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The Ayers sisters of Missouri are making it on Broadway

The Kansas City Star

Posted on Sat, Jun. 07, 2008

For years the Ayers sisters -- Heather and Becca -- shared a small apartment at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue near the heart of the New York theater district.

It was right across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Buses came and went all day and night. The streets were clogged with tourists, particularly before and after Broadway shows. Heather recently described the living space as “ratty.”

Still, the location fairly screamed New York. Walk a block east and you’d come to the Broadway production of “The Lion King” at the New Amsterdam Theatre. A couple of blocks west would put you on Theater Row, a string of off-Broadway playhouses.

Heather, a busy actress in Kansas City in the mid-1990s, was the first of the sisters to move to New York. It wasn’t long before Becca followed. They wore each other’s clothes. They shared a curling iron. They gave each other encouragement. They often hit the same auditions. And they helped each other financially when one had a job and the other didn’t. Think of it as a movie: Two girls from the Midwest take on the Big Apple with only their love to see them through the hard times!

Well, these are good times for the Missouri-born Ayers sisters because each of them is in a Tony-nominated hit on Broadway. Big sister Heather is in “Young Frankenstein,” the technically elaborate Mel Brooks musical, while Becca is appearing in the sensational revival of “South Pacific.”

Becca, who plays Ensign Cora McRae (an ensemble role) in “South Pacific,” is in her third Broadway show. She was also in the revival of “Les Miserables” and “Avenue Q.”

“Young Frankenstein” is Heather’s Broadway debut. For her regular ensemble role she wears a gray wig and padding, but in the last few weeks she has gone on in flowing gowns as Elizabeth, the female lead usually played by Megan Mullally.

And although Heather recently moved to a quieter neighborhood (“Young Frankenstein” made that possible), the sisters still talk almost every day. They usually check in with each other by phone after evening performances. One day last week they lunched in Central Park.

“She’s my best friend,” Becca said. “And it’s nice to have those people you know are always going to be there. Those people are few and far between.”

Becca shuddered at the thought of taking on New York without Heather.

“I don’t know what I would do if I was here on my own,” she said.

“To be thrown into New York is tough,” Heather said. “It’s everything they say about New York, all the good things and all the bad things, and to have each other is amazing.”

Theater, of course, is perhaps unfairly thought of as an arena of rampaging egos and naked ambition, but the Ayers sisters have always been there for each other, even when they were competing at auditions.

“We would literally audition for the same roles,” Heather said recently. “She would set her alarm, and I would set mine. She was in her room at one end of the apartment, and I was in mine at the other end. We were both doing our warm-ups. It was hard. But it always came down to: If I didn’t get the job then, of course, I wanted her to get the job.”

Heather was born in St. Louis. When she was about 2 months old her parents moved to Columbia, where Becca as born three years later.

Their father, Bob Ayers, was a teacher. But he also played drums and guitar, and he and the girls often appeared together in community theater productions.

Becca recalled that her first show was “Fiddler on the Roof.” Bob and Heather were in the production. That was in Great Bend, Kan., where the family lived for several years. Back in Columbia, Becca played Annie in a community-theater production. Bob and Heather were in that show, too. Their mother, Mary Ayers, worked props. And the family dog was drafted.

“Our dog Bogie was Sandy,” Heather recalled. “He was part poodle and part terrier, and he was all white. So my mom got out a yellow Magic Marker and colored him (before each performance) so he would look sandy.’ "

Both Heather and Becca earned theater degrees from Stephens College. After graduating, Heather moved to Kansas City. At first she lived with cousins in Independence. And she recalled the thrill the first day she drove into Kansas City for an audition and saw the skyline from a distance. She had never lived in a city with a skyline before.

From 1993 through ‘97 she landed roles at most of the leading Equity theaters. She was in “Steel Magnolias” at the New Theatre, “What the Butler Saw” at the American Heartland and “Sylvia” at the Unicorn. In 1996 she appeared in a workshop production of the musical “Jane Eyre” in Wichita. The show eventually made it to Broadway.

“The transition to leave was actually really difficult,” Heather said. “I think I had been offered a job by the New Theatre and actually turned it down to move. I think I could easily have stayed and been very happy. Kansas City feels like a city with a small-town heart. I’m definitely a Midwestern girl and if I could be on Broadway in Gladstone with my parents, I’d be very happy.”

Acting can be a financially precarious career, but Becca and Heather said their parents were always supportive.

“My husband really enjoys entertainment,” Mary Ayers said. “I think he would have liked to have been a professional musician but didn’t get much encouragement as a child. And when the girls decided they wanted to be in the entertainment business, he said, ‘Go for it.’ "

Mary Ayers flew to Seattle to see “Young Frankenstein” in its pre-Broadway show run. And Mary and Bob have both seen “Young Frankenstein” and “South Pacific” in New York.

Becca and Heather have worked together several times, including an off-Broadway production of “Sarah Plain & Tall” in 2006.

An actor never knows what the future holds, but the Ayers sisters are satisfied for the moment. They are, after all, on Broadway.

Like many actors, they prefer not to say just how old they are.

Every year, Becca said, she sends the same birthday greeting to sister Heather: “Happy 28th again. We stay the same age in our business.”

Heather: “We have lots of 28th birthdays.”

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