Post updated at 1:52 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12:
Lawrence playwright Ric Averill’s most recent work takes him to his 1970s roots, back when he strummed his banjo and sang anti-war songs in the street. Back then, he was on a mission to stop the Vietnam War. Now he wants people to think more deeply about climate change.
His new play, “The Moritat of George the Snail,” debuting Friday and Saturday, Aug. 12 and 13 at Art Emergency, is the first installment to his Climate Crisis Street Opera, which focuses on animals facing extinction.
This installment tells the story of George, the last of a species of a snail that went extinct Jan. 1, 2019. In the story, George is comforted by The Silent One, who soothes all endlings — the last survivors of a dying species — as they breathe their last breath.
“It is a unique project that I’ve been working on for some time,” Averill said. “There’s this real political element. … It follows the ancient tradition where (performers would) stand on street corners and sing songs about death or dying and people would give them money.”
Long a fixture at the Lawrence Arts Center as a teacher and director, Averill created a theater company his wife Jeanne in the ’70s that was eventually called the Seem-To-Be Players. The ensemble traveled across the country performing original plays and fairy-tale adaptations for children in 35 different states.
Averill has made an imprint on theater both locally and nationally. He has published more than 20 plays, and in 1999 he joined the Arts Center, where he served as director of performing arts until retiring in 2016 (he remains emeritus director). One of Averill’s career highlights includes being commissioned by the Kennedy Center to write an adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.”
Averill’s latest play focuses on the death of a snail named George. George’s story is told by a street-performer singing a moritat, or death ballad. This person tries to convince the audience that George’s death is an acceptable thing.
“The bad guy in this story is the guy who is singing these moritats, convincing the crowd they have nothing to worry about,” Averill said.
Alan Martin, a baritone and classically trained musician, plays the moritat singer.
“I am playing a representation of people who are more consumer-oriented, who are more likely to take comfort and convenience over respecting the climate and the effect we have on it,” Martin said. “I think it’s an entertaining, in some ways silly, in some ways very serious, show, but it’s got a very important message about what we are doing that affects climate change.”
Averill was originally going to play the role of the moritat singer as Martin was not living in Lawrence when he wrote it. The two had worked together on “Midnight Visit to the Grave of Poe: A Grotesque Arabesque,” another opera that Averill wrote and directed. But when Martin moved back to Lawrence, where he’d earned his doctorate in vocal choral music education, Averill asked him to take his part.
Martin has been performing on stage for about 20 years. From Scotland, where the Edinburgh Festival occurs every August, he is no stranger to seeing street performances. Performing in them is a new experience.
“Just … being out in the world (is different) because when you’re in a theater, it’s very easy to think of yourself like you’re in that bubble. … Like when you’re in a show you’re thinking of yourself in the world of that show, but in that building you’re in a closed space that feels very sheltered and protected,” Martin said. “Out here, it’s a lot more exposed and it feels a lot more raw, which is kind of nice. The train can go past — things like that can happen.”
This is not the first rendition of “The Moritat of George the Snail.” Averill wrote his Climate Crisis Street Opera in 2020 for a virtual performance that May.
Audrey Senger, who plays The Silent One, said working in person this time has enhanced her connection to the rest of the cast.
“For the virtual (performance) we all had to do our parts separately,” Senger said. “It’s nice to have us all working together in the same space and being able to talk face to face and give ideas.”
The street performance is about half an hour long, and it is a multiple performance piece: Averill and his crew will perform the play three times both nights, at 6:30, 8 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
The piece will be done either on or around Averill’s stage truck, a 1986 GMC truck he converted into a traveling stage during the 2020 pandemic, at Art Emergency, 721 E. Ninth St. Though Averill has used the truck to facilitate Santa visits and birthday party entertainment, this will be the truck’s first play.
“The Moritat of George the Snail” is free, but viewers are encouraged to donate any amount in person or digitally through Venmo, @Ric-Averill.
“It’s very clearly on a smaller budget,” Martin said. “Of course, we’re performing on a truck, but it’s very cool we’re able to do stuff like that and be in a place like Lawrence that supports that kind of thing.”