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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Zoo Theater

Talking with Dave McLellan of Kohl’s Wild Theater

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For the third consecutive summer, the Milwaukee County Zoo is running daily summer theatrical performances through Labor Day. Kohl’s Wild Theater (wildtheater.org) puts on four 15-minute shows daily with a resident company of professional actors. Scripts come from around the country. Most costumes, sets, props and puppets arrive via pro designers and the production shop at First Stage Children’s Theater. Actors also interact with zoo visitors at exhibits throughout the day. The troupe does outreach, too: free shows for schools and community organizations within a one-hour radius of the zoo. Off the Cuff spoke with Theater Coordinator Dave McLellan about subletting from raptors, and animal and actor handling.

 

Animals acting? Do they get trailers and personal assistants?

There are no live animals acting, not in the shows at least. But our shows do always feature animals that visitors can see at the zoo—represented through puppetry or costumes. 

 

Three of the four shows—Journey to the Rich Coast, The Spot of the Jaguar, The Wonderful Lizard of ooZ and Dr. McGhee Learns about the Sea—are musicals. My next question was about animals singing…but so much for that.

Music is extra effort well worth it. It raises the entertainment value. Educational concepts become more accessible. Even the one non-musical play we present has a lot of drum music—in chase scenes and storytelling. 

 

As a director—managing actors versus animal handling?

Not touching that. My personal background is as an Equity actor in New York. I’ve toured with regional theaters nationwide and spent time working in zoos and as a conservation educator for Disney. 

 

Where did the idea originate?

James Mills (director of conservation education for the Zoological Society) developed the concept—to elucidate contemporary conservation issues, engage audiences emotionally, promote caring and inform children and families what they can do from home to help animals around the world. Our program format was developed by the Wildlife Conservation Society. But all our productions are original, with conservation messages directly from Milwaukee County Zoo staff.

 

Why theater?

Theater is a great tool. It educates and entertains at the same time. Plays, especially musicals, can expand simple concepts into the broader contexts of complicated issues (e.g., ecosystems, pollution, migration). Puppetry and dance make it all accessible to children—or adults—who might get bored hearing someone speak at length.

 

Craziest thing a kid has done or asked?

Nothing for print, sorry.

 

Are adult audience members better or worse?

They are their own category.

 

Do other zoos do this?

The International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTAL) supports programs in museums, historical sites, zoos, aquariums and more. We are a member.

 

Downside?

Many audience members—adults included—have not experienced live performances before. But I like that. There are also certainly logistical challenges—we share performance space with a live birds of prey show, for instance. So we move a lot of equipment.

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