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Director's Cuts: Ric Averill On 'The Nervous Set'

Julie Denesha

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of writer William S. Burroughs, an icon of the Beat movement.

Burroughs lived in Lawrence, Kan., from 1981 until his death in 1997.

As a way of honoring him, the Lawrence Arts Center is focusing some of its programming on Burroughs' work and influence, including a production of the 1950s musical The Nervous Set.

Here, Megan Birdsall sings one of the songs from the production called "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most":

Director Ric Averill, artistic director of performing arts at the Lawrence Arts Center, answered these questions as part of our monthly series, Director's Cuts

Before we talk about The Nervous Set, can you describe the multidisciplinary mission of the Lawrence Arts Center for our listeners who may not have seen a concert, play or art exhibition there?

The Lawrence Arts Center is a beautiful cooperative venture of the city of Lawrence and a non-profit. There are really three tiers, though. It's an educational institution; it's a gallery, an exhibition institution; and it's a performing arts center.

Credit courtesy: Lawrence Arts Center
courtesy: Lawrence Arts Center
Director Ric Averill is the artistic director of performing arts at the Lawrence Arts Center.

So on any given week, that place is bustling with artists of all kinds.

Absolutely. And it’s wonderful for those of us who work there. I started taking dance a few years ago because I could walk up to the studio and take some dance classes. And I've taken life drawing classes there. And a lot of the artists come attend the theater. We do a lot of collaborative work. Some of the artists have done sets for us and that kind of thing.

So what goes into a decision about what a theater season will look like?

Well, a couple things. We have a dual mission of both education and artistic excellence in performance. We have a curatorial team that gets together once a week. Like this year, for example, we decided to have an emphasis on William Burroughs. And as we were looking for musicals that might reflect the Beat Generation, we thought, there must have been some musicals created in that time period, and we came across The Nervous Set.

The Nervous Set is a pretty obscure piece that premiered in 1959 in St. Louis, Mo., had 23 performances on Broadway, and it's been described as a Beat jazz musical. 

Yeah, it actually was developed at The Crystal Palace in St. Louis, Mo. under the direction of Jay Landesman himself. So Jay and Fran Landesman were a husband and wife team. Jay had developed the Beat literary magazine Neurotica in the late '40s. He was living in the Village. And it had enough issues to offend the U.S. Post Office censorship board, so it ran afoul of the censors. And it was really kind of a pivotal magazine for getting that Beat generation rolling.

So the musical is really about the magazine and that time?

Yeah, it's kind of like when a rock band gets together and everybody's really cohesive at first and they all love each other and doing things that are cutting edge and then they all start sleeping with each other and they all start fighting and they all start breaking up and whole thing starts falling apart.

Credit courtesy: Lawrence Arts Center
courtesy: Lawrence Arts Center
(from left) Seth Golay and Megan Birdsall in 'The Nervous Set,' directed by Ric Averill.

I want to talk about the casting because you've got Seth Golay, who's a known musical theater performer here in Kansas City, and then Megan Birdsall is really known as a jazz singer. Was she open to this challenge?

She comes to acting pretty naturally. Her dad is Jim Birdsall, a great Kansas City actor, and she'd done some acting and some musical theater in the past. So there's just this element where Megan is perfect for this role. It's kind of built for her.

Seth has an incredible voice, as you know. He did Threepenny Opera for me two years ago. Tom Picasso has done some new theater, he comes from the Kansas City area and came up through KU, and Tom plays the Allen Ginsberg character, and he and Seth sing a song about New York which trashes songs about New York. It's one of the highlights of the show; it's very, very funny. 

Is William Burroughs a character in this? Because you mentioned Jack Kerouac.

He wasn't in the original script, but we have one scene where he and Kerouac go looking for drugs.

You took some poetic license with this because you wanted to get Burroughs in there because Burroughs lived in Lawrence? I mean, it goes full circle.

Yeah, yeah. Who knows, if this play goes on somewhere else, somebody may say, 'Oh, we don't need that scene.' But everybody approved the insertion of that scene. But 95% of it is from the original Broadway production and the novel, The Nervous Set.

The Nervous Set, Oct. 2-18, Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence, Kan., 785-843-2787. 

The “In This Scene...” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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