Dinosaurs and drama blend in educational show

MICHELE VALERI sits in her living room in Takoma Park, Md., just outside Washington, sipping orange juice and mineral water and ignoring the whole and partial dinosaurs lounging on her flowered rug. ``Oh,'' she says casually, when asked about the nearly life-sized Tyrannosaurus foot, Diplodocus head, and blue-eyed Stegosaurus body leaning against the bookshelf, ``we had to bring them in -- the van's full.''

Actually, it makes sense when you know that Miss Valeri is, among other things, the originator of a show called ``Dinosaur Rock,'' which she developed for the opening of the Smithsonian's renovated Dinosaur Hall two years ago. She still performs it around the country, working with her roommate, puppeteer Ingrid Crepeau (they're her dinosaurs), and Michael Stein, whom Valeri calls ``a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who can really yodel.''

But most of the time, she works as artist-in-residence at the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts in Vienna, Va.

Part of the performing arts center at Wolf Trap National Park, the institute trains the staff members of Headstart and other early childhood programs in the use of music, dance, and drama to teach basic concepts like the alphabet, numbers, and colors.

Valeri got the job, says Janice McKelvey, director of the Wolf Trap Institute, because she's ``brilliant -- the most versatile performer for children I've seen. She has a depth to her work that's missing from many children's performers, and is able to tailor each performance to the audience.''

Performing is a practically unquenchable thirst to her, Valeri says. ``I just can't imagine doing anything else,'' she says. ``I've tried being a waitress, a secretary, even a telephone operator, but in every job I had, I entertained.''

She started working for a degree and eventually a received a masters in theater arts, taking time out to do theater in Poland, sing folk songs in Spain, and tour South America with a US Information Agency show.

Eventually, she found her real love: working with the handicapped and the young. The Kennedy Foundation hired her, along with other entertainers, to work with the handicapped. The whole idea was to involve people ``who knew nothing about what to expect from the clients, in the theory that interesting things might happen if we didn't have any preconceived notions.'' And they did, she says. ``Non-verbal people started to verbalize; people who couldn't move started to move.''

That job only lasted a year, ``but had a deep affect on me -- I never looked at handicapped people the same way,'' she says. ``Those handicapped children made the people who worked with them be the best people they could be. There was so much love in the atmosphere.''

Jobs in the local schools brought her to her own best audience: children. ``I like kids because their sense of wonder hasn't been crushed,'' she says. ``And I like the way they look at things.''

She started making children's records with local street singer Bob Devlin, something she calls ``a real revelation to me -- it was like having a baby.'' Her first album, ``When the Rain Comes In'' (Potluck Press), was followed by a witty bilingual record called ``Mi Casa es Su Casa.''

Her last record to date -- ``Dinosaur Rock'' -- involves her living room companions. The record takes the songs she wrote for the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Hall, which tell a surprising amount about the ancient reptiles, and strings them together into a story line.

``The [Smithsonian's] Discovery Theater really liked the songs, but wanted a story to go with it,'' Valeri explains. Once she, Mr. Stein, and Ms. Crepeau managed to put one together, they had six weeks of sell-out crowds, she reports.

It was the people at the Wolf Trap Institute who suggested she use the dinosaur show and other material as a vehicle for working with three- and four-year-olds, a job she said was ``like all of my career decisions: I just fell backward into it.''

Working up some ideas proved to be a little tough at the beginning: ``I called my professor at Penn State,'' she recalls, ``and asked if there were any books on doing creative dramatics with preschoolers. She said, `Oh, you can't, it just doesn't work with that age.'

``So we started the program,'' she says, ``and made it up as we went along.''

The program is now condensed into a workshop accompanied by three training manuals. Valeri spends much of her time traveling the country, performing it for Headstart organizations.

``Using the arts can be crucial,'' she tells them, ``because it helps a child to become more defined and more socially integrated.''

She subscribes to the theory that art should be at the center, not on the fringe of education. ``It scares me a little, this talk about back to the basics. I keep thinking it's going away from our humanity,'' she says. ``The less human we are with each other, the more easily we can be alienated. That's why there's so much drugs.''

In her work with underprivileged children, she says, ``you can always tell the ones whose parents relate to them -- they talk. The children who seem the happiest are the children who are related to, whose parents talk to them, play with them, take them places.''

But she warns that ``you can't be constantly keeping up that `Let's Play' thing -- don't cast yourself as Captain Kangaroo. But take the time to verbalize.''

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