What's the Big Idea?
What's the Big Idea?

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'What's the Big Idea'
Play introduces children to innovative inventions of yesteryear

Published in the MetroWest daily news
April 17, 2005
By Chris Bergeron (Daily News Staff)

It takes a special play to get a theater full of third-graders cheering about smallpox vaccinations, the invention of the microwave oven and Julia Child in drag.

But that’s exactly what happens in “What’s the Big Idea,” a fun and informative play about innovative inventions at the Boston Children’s Museum.

Shakespeare, eat your heart out. Playwrights Larry Coen and Susan Gassett know how to get kids excited about serendipity and science.

Their 30-minute play is an educational romp that will get audiences, young and older, interested in Bay State scientists whose discoveries changed the world.

And, parents, it’s just in time for school vacation next week.

Written and directed by Coen and Gassett of City Stage Co., the play was presented by the BCM in association with the Boston History Collaborative and City Stage. The play is directed toward a third-grade social studies curriculum and incorporates MCAS-themed lessons.

Actors Ben Webber and Kevin Casey teach the history of science through goofy poems, and mix pratfalls with serious insights about inventors who overcame disabilities and bias.

Think Madame Curie meets “Zoom” or SpongeBob SquarePants meets the Discovery Channel.

Wearing colorful costumes and mugging for the audience, Webber and Casey, of KidStage Actors, perform skits “about people from around Boston whose ideas changed the world.”

“Everybody’s looking for a brand-new way,” they told the audience. “Sometimes innovation happens by chance.”

Their routine includes Phyllis Wheatley, an ex-slave who became the first black published poet in America; Fanny Farmer, a wheelchair user who wrote a famous cookbook; and Percy Spencer who invented the microwave after accidentally melting chocolate in his pocket while testing radar.

Aiesha Savage, a third-grader at the Josiah Quincy School in Boston, said she was most impressed by Wheatley’s accomplishments. “I learned poetry can be innovation too.”

Webber and Casey mixed in comic spots, including an appearance by famous chef Julia Child in an apron and fright wig and a recurring bit about Paul Revere galloping across the stage without his horse.

Using simple props, they demonstrated how Spencer, a Raytheon engineer, made an important connection in 1946 between radar waves and what became the microwave oven.

Throughout the play, Webber and Casey got audience members to join them reciting short funny poems that summarized the importance of innovation.

Using the rhythms of a familiar marching cadence, they asked: “What did Percy Spencer do? He put together two and two. He got chocolate in his pants. He invented microwaves by chance.”

“In-no-va-tor,” Webber and Casey intoned. “In-no-va-tor.”

For the play’s most ambitious segment, they coaxed eight young audience members onstage for a skit that explained how inoculations slowed the spread of smallpox in Colonial America.

In 1721, minister Cotton Mather got the idea of inoculating people against the disease from his Africa-born slave Onesimus, they said. To explain the idea of “contagious,” they held up several tennis balls to represent the disease-carrying virus.

After each child recruit was given a Velcro vest, the actors gently tossed tennis balls that stuck to their chests, suggesting they were infected.

To explain how “inoculations” made some people “immune” to the disease, they turned the vests over exposing a green surface without Velcro. This time, the tennis balls representing infection dropped to the stage.

Webber and Casey later brought more volunteers onstage to form a Parade of Innovators, including Clara Barton, Theodor “Doctor Seuss” Geisel, Mary Baker Eddy and Lewis Latimer.

What do the young critics think?

“I loved it. It was very funny. It made me think,” declared Valeria Berrio, a 9-year-old who attended a midweek preview with third-graders from the Donald McKay School in Boston. “It helped me learn about people who made history in Boston. They made things better with technology.”

Her classmate Argenis Losano said his favorite part of the play had been when the “actors used tennis balls to show how to stop disease.”

“I learned how to innovate,” said the bright-eyed 9-year-old after the play. “That’s when you create something new that wasn’t there before.”

The Essentials:

During school vacation week, April 18 to 24, “What’s The Big Idea?” can be seen at the Boston Children’s Museum at 12:30, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. The play is free with museum admission. After April 25, check with the museum for play times. The Boston Children’s Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays until 9 p.m.

Admission: $7 for children 2 to 15 and senior citizens; $9 for other adults; $2 for 1-year-olds. On Fridays from 5 to 9 p.m., all visitors $1. Infants under 1 and museum members admitted free. Special rates are available for school and community groups reservations are required. Call 617-426-8433.


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