The power of myth Boxtales celebrates 20 years of innovative theater

Twenty years ago in 1994, a 30-year-old Michael Andrews was a successful plumbing contractor with the itch to move on to a completely different place in his life, to follow his passions in the theater world and the music scene. And he managed to do both. His band Area 51 is still playing around town, and the company he helped create, Boxtales, celebrates two decades of bringing the world of myth and storytelling to audiences young and old. Boxtales will do so starting this Thursday with a three-day celebration of its best work.

They’ll return to the Lobero with “Prince Rama & the Monkey King,” “The Odyssey,” “Leyendas de Duende” and “B’rer Rabbit and Other Trickster Tales.” The shows have all the hallmarks that have made Boxtales a success: imaginative masks, great costumes, clever stage design, and original adaptations of classic myths that streamline the sometimes convoluted stories down to their entertaining essence.

Mr. Andrews didn’t come to theater out of the blue — he had studied “movement theatre” and clowning in Guanajuato, Mexico, under Sigfrido Aguilar. Two other movement and myth artists, Michael Katz and Joseph Velasco, sat on the Lobero board at the time the organization decided to do outreach into schools. The three became Boxtales, and their first show, “How Did that Get Here?” took on creation myths. What was going to be a onetime thing quickly turned into a company.

“Moving forward we did establish a mission,” Mr. Andrews says. “We knew we wanted to explore the myths and folktales of the world. The more we study it, the more we look at our modern culture and see how relevant all of this stuff is.”

In the first decade of Boxtales, the shows were compilations of tales, as shown by “Leyendas de Duende,” an evening of Latin American magical tales, a production they took to and performed in Mexico.

In the second decade, the company began to focus on tackling longer narratives. “The Odyssey” came first, then “Iron John” and most recently “OM: An Indian Tale of Good and Evil,” an adaptation of The Ramayana, from which “Prince Rama and the Monkey King” is an excerpt.

The company had also changed over that first decade. Jeff Mills and Matthew Tavianini joined. Mr. Katz and Mr. Velasco left. As the productions became more complex, they added cast members to the productions. They’ve brought in guest directors like Peter Lackner and UCSB’s James Donlon. “We are still imprinted by what the three of us started. But we have become more of a full-blown theater company.”

For Mr. Tavianini, the opportunity to join Boxtales came at the end of a frustrating period in his professional life, where the “rat race” of Los Angeles’ theater scene was getting to him. He was looking for an excuse to continue acting but also move to Santa Barbara and in 2001, he got it. The original gig was for a year, but 13 years later, he’s one of the company’s main members. Mr. Tavianini had worked under James Donlon at UCSB, as had Jeff Mills, so the company was an easy fit. Mr. Donlon directed “Waters of the Earth,” the first show Mr. Tavianini created with his new partners.

“Michael and I have gotten to know each other better and our vocabulary, our knowledge, has grown. The pieces we can build together faster. We have more of an equal role now,” says Mr. Andrews.

Mr. Andrews is now meeting adults who saw Boxtales when they were kids. Twenty years have gone fast. The lack of arts funding in schools — one of the factors that led to Boxtales’ creation — is still dire, and Mr. Andrews doesn’t mince words: “It got bad, it got worse, it got stupid. We should all be ashamed of ourselves. If we think not funding the brilliance of our children to flourish in the future on this complicated planet, we are being selfish.”

However, through it all, Boxtales has never forgotten the power they have, the power of storytelling, and the uninitiated can get a primer on the company this coming weekend.

“I think storytelling is how we best transmit any information,” Mr. Andrews says. “The better storyteller you are, the more powerful you are as a human.”

Boxtales 20th Anniversary
Theatre Festival
When: Thursday-Sunday Nov. 16
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Cost: $25-$50, $5 children 10 and under, $15 students and seniors
Information: (805) 963-0761, www.lobero.com/events/boxtales-package/

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