In the 1970s, Lawrence played host to a type of cultural renaissance, said Mary Doveton, executive director for Theatre Lawrence. In those days, multiple local organizations were coming into their own and broadening the town’s horizons with visual and performing arts.
One of the people at the center of that revolution was Ric Averill, a founding member of a local theater troupe called the Seem-To-Be Players, Doveton recalled.
“At the same time as the Arts Center was forming, Ric and the Seem-To-Be Players were forming, and the community theater was forming, and it was all a part of the same creative era in town,” she said. “Ric is a really creative guy. He’s done some great things over the years, and his stuff has been performed all over the country.”
Born in San Francisco but raised in Topeka, Averill, now 65, knew he wanted a career in music at an early age.
“I started playing piano when I was in first or second grade, studied composing in the second and third grade, and I wanted to be a composer all through high school,” he said. “I came to KU because they have a good music school. So I studied music here, and I would occasionally do some theater.”
Sooner rather than later, Averill said, he found himself becoming more and more involved with the theater scene. He even met his wife, Jeanne, through one summer theater show in 1970.
“We were in the show called ‘The Fantastic,’” he said. “She played the girl, I played the boy. We fell in love.
“We fell in love with Lawrence and decided to stay here and start our own theater company,” he added.
Around the middle of that decade, the company, eventually known as the Seem-To-Be Players, began performing through the Carnegie Building, 200 Ninth St., in the newly opened Lawrence Arts Center.
By 1980, Averill said, the company was “full professional,” with employees on the payroll and scheduled tours across the country.
Over the years, Averill has toured 46 of the country’s states, directed shows in different countries, published about 20 plays, served on national and international theater boards and completed two commissioned pieces for The Kennedy Center. He graduated from Kansas University with a bachelor’s degree in music and composition and a master’s degree in children’s theater with an emphasis on playwriting.
All the while, traveling back and forth between states and countries, Averill kept one foot in Lawrence, directing, acting and playing in anything and everything.
In the early 2000s, the Lawrence Arts Center relocated from the Carnegie Building to its current location at 940 New Hampshire St., Averill said. During that move, the center absorbed the Seem-To-Be Players and Averill was named its director of performing arts, a position that affords him a great deal of flexibility.
Through the arts center, Averill is able to work with community partners like the Lawrence school district, the Willow Domestic Violence Center and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Douglas County, to name a few.
Those partnerships enable the center, and Averill, to reach out to not only other artists and children interested in the arts, but hopefully to others who might not otherwise be exposed to the creative community.
“Sometimes we’re a production house, sometimes we’re a presenting house. I have a lot of people that I work with through the seasons and figure out what kinds of projects we’re going to do,” Averill said. “There are so many stories to tell and shows and collaborations to do. I’m always thinking of a production or doing a production. I couldn’t not do it. It becomes your life, and I’m one of the lucky people able to make a living as a performing artist in Lawrence.”
Much of that success is due to Lawrence’s attitude toward the arts, Averill said. The town constantly encourages artists to work together, share their gifts with others and flourish, he explained.
That collaborative attitude is one of the many things that keeps Averill not only invested in the city, but also in tune with the city’s needs, said longtime friend and colleague Elizabeth Sullivan.
“He’s been everywhere, but he’s very connected to Lawrence,” she said. “He seems to have this knack to know what Lawrence audiences want and what will push them artistically and what they connect to as far as scenes, but also the way that he connects history. Like with the Kansas Nutcracker.”
Each year Averill provides a new script and stage direction for the arts center’s Kansas Nutcracker performances, taking the holiday classic and revamping it with local history and familiar names.
“We set it in Kansas in the 1850s when Kansas was just a territory,” Averill said. “We have all these references to Bleeding Kansas. Instead of having dreams of the flutes, there are dreams of Kansas, grasshoppers and snow and flowers and mice. We see some local characters like John Brown and Charles Robinson, the first governor of Kansas. It’s a really fun way to bring history to life.”
Not only does Averill take part in the arts center’s productions, he’s also involved in the organization’s pre-school, classes, clinics and more. In fact, he’s been doing it so long he’s starting to see more familiar faces than normal.
“One of the great joys, of course, is that now I’m working with the children of children I’ve worked with before,” he said. “It’s really a blessing — there are a lot of families I know well and that I’ve worked with their whole families.”
Sullivan, who was originally hired as an actress for the Seem-To-Be Players, now works alongside Averill at the arts center. She jokingly compared her colleague to a mad scientist because he’s always working on one project or another. His free time and his work time are virtually indistinguishable because he’s so passionate about the performing arts scene.
“He has a lot of ideas all of the time. Tons and tons. He never runs out of them,” she said. “I don’t think he could ever be bored or have free time because of the way his brain works.”
“He’s like any of us that are working in the creative arts,” Doveton added. “You get an idea and you run with it. It’s exciting and exhilarating, and you gather people around you that are like-minded, and everybody feeds off everybody. Ric’s a really creative guy, and he’s always got a positive attitude, and he makes people feel good about themselves.”
Averill said his love of the arts was easily passed down to his two children, Will and Trish, and he enjoys sharing it with his grandchildren, too.
Through Lawrence, Averill has been able to build a fulfilling and creative body of work, and he has no plans to slow down any time soon, he noted.
“I’ve had a lot of goals that I’ve achieved. I got published, worked at The Kennedy Center, there were some contests I wanted to win, and I’ve been close with several screenplays, but that career hasn’t taken off just yet,” he said. “I’ve got a few careers still up my sleeve.”