It’s Show Time! The Development of Theater Presentations by Docents
Michelle Duvall and Kathy Degner
Micke Grove Zoo, Lodi, CA
The Micke Grove Zoological Society has sponsored Wildlife Theater presentations at Micke Grove Zoo since 1989. The shows have been developed and presented primarily by weekend docents on both Saturdays and Sundays from June through August. Our small collection of education animals was used for the shows.
Presentations began on a shady lawn area in the Zoo and then moved into an old exhibit space, which the docents developed into a theater. Hence the Wildlife Players were born.
Development of Presentation Formats and Scripts
Ruth McCormick, a very dedicated docent and one of the founders of our theater, wrote the initial versions of most of our scripts. Scripts were then revised over the years by the Wildlife Players. All scripts were approved by appropriate Zoo and Society staff. We presented two different types of presentations: scripted shows and more informal presentations called “Meet the Animals”. “Meet the Animals” outlines were developed by Michelle Duvall and were used when we didn’t have enough Wildlife Players to perform a scripted show.
We feel the scripted versions of the shows were preferable. All scripts had to be memorized which helped with the consistency of the information presented. Scripts were also necessary for music cues, smooth entrances and exits and good flow of the show. We used a variety of themes for our shows: Magnificent Mammals, Flights of Fantasy and Radical Reptiles were some of our first productions. We then moved to Wildlife Safari, which takes you on a trip around the world, meeting amazing animals along the way. Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones, a book by Ruth Heller, was the basis for a show about egg laying/producing animals. Hence the Name Game was an audience participation format and Islands of Life related to the theme of our Zoo. We also developed shows specifically for special events such as Trick or Treat Trek, designed for our Halloween event. (Note: Script example handouts will be available at the presentation.)
The shows were composed of two parts, the thematic body and the animal scripts. Individual scripts were developed for each animal and the same script was used for that animal regardless of what show we were doing. This made memorizing a little easier. Animal scripts were brief, focusing on special adaptations, “oh wow” facts and general information. Jargon was kept to a minimum and unfamiliar terms were defined if used.
Conservation messages were dispersed throughout the show in some of the animal scripts as well as in the body of the script. We found it important to incorporate conservation messages and any “advertisements” for Society membership and special events within the show and not to save them until the end when people were leaving. (Note: A few examples of our animal scripts will be included in a handout at the presentation.)
We have found that three to six docents per day, depending on the show, are ample with four being the optimum number. Our scripts are divided into different speaking and animal handling parts. Not everyone was comfortable memorizing scripts so we wanted to be sure there were opportunities for them to be included. The MC does most of the speaking during the show as well as the “pre-show pitch” when we ask the audience to remain seated throughout the show and promote Society membership, special events etc.. The Talking Handler (TH) speaks while handling the animal. The Handler (H) does most of the handling for the MC, although the MC sometimes handles her/his animal. The Handler also is responsible for counting how many people are in the audience and taking the photos at the end of the show. We did the audience count to track how many people we were reaching. You can use more than one Handler if you have a lot of people available that day. The Sound Engineer (SE) handles the music and the microphones. When we had a lot of docents available one would be the Backstage Manager and would help get animals in and out of their carriers and keep things running smoothly. However you divide your roles, it is helpful to clearly define each person’s responsibilities prior to beginning presentations.
Script Set Up – Tricks of the Trade
For easy role assignments, animal assignments and entrance/exit designations we developed an efficient and what we think of as a unique method. A large piece of melamine or dry erase board was mounted on the wall backstage. All scripts were copied (each on a different color of paper), the thematic body sections cut apart and each section laminated. The animal scripts were copied on white paper and each separate script laminated. A piece of Velcro was placed on the back of each script section. Strips of Velcro were attached from top to bottom at intervals across the board. First the body of the script was attached to the Velcro on the white board then the animals were added. With a dry erase marker, role assignments were made and entrance arrows were drawn. (We had each person exit the same way they entered). If an adjustment needed to be made (someone not able to handle a certain animal, order doesn’t work) it was very easy to erase the name with a Kleenex or baby wipe and move the script to where it needed to go. We have found that this method allows for maximum flexibility while keeping everyone’s roles clear. It also gives you something to refer to at a quick glance when you are blanking on how your script begins!
To make assignments easy the Day Chair assigned roles keeping in mind each performer’s strengths. It was also the Day Chair’s job to review the show after each presentation and make suggestions as needed. This was not always easy but needed to be part of the program to maintain a professional level.
Funds were very limited for this program. The Society/Education Department did supply our sound system, straw bales for seating, a camera and lots of moral support, but everything else was up to us. We put out a donation box, which raised a few dollars. We also sold pictures at the end of the show with one of our handlers holding the snake or parrot. The visitor was allowed to touch the snake but not the parrot. They had to wash their hands with a wipe after touching the snake. The cost of the photo was four dollars and we placed the photo in a holder that was produced on the computer and copied. We were able to raise enough money to buy our film and a few other supplies. Ultimately we need a sponsor, but do not have one at this time.
As mentioned earlier, the theater is a great venue for advertising Society Membership, special events, zoo camp etc.. We used verbal announcements, brochures and signs to get the message out. Having problems hanging your signs on the chain link fence? We found that shower curtain hooks worked great.
