BOXTALES Theatre Company has, since 1994, been creating original theater pieces exploring world mythology and folklore and challenging the way audiences experience live performance. It started out at local elementary schools and now has additionally toured much of the western United States, regularly performing in the Los Angeles area in venues such as the Getty Center & Villa and the Geffen Playhouse and in schools through the L.A. Music Center.
This week, BOXTALES celebrates with its BOXTALES 20th Anniversary Theatre Festival. featuring some of its most successful and memorable pieces, all at the historic Lobero Theatre.
At 8 p.m. Thursday, the festival starts with Prince Rama & the Monkey King, based on the Indian epic The Ramayana. The Odyssey will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday. There will be no show on Saturday. On Sunday, the festival will close with a double-header of matinees, Leyendas De Duende: Magical Tales of Latin America (bilingual) at 11 a.m. and its newest show, B’rer Rabbit & Other Trickster Tales, at 2 p.m.
These full-length pieces have been restaged with new costumes and lighting for the festival, and directors include renowned clown-master Sigfrido Aguilar, UCSB Theater Department emeritus Peter Lackner, and BOXTALES’ own Jeff Mills, Matt Tavianini and Michael Andrews.
Masks, props and costumes have been created by Ann Chevrefils, Lindsay Rust, Timo Beckwith, Kira Gold, Lesley Finlayson and Spetim Zero. Additionally, Prince Rama features original Indian musical arrangements by Montino Bourbon.
Performers include Tavianini, Andrews, Marie Ponce, David Guerra and Bryan West.
Andrews, co-founder and executive artistic director of BOXTALES, and Guerra, a member of the company since 2006, took time to share their thoughts on this unique and enduring endeavor.
Justine Sutton: What makes BOXTALES different from other children’s theater companies, or from other companies in general?
Michael Andrews: We base our approach on a shared belief in children’s innate intelligence. We have found that kids actually get more engaged in theater that is complex, subtle and at times deals with harder issues and themes.
David Guerra: BOXTALES is unlike any other company I have been a part of. When I first saw the company perform, I was struck by the authenticity and the attention to detail in every move and line of dialogue, and the cohesive ensemble they had created. I greatly appreciate how Jeff (Mills), Matt (Tavianini) and Michael (Andrews) welcomed me into the group. They were patient with me as I learned their company’s mission and new instruments like the conga, which I had never played professionally. At the same time, I knew that I could add a refreshing tone to the ensemble, and they were open to my creativity.
JS: When you visit schools and children see your shows, what is their reaction? Is it different when they are with their parents?
MA: The kids in the schools are the best audiences imaginable. It always reminds us why we’re doing this work — connection! I wish more performers got the chance to serve kids and benefit from this magic. When there are parents involved, it really helps that the work is more sophisticated than normal children’s programming as the whole family can truly enjoy it together, and because it’s layered with meaning, it will always stimulate conversations at home later. Storytelling is the oldest and best teaching device.
DG: Kids at the schools love us. With beautiful backdrops, lighting and the performance with mask, movement, music and storytelling, their auditorium becomes a sacred space. We discover what good listeners the kids are because we have a talk-back after every show.
JS: What has your experience of performing or directing with BOXTALES been like compared to other companies or other performing experiences you’ve had?
DG: My experience with BOXTALES has been unmatched. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to tour with the company to Hermosillo, Mexico, the Pacific Northwest and all through California.
JS: What new skills have you needed to learn in your time with BOXTALES?
MA: We have developed a new style of theater, which uses many disciplines from outside the theater. Many of the circus arts, such as aerial silks, stilt-walking, acrobatics and adagio, and a great deal of training in clowning goes into the work. We also like to pull from things that we see in other areas of culture. We saw the kids using “heelies” and built a character on them to make him “fly.” We saw “jumping stilts” from the radical sports field and used them. We all play instruments in the shows as well.
DG: I have improved my instrumental talents — I can play the congas now, play and sustain African rhythms, as well as having greatly improved my guitar, storytelling and singing skills.
JS: What do you want audiences to take away with them when they see your shows?
MA: An invigorated imagination, a stronger sense of human connectedness and renewed hope for the world!
BOXTALES is a nonprofit and continues its work by the grace of its donors. If people find the work stimulating, they are invited to join its supporters by either donating to the cause or volunteering on the board of directors.
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— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.