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In And Out Of The Labyrinth

Greek mythology is considered one of the major touchstones of Western culture. And modern literature abounds with references. "The Hunger Games" was inspired, in part, by the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In the Percy Jackson series of books, gods and monsters live among us. A new theatre production in Lawrence takes it back to the original source.

Puppets play role in re-telling of myth

On a weekday morning at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School near downtown Lawrence,  about 100 sixth-graders sit in wooden chairs in the auditorium. On the stage, artist and actor Spencer Lottdemonstrates - with the help of students - how his giant minotaur, a puppet with the body of a man and the head of a bull, works.

"There’s the minotaur head, and it’s controlled on a rod, down here, that he holds in front of the body," Lott explains. He then encourages the student volunteers on stage. "So can you kind of experiment, explore the movement of that minotaur head? So it goes up and down and left and right... And because of those eyes, it’s got focus, which is one of the most important aspects of puppetry."

This minotaur, crafted from lightweight plywood and corrugated plastic, is one of the puppet characters created for a new play called Escape from the Labyrinth. It combines the Greek myths about Icarus – who flew too close to the sun on wax wings - and Theseus – who faced the Minotaur in the Labyrinth.

Creating a world within the labyrinth

Writer and director Ric Averill says the idea has been percolating since the early 1970s when Joseph Chaikin of the Open Theatre came to the University of Kansas for an experimental theatre workshop.

"We did a lot of work with Chaikin on creating environments," says Averill, who earned a Bachelor of Music in Composition and a Master of Arts in Theater at KU. "And we ended up putting together "Theseus and the Minotaur" because the story had been so close to me, and it was very mournful and wailful and deep. It was all done with very simple props and costumes and music in creating this world."

This work didn't start as a script – it was improvised and developed. It’s an approach that Averill, now writer-in-residence and drama program director at the Lawrence Arts Center, continues in Escape from the Labyrinth. He collaborated with the cast of 60 actors (professional, community, and student) to interpret the myths, then crafted a script from the improvisations.

Acting and incorporating puppetry

Spencer Lott says Averill provides opportunities for artists to wear a lot of hats.

"So he came to me and said, 'OK, Spence, we’ve got this project that requires a giant puppet, 65 costumes, and we want you to act in it,' says Lott. "For me, it’s totally exciting and thrilling because very often, as a puppeteer, you’re stuck in black clothing and put in the back of the theatre, but sometimes it’s fun to act and to incorporate puppetry into the show."

Lott says he's more in tune with the story by attending rehearsals playing the role of Icarus, as well as building the puppets. He also tapped into Greek puppet traditions.

"There are some elements that are really difficult, not only with actors, but with puppets to perform on stage," says Lott. "And so I thought, what if we make it even simpler, what if we use shadow puppets, which is used traditionally all throughout the Greek theatre culture. It’s one of the oldest forms of storytelling."

Resonance of myth

For decades, Averill was the artistic director for the Seem-To-Be Players, a professional children’s theatre touring company. He says there are certain ages when children are drawn to myth; it's often in third or fourth grade, and again in sixth when it’s part of the curriculum.

"There’s a reason these myths have been around for thousands of years," says Averill. "I believe the same thing is true for classic fairy tales. They say something fundamental to the human psychology, the human soul."

Averill says these ancient myths reverberate. And the stories they tell continue to bring contemporary readers - and theatregoers - alive in a new way.

Escape from the Labyrinth: The Adventures of Theseus and Icarus, runs Friday, February 8 - Sunday, February 10, at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence, Kansas. 785-843-2787.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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