July 9, 2008

Manawatu’s Own Legendary Inventor

By DYKES, Mervyn

For a year now Ken Benn has been "stumbling along" in someone else's shoes.

They haven't been a good fit - and he has found the experience both inspiring and humbling.

It all began when The da Vinci Machines exhibition came to Te Manawa last year. The Palmerston North storyteller, actor and author was hired to play the part of the great Renaissance Man.

He spent weekends leading tour parties around the exhibition talking about "his machines" in character.

So successful was he that when the exhibition moved on to the South Island he was invited along too.

"I've got to know him a bit," Mr Benn said yesterday.

"I've had to learn to think how he thought, his struggles against the prejudices of his day, the things he experienced himself and yet had the courage to persist.

"To never give up - that's the big thing I learned from him."

Another thing he learned was da Vinci's mirror writing wasn't code, but a left-hander's attempt to avoid scratchy, blotched work.

There is a lot of friction for a left- hander having to drag a quill across his work, when to use mirror writing gave a much smoother flow.

"I've tried it and it works well," he said.

The Nelson section of the tour lasted for three months, with Mr Benn visiting once every three weeks and then every two weeks for a month and a half.

"In the last weekend we had about 2300 people take the tour," he said.

Then came Christchurch, where he was invited to stay on for an extra day to teach staff how to use narrative theatre when talking about exhibits.

"Playing there was dead fun, but very cold."

After that came Dunedin, where he will spend selected weekends on the tours until the end of September, after which the exhibition will move to Melbourne.

Sometimes the people taking the tours have provided an education too. For example, there was the woman wearing a singlet so skimpy that even Leonardo could have learned something about anatomy.

One older man on a tour "somewhere in the South Island" asked why Leonardo had used heavy materials such as wood and metal.

"What do you suggest I should have used?" answered Mr Benn. .

The answer?

"You could have used plastic and carbon fibre."

The same man wanted to know where this Renaissance place was, "north or south of Florence?"

But the most fun was the young boy who followed Mr Benn around and hung on every word.

"Can I have your autograph?" he asked at the end.

Mr Benn, a left-hander like Leonardo, obliged, signing in the great inventor's mirror writing.

The boy's eyes popped.

"See," he cried, running back to his family. "He really is Leonardo."


(c) 2008 Evening Standard; Palmerston North, New Zealand. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.