Presentation of Animals – Working With the Stars
The animals are the “stars” of the show and are always handled with respect. Safety for the animals, handlers and the audience always comes first. Animals are kept in appropriate carriers in a shady area. Carnivores, such as snakes, were not placed right next to herbivores such as our rock cavy. Spray bottles and water dishes should always be available and animals misted and offered water between shows. Seeds, nuts and grapes were also available backstage and used/offered as appropriate. The animals were never left unattended. You don’t always have the advantage of completely securing your backstage area from the public.
Temperature was always considered and shows were canceled if much below 70 degrees or much over 100. We did not use animal’s names with one exception and that was to make a point in the script. We avoided being anthropomorphic in our handling techniques and information. Animals such as the parrots did exhibit trained behaviors that were considered natural behaviors such as climbing a rope and spreading their wings. We considered it a privilege to be involved in a program using live animals. All Wildlife Players were required to go through animal handling training with staff before being cleared to present animals. Anyone handling animals is also required to have a yearly TB test.
Stage – Gotta Have One
We know many of you already have beautiful stage areas with a great sound set up and sound booth…. well we started from scratch with basically no budget. So, for those of you who don’t have a theater it can be done with a lot of dedicated people. Moving from the public lawn area to a “stage” area made it much easier for us to do scripted shows. Our theater evolved over a few years from an old exhibit space that barely resembled a theater to a nice little theater. First, it is very important to have a barrier between you and the audience. Children will often rush the stage in their excitement to see the animals. We eventually had a fence, which kept most audience members on their side. A wall or backdrop between the stage area and backstage area makes presentations much more professional. (We know you are saying “duh” but we started off with no really defined backstage area and it worked, just not as well). Two entrance/exit areas, one on each side of the stage also makes for smooth flow between presentations. You also then avoid having the person handling the rat running into the person coming out with the hawk!
Backstage you need an area to set up your scripts and to stage the animals. Shade cloth is very helpful to keep things cool for both man and beast backstage. Our “sound booth” (it was also our storage shed) was backstage but ultimately we would like it to be at the back of the theater facing the stage. This makes it much easier for the sound engineer to hear and see cues for music and mics. Speaking of mics, you really need to have them.
Even though our theater was small, the audience would’ve missed much of what we had to say without using amplification. You often have external noise to compete with, zoo visitors, animals (i.e. gibbons, cockatoos and sea lions), bathrooms and trains.
Our theater really began to take shape when we added plants and seating, yes, the audience initially sat on the ground! We couldn’t afford bleachers but straw bales worked well. We replaced the bales each season. Our docents were truly amazing. With extra materials we found and were allowed to use from around the zoo they built and painted the stage divider/entrance/exit areas, built and painted the fence, asked for plant donations from a local nursery, created a garden area in front of the fence, donated plants themselves, made perches for the birds and table cloths for our brochure/donation box table. The Wildlife Players also donated many other items for backstage which made our productions easier.
Rehearsals – Can’t Have a Show Without Them
The Day Chairs would run the rehearsals. We would meet in January and February to discuss scripts, make revisions and do read throughs. We began actual rehearsals in April. All of us usually met on one day. Sometimes we had evening rehearsals when it got closer to opening weekend. Even though some people handle and do not speak it is important that they are familiar with the scripts for entrance and exit cues. Scripts must be memorized, no notes on stage. We found it very helpful to record the scripts on a cassette tape and practice with the tape while driving. If you have performed before you know it is helpful to practice in front of a mirror.
We also encouraged everyone to come and practice in the theater whenever they had a chance. We did a small amount of video taping of rehearsals so people could critique themselves. Everyone hates it but it is very effective.
Docent Training, Requirements, Time Commitment
So where do you find this group of highly motivated, talented, sometimes crazy individuals? Your docent core is obviously the place to start. Since our shows were only on weekends we got many of our Wildlife Players from our weekend docent training class. We also had some docent “addicts” who did weekday and weekend programs. We enlisted help from our teen program, a very valuable resource. In addition, we had some college students who were studying biology and were very interested in animals and wanted to do some volunteer work.
We called them “educational interns”. The interns were required to learn the scripts and present as the MC or Talking Handler. They also had to go through animal handling training. They were only allowed to present with a docent present. They were also highly encouraged to go through docent training the next time it was offered.
Our Wildlife Players volunteered one weekend day per week for a minimum of 4 hours. Each person signed up in advance on a calendar for the days they would be working. If they could not come, they were encouraged to try and find a replacement. All Wildlife Players were required to wear khaki shorts or pants, their docent yellow shirt or a khaki shirt and a Wildlife Theater vest (the vests were designed and made by Ruth McCormick).
Only closed toed shoes (i.e. tennis shoes or boots) were allowed.
The Wildlife Players were often requested to do shows for special events and private parties after Zoo hours. We also “took the show on the road” on multiple occasions. We performed monthly at an RV park for a couple of summers as well as performed at various Earth Day type events. Performing off-site is a whole other topic for discussion.
Hope We Helped
We hope that this handout gives you some suggestions for starting your own volunteer theater presentations. Kathy and I have found it to be a fun, exciting and rewarding experience. We were able to educate large numbers of Zoo visitors in an entertaining way. If you are one of those movie star or Broadway wannabes this show’s for you! If you have any questions regarding this information you can contact us at the following:
Note: We are no longer docents at Micke Grove Zoo, but please feel free to e-mail us.
Michelle Duvall or Kathy Degner
c/o Micke Grove Zoological Society
11793 N. Micke Grove Rd.
Lodi, CA 95240-9499