And I think a mother’s impending death would inspire her children to try even harder to control their lives. The moments in this story when people are nonsensically trying to control things speak to me because there’s a link between control and sanity. Life is great at tricking you into thinking that you can control it, and therefore remain sane. It takes something really surprising to make you realize you can’t control life. And these characters encounter plenty of surprises.

MES: Alistair Ainsley, the father of this family, never appears in the play but may be the most influential character of all. How did he enter the story for you?

LS: There’s such a fine line depicting the father in this play!

The play was originally commissioned by Northlight Theatre in Chicago, and I worked on the script a lot there. I wanted the audience to know that that the father was emotionally and psychologically abusive, that the kids were expected to fit their lives to his rhythm. But I also wanted to be clear that the father was not sexually abusive. He was a big man in a small town, but not a villain. And although abuse is one of the instigating factors in the play, it’s not a play about abuse.

So in preview performances at Northlight, we decided to try cutting the line in which Avery details the abuse. She pounds her father’s gavel on a table, then says, “It makes a different sound when it’s hitting someone’s leg or someone’s arm or someone’s back.”

But without that line, suddenly everyone in the audience wanted to forgive the father!

We realized it was important to establish that the kids were truly abused. And that Avery’s line helped audiences consider seriously what the kids went through, rather than just dismissing them as Midwestern, privileged whiners.
We restored the line.

Avery took the brunt of the abuse as the eldest. She was thinking, “If he does it to me he won’t do it to them,” her younger siblings. And her mother avoided dealing with it by leaving the room or taking the other kids outside while Avery was being abused. She abandoned her daughter.

The literal motor of the story is the mother, Alice, selling the house. But the father is the emotional motor of the story. He’s the reason the family broke apart, the reason family members stay at home and rarely go out into the world, the reason eldest sister Avery left and the reason she feels guilty, the reason Alice is trying to repair damage from the family’s early years.

It was important to me that the father be absent, so that the story could be about the kids, not about confronting the father. When something awful happens, you don’t ever forget it, but you can unravel it so it has less power. If the abuser is gone, all a survivor can do is blame herself or blame the other survivors. It sets up a pressure cooker situation—the abuser is absent, so the survivors have to face the thing they have never been able to talk about before. That’s what I wanted this story to be about.

A July 10, 2014 interview with Laura Shellhardt by Adam Szymkowicz

Hometown: I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and my family moved around a lot when I was growing up. But we've been in Chicago for the longest stretch of time now, so I consider it my hometown.
Current Town: Chicago, IL

Q: Tell me about your play in the Kilroys List.

A: So THE COMPARABLES is a dark comedy about three women vying for control of a high end real estate agency. It emerged in two shifts. The first incarnation was inspired by the series of town hall meetings Julia Jordan launched at New Dramatists several years concerning why female playwrights were so scarce in the Broadway/Regional Theatre circuit. There was some abysmal statistic - something like 10 or 12 percent of the new plays produced around the country that year were by women. So the statistic got me thinking - and by thinking I mean it threw me into that frenzy of rage and despair that often (for me anyway) results in art. However, it was actually a series of comments on an article about those meetings that inspired the plot. A female reporter wrote a thoughtful summation of one of those town halls, and for some reason it prompted a slew of vicious comments from readers - one of which stated women would be happier if we just accepted that men were the creators in this world and women were the caregivers. And that comment was made by a woman. So that happened, and then I started to write.

That version of the play though was just a series of scripted half-thoughts until Braden Abraham and I began discussing a commission for Seattle Rep. Originally we wanted to adapt Genet's The Maids, but it's difficult for American writers to secure those rights - so we decided that what we loved about that piece was its rumination on the specific nature of female cruelty - the unique way women compete with women - and all of a sudden those half-thoughts began to take shape. The play isn't an adaptation of The Maids, and I hope (pray?) it's funnier than The Maids, but it shares the same primary theme.

What else are you working on now? Honestly? Right now I'm working on a way to type with one hand while I hold my newborn with the other. Also how to function on three hours of sleep. Also the world's a whole lot more delightful and terrifying with him in it, so I'm working on finding a balance between those two states of mind.

Writing-wise, I'm working on a commission from The Goodman Theatre about the first state-certified electrocution in America, as well as a young adult piece about a group of kids trying to escape the island they live on in search of a better future. This goal is made difficult by the adults in their lives and the gators surrounding the island. Electricity and reptiles - that's my creative life these days.

Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A: Well, when I was seven I had the opportunity to meet President Reagan, and I turned it down in favor of the buffet table which had chocolate-covered strawberries the size of my fist. For some reason that story seems relevant to my work.

The story that keeps coming up as I think about that question though is a production of Choose Your Own Adventures that was put up at my grade school in Virginia, with five actors playing fifty roles - including inanimate objects, animals and the weather. I was young at the time, but I know that event was formative for me somehow. It was funny and surprising and seemingly impossible, and also it required physical virtuosity - which I think has become one of my definitions for success.

Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A: I know most people say it should be less expensive - and I agree with that. I'd also love it if the nightly news replaced some of their sports coverage with arts coverage - or here's a thought, cover them both - so more kids saw both as equally viable options. I'd also like more theatre - mine included - to involve specific communities in process and production. I think that's the fastest way to grow new audiences across the country. That wasn't one thing, sorry. I'm big on change.

Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A: Oh, most of them are teachers. Paula Vogel and John Logan have been guiding lights in my life - professionally and personally. Paula's changed so many people's lives for the better - I mean, she's got the Pulitzer in drama, but she should also have a Pulitzer in humanitarian effort. John taught me tenacity and rigor. My former acting teacher, Mary Poole, taught me that vulnerability is not a weakness. Also my siblings who find humor in even the darkest of events. Also my husband - who's a classical musician - has a professional discipline I will never achieve, but it's important to have something to shoot for. Also now my son for whom everything is new. I'd love for more of my world to feel new again.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: I like theatre that moves quickly - not short productions necessarily, but work that has a fast pulse. Also theatre where cruelty and beauty collide. Also theatre that demands its performers be physically or linguistically virtuosic at some point (or all the time.) And I'll see any play with a chase scene in it.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: Stay in the game. Unless you fall out of love with the game, then do something else. And don't compare yourself to anyone else. And don't expect that the things you thought would be the most fulfilling are actually the things that will be the most fulfilling. They might be, but also they might not. Oh - and figure out how to type quickly with one hand, because one day you may have a newborn, and that will be a useful skill.

Q: Plugs, please:

A: Here are my Chicago shout-outs: Dog And Pony Theatre Company - doing some of the most innovative work in the city, check them out. Ike Holter - follow his work. His new play especially - Exit Strategy - is fantastic. All the writers in the Goodman Theatre's Playwright's Unit - that's a personal plug but mostly a plug for that program and the plays that come out of it. Anything Hallie Gordon commissions for young adult audiences at Steppenwolf. If you're interested in learning about the new classical music scene - check out the Spektral Quartet. I'm married to the violist, so I'm biased, but also they're commissioning a lot of new pieces themselves. And finally - if you're in Seattle next winter (2015), go see The Comparables. We've got one hell of an ensemble.