'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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.