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‘Digging Up Dessa’ encourages girls to follow their science dreams

"Digging Up Dessa" cast members John Katz (at left) and Rae Davis during rehearse their script ahead of opening day on Oct. 17.
Jennifer A. Lin
Metro Theater Company
"Digging Up Dessa" cast members John Katz (at left) and Rae Davis rehearse their script ahead of opening day on Oct. 17.

Metro Theater Company is gearing up for its first in-person show in over a year. This weekend, the company opens its 2021-22 season with a production that champions the contributions of women in science. It also involves dinosaur bones.

Digging Up Dessa” was originally planned for last year’s schedule, but artistic director Julia Flood (who also directed this show) believes the play will resonate even more now with audience members. The main character, 12-year-old Dessa, has her world shaken up when she loses her father to a car accident. She ends up moving to another town with her mother and starting a new school.

“She is trying to use the scientific method to figure out how to navigate this new world. And I think in a lot of ways, Dessa reminds me of all of us coming through this pandemic,” Flood said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

“I think young people are dealing with a totally new world than the one they lived in 18 months ago. So the loss may not be the loss of a parent, but there is a lot of change, a lot of upheaval in everyone's world.”

The play’s Dessa, however, has unusual support: Mentoring her along the way is the spirit of renowned paleontologist and fossil collector Mary Anning, who died in 1847.

“Mary Anning made her first major discovery at the age of 12, when she dug an ichthyosaur out of the ground in Lyme Regis in England. … So Dessa has admired her before the accident, and when she wakes up, Mary is there,” Flood said.

“So Mary is her mentor, her adviser, her friend through the plague, and only Dessa can see her.”

In the play, Dessa unearths mastodon bones in front of her new apartment building. As part of the preparation leading up to opening day, cast members took a field trip to Mastodon State Park in Jefferson County.

‘Digging Up Dessa’ encourages girls to follow their science dreams
Metro theater Company's "Digging Up Dessa" production opens Oct. 17 at the Grandel Theatre.

Flood said the trip encouraged team bonding but also allowed the cast an insight into the characters' world — and a dose of realism.

“Mastodon bones were found within 30 minutes of St. Louis. And Mastodon State Park has a replica of a mastodon there that the actors were able to look at, so when they're looking at where the mastodon would be onstage, they have a very visceral image because they've seen that together,” she explained.

To complement the stage production, Metro Theater Company created an interactive learning guide, as well as a YouTube series that showcases women in the STEAM professions (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) across the St. Louis region. One of the featured speakers is research geoarchaeologist Caitlin Rankin, who previously joinedSt. Louis on the Air to discuss her work around the Cahokia Mounds.

“Women have always been involved in science, and I think it's great for young girls to see that reflected on the stage and maybe widen their view of what's a possible career for them,” Flood said.

Advancing Our World: Featuring Dr. Caitlin Rankin

Related Event

What: “Digging Up Dessa
When: Oct. 17 to Nov. 7
Where: The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square, St. Louis, MO 63103

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.