Nature on stage: In the starring role…a herpetologist

Which of these performers wouldn’t come to mind for any grand theater stage you can think of: a lion king, a fiddler on a roof or a biologist?

Obviously, you’re expected to choose the biologist.

Thomas Hoch doesn’t see it that way, though. Hoch is president and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust, which has booked a marine biologist for the opening show in an upcoming four-part series at the State Theater in Minneapolis.

“It’s a mistake to assume that people are only interested in one kind of entertainment, one genre,” said Hoch. “Our challenge is to instill in them a curiosity that causes them to reach outside their normal place.”

And so, on Feb. 21, biologist Greg Marshall will take the stage where Broadway shows, rock artists and dance troupes typically appear.

Years ago, Marshall devised small video cameras he could attach to great white sharks, sperm whales and other sea creatures to film their wondrous world almost as they see it. His “Crittercam” technology was featured in the documentary “March of the Penguins.” Now, he is adapting it to studies on land, of grizzly bears and other animals.

This will be the fourth season Hennepin Theatre Trust has booked scientists like Marshall for its National Geographic Live! series. The shows, which usually end with a Q-and-A session, haven’t come close to filling the house, Hoch said, except when schools take advantage of the free matinees the Trust offers them.

Nature center on Hennepin
The Trust has been close to breaking even on the National Geographic series, and “even is OK,” Hoch said, although he would prefer to pull in extra money that could go for new shows.

Hoch isn’t discouraged, though.

“As a non-profit, we are concerned about finances, but we are more concerned about achieving our mission,” he said.

The Trust’s stated mission is to present a diverse array of entertainment in Minneapolis’ historic theater district. It also is the custodian of the landmark State and Orpheum theaters as well as the smaller Pantages.

There’s no question that the National Geographic series adds a diverse twist to the downtown theater scene. Think nature center on neon-lit Hennepin Avenue.

Following Marshall in this year’s lineup is herpetologist Brady Barr (March 20), who tangles with crocodiles and snakes in his reptile studies. Two photographers round out the series: Sam Abell presents a photo journey down the Mississippi River April 17, and Annie Griffiths Belt features her tours of Africa, the Arab world and other places May 8.

Niche market
The shows also draw an audience that wouldn’t regularly frequent Hennepin Avenue’s restaurants and music venues.

There is a niche market in the Twin Cities for science and nature attractions even beyond the obvious museum exhibits. The Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota, for example, draws impressive crowds for its annual “Math Matters” lecture series.

Hennepin Theatre Trust and National Geographic have studied the audience for their shows. Some of the regulars for Broadway productions show up, Hoch said. So do families with curious kids and parents who are engaged in their schools.

Most of the audience is very green and very active. It includes retirees who might be hiking in Colorado or biking across Europe when they aren’t filling seats on Hennepin Avenue. It also includes 20-somethings who are avid backpackers, environmentalists and cyclists.

Hoch expresses a philosophical pride in serving this particular fare to that audience mix.

“You have to believe that when people seek information like that, it somehow makes the world a better place,” he said.

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