My Day at the Museum: The Performance-Art Team at L.A.'S Natural History Museum Mixes Science and Theatre to Bring Prehistoric Creatures Back to Life

Article excerpt

I'M STANDING IN THE BELLY OF A T. REX.

No, I have not somehow traveled hack in time or wandered into Jurassic Park. It's actually a realistic, 14-foot puppet of a baby tyrannosaurus rex, weighing 73 pounds, with movable head, arms and legs.

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Outside, Brian Meredith, one of the creatures puppeteers, is coaching me in the art of dino-walking.

"That mechanism controls the head," he says, referring to a cube-shaped handle in front of me. "If you extend your fingers forward, there's a bicycle brake and it makes his mouth open." I pull, and sure enough, the mouth of the T. rex opens, revealing the floor and some little legs.

"You have an entire crowd of children just fascinated right now," quips Peter Wylie, manager of the performing arts department at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where this prehistoric adventure is taking place. No doubt it's a strange sight, a moving T rex head with a pair of human legs dansgling from its stomach.

"Do you want to make him roar?" asks Meredith, excited like a kid showing off a new toy. Sure, since I've gotten this far. He hands me a headset that is wired to an amplifier close to the head of the dinosaur. "This is the mike--put it around your head. Now just give him a roar." I growl into the microphone and the distorted sound that comes out is primal and surprisingly frightening. Then again, maybe this is Jurassic Park ...

"There you go! You made a kid run, well done," Meredith exclaims. "Once youVe made your first kid run away, then you're hooked."

Visitors to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County will see a large banner in front of the 1913 Building on Exposition Boulevard advertising Dinosaur Encounters. These are 20-minute plays--performed around 30 times a week, depending on the season--that use puppets to teach children about prehistoric animal behavior.

Yet these dino representations aren't hand puppets or models on sticks that can be touched and prodded by little kids. They are, in fact, three life-sized mechanical creatures, made of fabric, controlled by one or two puppeteers each and set into action as part of a performance narrative. There are two juvenile dinosaurs--a nine-year-old tyrannosaurus rex and a six-year-old triceratops--and a female saber-toothed cat ("It's a cat, not a tiger," Wylie reminds me numerous times).

"Telling someone about this job doesn't do it justice," suggests Meredith, "because everybody thinks these dinosaurs are Barney." But, unlike the cartoonish. Barney, these fellows look like they might take a bite out of any unlucky visitor who walks by.

DINOSAUR ENCOUNTERS AND ITS SPIN-OFF, ICE

Age Encounters, are shows that: mix educational programming, puppet theatre and children's theatre. The topics of discussion include comparative anatomy, paleontology and the interaction of science and art. Wylie describes the pieces as "Paleo-poetry." "We're making just enough up so we don't piss off the paleontologist upstairs," he says with a chuckle. "A lot of our shows have been written to coincide with the theories and information from the Dinosaur Hall." He's referring to the museum's popular wing of dinosaur bones, which just opened in 2011.

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There are currently seven short plays in the museum's repertory. To keep things interesting, and to keep the audience abreast of the latest scientific discoveries, new plays are frequently generated in-house by the museum's performance team. The Natural History Museum is one of only a handful of U.S. institutions that house a performance art staff, using theatre as a teaching tool for science.

The word "edu-tainment" gets thrown around frequently. "That term makes my skin crawl," Wylie complains with a grimace--but he also acquiesces. "The plays should be both theatrical and educational. They should be inspiring and exciting, and maybe youngsters will walk away with one or two facts they didn't have access to before. …