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Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012

Going Wild for Theater at the Milwaukee County Zoo

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Milwaukee County Zoo Theater Coordinator Dave McLellan is the man behind Kohl's Wild Theater, a program developed by the zoo and funded in part by a $1 million donation from Kohl's. Its programs deliver an entertaining way to learn about conservation and the environment. Kohl's Wild Theater also delivers free-of-charge outreach performances to schools, libraries and festivals within a one-hour radius of the Milwaukee County Zoo. For more information, visit www.wildtheater.org.

Wild Theater programs walk a delicate line between entertainment, education, complexity and accessibility. What has audience reaction been like over the program's first year?


You are right. As part of the conservation education department at the Zoological Society, we take the scientific information very seriously. At the same time, we like to make it a lot of fun, so every show can be enjoyed by all ages. Every show also encourages some environmentally responsible behavior or action. As for audience reaction, it has been overwhelmingly positive. They love the audience-participation elements. I always hear parents make comments about something new they've learned and kids will talk about their favorite part of the show. It's very rewarding to present plays that get adults thinking right alongside their children or grandchildren.

With the outdoor portion of the program closed for winter, you're touring area schools and other indoor spaces. How is the audience dynamic different outside of the zoo?

Typically, our average summer audience consists of family groups. When we go to schools, we get an audience that is comprised of students with their peers. We encourage audience participation during our shows and start every show by telling the audience that we want them to be “big and loud.” Once school audiences realize they are given permission to make noise and join in the fun, they buy in 100%. For example, in one of our shows about rainforest animals, we let the kids give “capybara warning barks” if they ever see our jaguar puppet (capybaras are 125-plus-pound rodents). I don't know if you have ever heard 300 elementary-school students yell out capybara warning barks, but it is pretty awesome.

The current performance series includes three different 45-minute programs dealing with issues of ecological conservation. If you could add more programs into the rotation, what would you like to cover?


We are already in the process of developing new works for next summer, as well as next year's outreach season. We work very closely with the curators at the zoo to target conservation messages that are timely and pressing. We are also listening to teacher responses from this year's outreach season to develop programs that support their teaching goals. Next summer you can expect to see a new play about invasive species in Wisconsin and a new musical about bird migration. For next school year, we are hoping to develop a play that will not only feature bonobo conservation, but will also address school bullying.
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