Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Science fun: Kaboom to be heard in library

Theatre performers who cater to a family audience understand the challenge of creating a show that will appeal to a broad range of ages and sensibilities.

“I wanted to create a show that children loved but that parents would also enjoy,” said David Epley of his new science comedy act featuring his alter-ego, Doktor Kaboom. “I wanted to be able to put jokes in that parents would get and that kids wouldn’t even know were jokes.”

On March 28 at 1 p.m., Doktor Kaboom will bring his playful look at scientific exploration to the Yellow Springs Library. The public is invited.

Epley was interviewed over the phone earlier this month while on the road in Deerfield Beach, Fla., finishing up a five-week run as Doktor Kaboom at the Florida Renaissance Festival. Festival-fans might not recognize him without the mud he’s typically wearing when performing in Theatre in the Ground, the mud-friendly act that has taken him and two partners around the Renaissance festival circuit for the past 20 years. In 2007, he began the transition from Mudde guy to “a German Mr. Wizard with a rock star flair.”

“The only place I’m doing the Mudde Show anymore is Ohio [Renaissance Festival] and this will be my last year doing it,” Epley explained.

Although he enjoyed the opportunity to play in the mud all these years, when Epley turned 40 in 2006, he decided it was time to clean up his act. Now a solo performer after sharing the stage for almost two decades, he admits there are pros and cons to both.

“I loved working with my partners but I’m totally loving being on my own.”

In addition to the festival circuit, Doktor Kaboom is appearing at performance art centers, summer camps, schools, and libraries across the country. The act will be also be a part of Victoria Theatre’s Young At Heart Family Series in January.

Striking a balance and staying within appropriate boundaries with regards to humor, taste, prior scientific knowledge, and attention span is not new to him. His background in Theatre in the Ground ― incorporating improvisation with a loosely-scripted act in front of a large and diverse crowd that changes every hour ― has been the perfect training for his new career. He has learned not only how to read an audience but also how to read the person who books him.

“You get a real initial take talking to the person who hired you because they’re the one who is going to be the most concerned if something goes wrong. You get a feel for them, the audience, and the space. Sometimes I even ask, ‘Where’s the line [of acceptable humor]? How far do you want me to go?’ They can give me a pretty good read.” Epley’s audience isn’t only a part of the show, they help to shape the performance.

“Their responses, their reactions tell me where I can go with a show.”

Audience members need not be apprehensive about volunteering to assist. Doktor Kaboom makes his assistants feel at ease immediately, feeding them specific instructions and continually cueing the audience for support and appreciation, making sure participants are laughed with, not at.

His 45-to-60 minute grade-appropriate shows are available for elementary, middle, and high school performances and fit state and federally mandated curriculum standards. Teachers can even request a topic, tailor-made to their specific needs.

“I came up with the idea of doing a science show because I grew up studying science. I went to a special high school for science kids [North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics]. We had our own electron microscope on campus, our own observatory. We had a Minivac mainframe computer with campus-wide internet before the internet. It was a magnificent experience.”

After he became an actor, he always wondered “if the two passions would combine somehow.”

Bookings started out slow at first, filling in his Renaissance festival schedule during the off-season. But just like one of Doktor Kaboom’s mysterious chemical concoctions, this experiment has surpassed his initial calculations.

“It’s taken off. It’s taken over my whole life. I’ve got shows booked in Long Island, upstate New York, northern Ohio, Iowa, and Texas.” Epley’s agent is currently working out the details for a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Like the tagline reads on his website (, “Nothing Says Science Like KABOOM!”

Now that he’s washed off the mud and dusted off his safety goggles (“Science is dangerous!” he proclaims to his audience in a clipped and commanding German accent. “We must always practice safe science!”), Epley is pleased to be performing in his home town.

Last January, just as he was headed to Manhattan to showcase the act in an off-Broadway theatre, Epley stopped in at Tom’s Market to buy snacks for the trip. As he headed out to the parking lot, nervous about the showcase and how an audience of performance art center booking agents would receive the act, he passed three girls that he guessed might have been sixth graders.

“They whispered to each other and then one of them said, ‘Doktor Kaboom! You rock, dude!’” Their spontaneous and enthusiastic support lifted his spirits for the entire drive to New York.

“It’s just a joy for me to perform,” said Epley. “Things just keep falling into place. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Originally published in the Yellow Springs News.

Susan Gartner is a freelance writer and photographer for the News.