Whether seizing the stage behind a drum kit at Boot and Saddle or portraying a pirate in plays at the Walnut Street Theatre, Lower Moyamensing resident Steve Gudelunas dabbles in many mediums of performance.
His latest role, though, involves some Jurassic measures.
“I try to translate those things that I’ve learned in the almost 20 years of performing and, in my head, justify jumping into a dinosaur suit,” Gudelunas said.
In his most jaw-dropping performance yet, the Ridley Township native has taken on an 80-pound Velociraptor costume as part of the Academy of Natural Science’s recently opened exhibition, “Dinosaurs Around the World,” which runs through January 2020.
Recreating scenes across the supercontinent of Pangea, the spectacular showcase uses more than a dozen animatronic dinosaurs to transport audiences from Antarctica to Australia and the scope of landscapes existing in between.
While the exhibition, which explores various realms of paleontological research through interactive pursuits, revolves around the art of animatronics, Gudelunas manually dictates the Cretaceous carnivore’s movement from inside the suit.
“As a child, I was obsessed with dinosaurs,” he said. “I was that kid who memorized encyclopedias of dinosaurs. I knew everything there was to know…I got this degree in acting to finally end up in a dinosaur costume.”
Gudelunas, a database marketing coordinator with the Academy of Natural Sciences, recalls visiting the museum a couple of times a month as a child.
When he wasn’t inspecting fossils, Gudelunas, who has been playing music since he was 8 years old, cultivated a passion for band and choir as a freshman at Ridley High School.
Developing an interest in vocals, he was cast in his school’s musicals, including as the role of Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which eventually led him to study acting at the University of the Arts, where he took on roles in shows such as “Urinetown” and “Grand Hotel.”
After graduating college in 2009, Gudelunas participated in some regional productions, such as children’s musicals at the Walnut. But his focus started shifting toward rock music, and for the last several years, he’s contributed drums and vocals for local bands Madame Jones, Whitewater Pass and Jawbone Junction, tackling gigs at regional spaces such as the Trocadero and World Cafe Live.
Gudelunas says practicing both showtunes and rock-and-roll has bred a peculiar skill set.
“The only difference is that – in one, I’m myself,” Gudelunas said. “And in another, I get to play a role, so I get to be someone completely different, which is a lot of fun. But, it is a different mentality for sure. When you’re a musician, you’re bearing yourself. There’s no character to hide behind or invest in. You’re really investing in yourself.”
Cramping into a Velociraptor suit gives a new character to conquer while also allowing Gudelunas to be himself, lending to both his band and theater talents.
As the museum was brainstorming plans for the new showcase, the staff elected Gudelunas to wear the suit, which is a piece that came with the exhibition.
“Performance in general – it takes a lot of confidence,” he said. “You’re pulling a lot of yourself, and this is so much different than being on stage. But, it is making sure that I’m present in the suit…the ultimate goal of this is to give the visitor an extreme experience.”
In honor of the exhibition’s opening, Gudelunas performed in the suit for two events last week, including sauntering around the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which attracted curious stares from passersby.
Gudelunas says he had less than an hour to master the suit before its first showing.
With a few bicycle brake-like mechanisms, Gudelunas is able to rotate the dinosaur’s eyes, mouth and head. A digital screen on the inside of the suit lets him see where he’s wandering.
But, the overarching approach to this new performance is rooted in skills he’s gathered on various stages, such as knowing how to control his body on stage and knowing how to conserve energy, because, he says, the suit is extremely hot.
“Being able to focus under extreme circumstances like that,” Gudelunas said. “To be able to just try and be as honest with that suit as possible and bring an experience to the vistor that feels authentic. And so, I think, being on stage and constantly striving to be authentic and honest in the moment does actually boil down to being in a costume as a dinosaur for 20 minutes. I don’t look at it any differently. It’s a role.”