Thursday, April 24, 2008

Good-Bye to the Seem-to-Be Players

I think stories shape who we are and how we see things. Scratch the surface of any of us, and you’ll find layers of narrative underneath. For many of us, the stories that shaped us come from television or other forms of mass communication. We have grown up in a world where Muppets, comic book heroes, and plastic dolls are at least as real and immediate as the deceased relatives we met only through talk. And for many of us, the fictional characters that populate our childhood are so standardized that we can share memories with people who grew up far away from us. I’m not really different from anybody else in this regard, unless you count the fact that my childhood was shaped not only by Bert and Ernie but also by Nyphrim the Sprite and Grub the Greezledurn. And now they’re gone.

Nyphrim who? Grub who? I don’t actually know how to spell the names, but these were all characters from “The Adventures of Nyphrim the Sprite,” a fantasy-adventure serial performed by a children’s theater group in Lawrence called the Seem-to-Be Players when I was a kid. Of course, the performances I saw are by definition gone, because that's how the theater works. But I’m writing about them because after 35 years, the group is finally disbanding. Nyphrim was Genie Averill in an outfit that reminded me of Disney’s Peter Pan, and Grub was reptilian somehow, played I think by Jeff Dearinger. If I remember right, the Greezledurns were Nyphrim’s antagonists, but Grub was her friend, if not always a trustworthy one. The stories that the Seem-to-Be players brought to the stage have mostly left me. Images, rather than stories, remain—the lanky Dearninger dressed as a spider with extra arms hanging from his by threads, a turbaned Caliph who constantly announced, “I’m the Caliph!” human actors working together to become “machines.” Above all, I remember the treacherous walk up the metal staircase to the Jazzhaus, a club that still brings musicians to play in its tiny space above the downtown storefronts. The Seem-to-Be’s performed there in the mid-1970s, and every time we went to see them, I was sure I was going to fall to my death through the gaps in that staircase.

By the time I hit high school, Genie Averill was teaching theater there, and she never did give me a decent part. When I think of all the money I could have made as an actor, I curse her name. As an adult, I found my anthropological research taking me back to territory the Seem-to-Be players had covered. When I talked to Mexican American vaudevillians it was hard not to think of Ric Averill, his friends, and their schtick, although the carperos did not do Donald Duck voices. And in conversations with veteranos of Chicana/o and Mexican popular theater groups from the 1960s and 1970s, I realized that this whole thing of a group of bohemian actor types converging around a writing, performing guru wasn’t alien to my own past. The Seem-to-Be’s weren’t referentially “political” in the way Mascarones, El Teatro Campesino, or Bread and Puppets were, but they were definitely a product of the northeast Kansas White counterculture. And once I got up that shaky staircase, I had a chance to absorb what was vital, noble, and creative in that counterculture. I’d like to think it’s still with me. The Seem-to-Be Players themselves are gone now but many people who earned the group awards over the years are still making Lawrence the kind of place where it’s possible to grow up with stories that aren’t exactly what’s being told anywhere else. And for that we can be thankful. By the way, the Lawrence Journal World has some great pics of the group that are worth checking out.


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