Science Museum actors find every minute is a different show

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2012 - 4:29 PM

Science Museum's nimble crew of actors puts the exhibit in context.

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Melanie Wehrmacher portrays Mary Read, one of the few female pirates, in the Science Museum’s exhibit. The exhibit runs through Sept. 3.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Special to the Star Tribune

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Butch Roy did his best to stump Leigha Horton when he showed her a $1 bill and asked her how much it was worth.

"That's just a piece of paper," Horton responded in a British-sounding accent as she quizzically studied the greenback. "I don't know what I'd do with that. But, ooooh, I love those earrings."

The exchange unfolded in a Science Museum of Minnesota classroom. Roy in the role of a visitor and Horton as a female pirate kibitzed during an improv session to prepare for the simple, odd and unexpected questions they get from those touring the exhibit, "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship."

"We are harsher on each other, much more so than a visitor would ever be," said Stephanie Long, who is manager of public programs and oversees the museum's acting company.

Actors have been part of major shows since 1971, when the Science Museum became what is believed to be the first museum in the United States to establish a permanent acting company. The actors are a big part of visitors' experience and add context beyond relics on display, Long said.

The cast of 12 men and five women who play the seafaring bandits in "Pirates" spent months immersing themselves in pirate culture and lore. Their bible is Charles Johnson's "A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates," but they also spent more than 200 hours poring over articles, journals and anything that references pirates that they get their hands on, Long said.

In weekly sessions leading up to the opening of "Pirates," actors shared facts about their characters and tidbits they came across in their reading, everything from the trivial (curtains were a hot item to steal in the 1710s) to myths that pirates say "arrr" and make their victims "walk the plank."

But mostly they learned to develop their characters and how to think quickly on their feet, because on the floor there are no scripts and every minute is a different show.

"It's constantly an evolving process," said Melanie Wehrmacher, whose theater credits include the Hennepin Theatre Trust and Actors Theatre of Minnesota. She is playing Mary Read, one of two female pirates who lived during the 18th century.

"You might be talking to somebody and find out they are an expert in doubloons and that all they did was study currency from that era," Wehrmacher said. "You learn how to give yourself outs and not play the stump-the-actor game. You find ways to divert and distract. And yet, you can't be a jerk. We are there to educate."

Most of the cast, selected from more than 100 people who auditioned, have professional local theater experience. But being in "Pirates" is a different kind of acting because the audience is front and center, and it requires knowledge about the more than 200 artifacts on display, and being well versed in all aspects of pirate life.

Actors have to impart that information in a way that allows them to stay true to the period, said Mary Fox, who also plays Read.

"Some people will just stand there until you say 'video game,'" Fox said. "I have to stay in character, and my character does not have access to certain information. But we have to know how to fire guns and tie knots because we were on a ship."

It's usually only a small percentage of visitors who ask questions, said Horton, who plays Read and Anne Bonny, the other known female pirate. More often than not, actors will strike up interactions with guests and invite visitors into their 1700s world.

"You have to be willing to monologue," said Horton, who just might challenge you to a game of sheep's knuckles or craps. (Beware, she intends to win your rum.) "Sometimes they just want you to ramble."

Horton is a Science Museum veteran. She also appears in "Science Live," the popular program that gave birth to the museum's acting company and features actors performing science demonstrations and science-related short plays for museum audiences.

For others, such as Archer Gallivan, 12, "Pirates" marks their Science Museum debut.

"It's been an amazing educational experience," said Gallivan, who plays John King, the youngest known pirate on record. "I get to learn drama and history."

Guests do, too.

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib

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  • A pirate actor played sheep’s knuckles with visitors, one of the many ways the troupe engages those who tour the exhibit.

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