The Science Museum of Minnesota is a pioneer in the use of live theater as a way of educating visitors about science. With a 47 year history, this company of 13 professional actors performs nearly two dozen shows in rotation. The longest-running Science Live shows include some you’ve come to know and love: Cryogenics, Free Fall, and Splish and Splash.
In addition to their line-up of audience favorites, the Science Live team introduces several new shows each year. Infestation: the evolution begins is one of the newest in the company’s repertoire. In it, audiences will use the fundamentals of evolution to help an animal breeder create a strange new creature. The result is fun, funny, and perfectly safe . . . as long as everything goes according to plan.
Infestation has its roots in...gaming?
In fall of 2017, the Science Museum received a National Science Foundation grant that allowed our team of exhibit and program developers to devise and test a series of theatrical games, offered in an exhibit context, to help visitors understand complex topics like evolution and climate change—topics that require a “conceptual shift” to really understand them. For many people, understanding these topics doesn’t necessarily require adding new information to their existing knowledge. Rather, they need tools to help them reframe their knowledge to see it in a different way.
With the grant, the museum hopes to increase visitors’ interest in learning about evolution through a three-part series made up of an interactive show and two post-show games. Infestation: the evolution begins is part one of that triad. It’s a live performance that combines game mechanics, theater magic, and comedy punchlines to offer audiences a fun, interactive tutorial on evolution that sparks curiosity and inspires visitors to keep learning long after the curtain closes.
How do Science Live shows make it from concept to reality?
Stephanie Long, director of the Science Live program, and Liza Pryor, exhibit project leader and principal investigator on the grant that made Infestation possible, sat down with Plugged In writer Rachel Wong to offer an inside look at the planning and producing efforts behind Infestation.
What’s the general creative process of turning a Science Live show idea to a performance on stage?
SL: It’s very different for every Science Live show. We always try to keep the learning goals very simple—two to three per show. And we seek a lot of feedback from our visitors. We survey our audiences and tweak the script based on their experiences.
LP: We draft the script and do many table reads. Sometimes, there are things that seem to work on paper that don’t work when you hear them read aloud. We constantly revise the script, even during table reads. We toy with the characters’ personalities, energy, and tone of voice. We’re always looking for opportunities to show a phenomenon, instead of describing it, and to create roles for visitors.
Is there a tried-and-true method of trying to engage different age groups simultaneously?
SL: We rely on the talent of the actors. They adapt the show for specific audiences. For example, actors might change their tone of voice or offer a simpler explanation to suit a certain age group.
LP: I think we generally start off with content suitable for an eighth or ninth grade level, but then spin the material for a younger or older audience. The script is very dynamic.
How do you incorporate audience feedback into your revision process?
SL: Infestation is much more research-based than our other Science Live shows. We have target learning objectives for visitors to reach by the end of the show, and we want to inspire them to learn. As we do research and ask for feedback, the show changes. For example, we use a visualization to explain what’s happening, and we’ve had to simplify it so as not to detract from the rest of the show.
LP: When we ask for feedback, we deconstruct the show and ask for visitors' opinions on specific scenes or elements. We try to include screenshots of different things.
SL: Of course, we also pay attention to audience response during the show. If a comedic line isn’t eliciting a consistent response from the audience, then maybe we should change it.
In developing Infestation, what challenges did you encounter?
SL: When Darwin first started thinking about evolution, more than 150 years ago, he understood it in terms of breeding—artificial selection. Artificial selection is also easier to understand for people who aren’t Darwin, so we seized on it as a way of illustrating the “recipe.” We knew we wanted visitors to participate, so we devised a made-up model animal and a mechanism for selecting. But we also represent the Science Museum: we wanted to tie the show’s experiment to real science, so we found a very compelling science story to base our experiment on. Making one of the characters a YouTuber offers an entry point for almost all ages and quickly captures the audience’s attention. We’re fortunate to have many designers and talented individuals to help us solve any tech issues.
The biggest challenge is that Infestation was born of an active, ongoing research project, so our professional and very talented actors have to deal with constant changes as we learn from our research and make the appropriate changes to the show.
How is it different performing in the new Lab Theater versus performing on the Atrium Stage?
SL: At the Atrium Stage, visitors can come and go. There’s no commitment and many audience members are drawn in mid-show. But the Lab Theater is an enclosed space, and potential audience members can’t “try before they buy.” And Infestation: the evolution begins is a longer commitment. Most Science Live productions are about 15 minutes long, but this one runs closer to 30. We’re still experimenting with ways to attract audience members and to get them to commit to an experience that they might be unsure about. That said, it’s proving to be popular with visitors. We sometimes have to turn visitors away because we’ve reached our seating capacity!
What can visitors look forward to when they watch Infestation: the evolution begins?
SL: Infestation is the first installment in a three-part series. We’re testing elements of Game 2 with lucky visitors now, and hope to have a prototype experience running in October. Visitors can expect the show to be very funny, participatory, and include some games and theater magic. Our goal is to provide visitors with the basic mechanics of evolution, so that they are equipped to learn more in games 2 and 3. We also hope to inspire a desire for further learning about evolution. If we've done our jobs right, visitors will be excited to play games 2 and 3.