For more than 35 years, the Lawrence Arts Center has run Summer Youth Theatre, an intensive theater arts program for kids in grades three through 12. This summer, the troupe has already tackled Macbeth and Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. Opening this weekend is a newly commissioned play that, as its title implies, claims to present The Complete History of Kansas in Sixty Minutes.
Inside the Center on a hot July afternoon, it's the first week of rehearsals of the original script by Will Averill and Larry Mitchell. While the young actors warm up, director Elizabeth Sullivan steps away to a dressing room. She explains why the show's being timed to this summer season and how the Summer Youth Theatre plans to stage it: by incorporating concepts of story theater and improvisation.
"We wanted to commemorate Quantrill's Raid. It is the 150th anniversary and so it was a really good time to bring that in," Sullivan says.
Of the chosen style for the production, Sullivan adds, "Story theater uses props that aren't necessarily the correct props, like maybe if we want a wheel for a wagon, we'll use an umbrella. If we want a covered wagon, we'll use a tablecloth.
"That also has to do with improv work from the kids, because we're not giving them specific characters necessarily. They're developing the characters. They're the ones that are in charge of looking at their part and using their creativity and their imagination to put it together."
The serious and the ridiculous
Among the young actors is is Aiden Cahir, who has been involved in theater for half his 12 years.
"I've done theater since I was six so I've been with the Arts Center for a long time," he says. "My mom did stuff here so theater's something that just runs in the family. This is my second time doing summer youth theater and I just love the Will Averill plays. They're so fun and funny."
Aiden also discusses a couple of the vignettes that will be part of a show that sounds more like a photo montage than a weighty encyclopedia.
"Brown vs. Board of Education is part of it. That's one of the more serious scenes," Cahir says. "Then there's some stuff about Mount Sunflower, like a politician going to the top of Mt. Sunflower to kick off his political campaign to run for mayor and hires a sherpa to guide him up there. It's just ridiculous and funny."
Quantrill's Raid, also known as the Lawrence Massacre, incinerated most of the businesses on the central artery of Massachusetts Avenue and left almost 200 dead. To explore it via children's theater, Averill and Mitchell wrote the scene as if the event was staged as a boxing match, including the familiar line, "Let's get ready to rumble."
The process of deciding which subjects from the state's living archives ended up in the piece resulted from a collaborative brainstorming session between the director and the authors. Playwright Will Averill says he is comfortable with what made the final cut.
"We knew we weren't going to get a comprehensive, linear look at it so the idea was more to pick out highlights," Averill says. "So we came up with a laundry list of about 25 to 30 subjects and then divvied them up and integrated them into an overall piece.
"It's kind of a rough linear flow but it's not timed out certainly," he adds. "It doesn't go from the start of Kansas to the end of Kansas."
Averill says that he hopes the show will introduce both the young actors and audiences alike to subjects previously unknown and to events they already knew about but can examine here in a completely fresh way.
The Complete History of Kansas in Sixty Minutes, July 18, 19, 20, Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire, Lawrence, Kansas, 785-843-2787.