Curtain call: Artistic factotum Ric Averill to retire from Lawrence Arts Center

Ric Averill, artistic director of the Lawrence Arts Center, will soon be leaving his position where he has served for 16 years, but isn't exactly falling into retirement. The Lawrence actor, playwright and educator says that he will be working on projects with friends across the country and plans to stay involved in the arts scene locally.

Shifting his career into different gear, Ric Averill says with this new year he’ll probably only work between 40 and 60 hours a week. He is retiring, after all.

At the end of December, Averill, 66, said he’ll step down from his position as the artistic director of the Lawrence Arts Center, where he’s worked for more than 16 years.

“I’m retiring from the Lawrence Arts Center, but I won’t be retiring from the arts,” Averill said. “I’m looking forward to doing a few projects with some of my friends across the country.”

“It’s not like I won’t be doing a lot of things around here,” he added.

Born in San Francisco but raised in Topeka, Averill was a part of a cultural rebirth in Lawrence starting in the mid-1970s.

Marilyn Dobski, former board president for the Lawrence Arts Center, said it’s hard to imagine the facility without Averill, especially with his contributions to the theater.

“He was instrumental when we built the new building, helping us decide what we needed with the theater,” she said. “He was a big help when it came to that building or planning.”

Not only did Averill have significant impact on the Arts Center’s new building at 940 New Hampshire St., Dobski said, but his touch can be traced all the way back to its beginnings.

“When I think of the theater portion of the arts center and all the drama programs, I think of Ric,” she said.

In the mid-70s, just as the Arts Center was coming into its own — originally housed in the Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St. — Averill helped found the Seem-To-Be Players, a community theater troupe.

Seem-To-Be Players perform Feast

The two organizations worked together early and often, growing in tandem. And in the early 2000s, the Arts Center moved to its current location, absorbing the Seem-To-Be Players in the process and naming Averill the director of performing arts.

Averill said his position with the Arts Center afforded him a great deal of flexibility to work both inside and outside of the organization. He’s traveled to nearly all 50 states, directed shows in different countries and even lived in Russia for a month.

Throughout his career, Averill said he’s published nearly two dozen plays, about one a year since he was first published in 1994. He was honored twice at the Kennedy Center, once where his rendition of “Alice in Wonderland” graced the stage.

The story of how that show came to be still makes Averill chuckle, he said.

“(The show’s director) calls me up and says, ‘Do you have an Alice in Wonderland sitting around?'” Averill recalls.

He didn’t.

“I said, in true theater fashion, ‘Sure I do, just gimme a week to pull it together.’ And over that week I wrote an 80-page Alice in Wonderland and faxed it to Washington D.C. on a Sunday.”

The show was a rousing success, he said.

And though he’s been here and there, Averill kept Lawrence as his home base.

Mary Doveton, executive director for Theatre Lawrence, said she’s known Averill for about 40 years. Often, their careers ran parallel. During his tenure with the Arts Center, Doveton said, Averill has touched so many lives it’s difficult to keep count.

Lawrence actor Ric Averill portrays the fictional lawyer Atticus Finch from the movie To

“He’s brought such joy to so many,” she said. “You can’t think about Ric without smiling.”

With the Arts Center, Averill worked with community partners like the Lawrence School District and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Douglas County, offering a window into the artistic community for those who might not otherwise have the opportunity.

Averill said he’s produced, presented, directed and more. His productions have used professional actors, students, volunteers and complete amateurs.

“I’m very proud of the style of theater we’ve developed. It’s unique, combining professional actors and musicians and directors and designers with a community of the same members, actors, musicians and members along with students,” he said.

“The most important thing is the art,” he added. “That’s where you learn by doing, by experiencing it.”

Among Averill’s many projects at the Arts Center include the annual Kansas Nutcracker, which revamps the classic script each year with history and popular figures from the area. The piece is one of many ways to gauge the Arts Center’s progress over the years.

“You can see it in the current Kansas Nutcracker,” Averill said. “It keeps getting stronger and stronger and more and more magical.”

Though he’s worked with all kinds of talent before, it’s clear Averill has a special place in his heart for children.

“He’s given the gift of laughter to generations,” Doveton said. ” He’s very young at heart, always has a smile.”

Former Arts Center Director Ann Evans said it’s a wonder to watch Averill work with children. In fact, he’s worked with both her own children and grandchildren.

“He is just a marvelous, marvelous teacher,” she said. “It’s such a joy to watch kids learning from him and responding to him.”

“It’s his personality,” she added. “It’s just who he is.”

In fact, Averill said getting to know his youthful cohorts has become a point of pride for him.

“I like the fact that for a show I’ll know all the kids’ names by the time we open,” he said. “I don’t always know the parents’ names, but I can usually tell who goes with who.”

Even Dobski’s own granddaughter had a part in the Kansas Nutcracker, she said. She quickly asked to participate again.

“She said ‘Grandma, I want to be in the Nutcracker next year. I really like Mr. Averill,'” Dobski said. “Even 9-year-olds understand the impact. They listen to him. And his enthusiasm is contagious.”

Jeanne and Ric Averill rehearse the melodrama “Dangerous Damsels,” a revival of one of their 1990s productions from Apple Valley Farm Theatre.

Another Arts Center institution which made an impact on so many is the Summer Youth Theater, Evans said.

“I know many, many young adults who met some of their best friends to this day at Summer Youth Theater, and Ric was the catalyst for that,” she said. “It was one of the ways, other than sports, to bring kids from all over town together.”

Can such a contagious enthusiasm be replaced?

Dobski recalled the careers of Evans and another past Arts Center Director, Susan Tate, noting how they each had a style and each had an impact. Averill’s departure will be no different, she said.

“Each person that comes in just has a different thought and philosophy,” she said. “I’m sure it will survive, but the theater program will never have Ric’s influence.”

Evans agreed with Dobski, noting that Averill’s work will serve as a path for the Arts Center’s future.

“He will be missed, but it’s like other things, he’s built a fabulous legacy,” she said. “The Lawrence Arts Center will continue to have a strong drama program. Things will change, but they’ve got a strong foundation, so they can continue to grow and prosper.”

Looking forward to his retirement, Averill said he has a few pieces in the works.

“I’m working on a long-term opera. Something more for adults than kids. It’s about Coronado’s exploration into the middle of the country,” he said. “It deals with a few darker issues, life or death; makes for great tragedy.”

He’s also working on a screenplay called “The Man She Was” about one of the many women who dressed as a man in order to fight in the Civil War, he said.

“It’s a piece that has a lot to say about these gender-bending fluid times,” he said.

In addition to some traveling and some more work, Averill said he’ll have a bit more time to spend with his wife, daughter, son and four grandchildren.

“I wouldn’t expect me to slow down much,” he laughed. “I’m in great health and great spirits, too.”