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THE STUNT MAN : In ‘Couch Potato Science,’ Circus-Style Antics Are Part of Rick Lewis’ Lessons

<i> Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for the Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Rick Lewis can balance full glasses of water on his chin, do back-flips off furniture and juggle plungers or toasters without breaking a sweat.

Ah, you think, what a precocious child. Kids, take Ricky and go play out back. Way out back.

Not so fast. Even though his stunts may sound like those of a rascally 8-year-old, Lewis is no kid. At 32, the Vancouver resident has spent more than 20 years performing acrobatics, juggling, mime and other circus-style skills for audiences across the United States and Canada.

Now, Lewis has a new act, one that many would consider more challenging than any in his repertoire. He’s a teacher, sort of.

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In his 40-minute workshop, “Couch Potato Science,” Lewis uses acrobatics, juggling and physical comedy to make potentially complicated lessons in physical science and nutrition accessible and entertaining to kids. On Saturday and Sunday, the Launch Pad science center in Costa Mesa’s Crystal Court will host Lewis for three performances daily.

A professional entertainer since age 8 (he made a nickel profit with his first neighborhood show), Lewis spent two years studying drama at Webster Conservatory for Theatre Arts in St. Louis before dropping out to work as a clown. He landed a job in a road company of the circus-themed Broadway musical “Barnum,” in which he expanded and refined his skills as an understudy for the show’s male roles. He has appeared on TV in “Sesame Street” and “America’s Funniest People,” and later this year, moviegoers can catch him barrel-rolling down a football field on a bass drum, doubling for actor Jim Varney in “Ernest Goes to School.”

Very impressive, you say, but not quite the resume of a science teacher. Not to worry, says Lewis.

The Connecticut-born entertainer, the son of a scientist, enlisted the help of physics professors at the University of British Columbia to form the basic curriculum of his workshops. And his mom, a nutrition specialist, helped him put together bits like “Saran Rap,” in which he juggles various food items while rapping a tribute to healthy eating (“When you’ve got the munchies and you’ve got to get your fill / Snack on fruits and vegetables and you won’t need that vitamin pill.”)

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Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion also come into play in “Couch Potato Science,” and Lewis demonstrates each of them individually and in combination. For example, to illustrate how every object has a center of mass, he teeters on top of a “rolly-bola,” a board balanced on a rolling cylinder placed on top of a coffee table. Still mounted on the rolly-bola, he takes the lesson a step further, exploring the different levels of energy required to lift objects of varying weights by juggling a barbecue fork, plunger and an ax.

“I kind of disguise the educational value with an entertaining package that keeps people interested,” Lewis explained in a phone interview from his home. “Kids may not remember the exact principles (presented in the show), but the visual experience will help even little ones learn something about the laws of nature that operate in our world.”

Audience volunteers are an important part of his shows. A small “Couch Potato” viewer may find him or herself strapped to a board and balanced on a vertical support or attempting to move a bowling ball off a table using only their breath. Adults may help demonstrate rotational inertia by balancing a broomstick and pencil on the palm of their hands.

“Couch Potato Science” is actually a combination of two other workshops, “Furnysics” (subtitle: “The Physics of Furniture”) and “The Grapest Show on Earth.” Another workshop, “The Wonderful Circus of Science,” showcases an even flashier array of stunts, including riding a 12-foot unicycle.

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Lewis began developing his science shows after seeing, and being dissatisfied with, other educational entertainment programs offered for families.

“In most of the other shows I heard of, the education level was maybe an eight, but the entertainment level was only a two or three,” he said.

“The way I’ve worked it, the educational content is such that an adult could walk away having learned a fair bit. Kids don’t walk up after the shows and say, ‘Wow, you’re a great educator,’ but they do have a great time.”

* What: “Couch Potato Science” workshop.

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* When: Saturday, May 14, and Sunday, May 15, at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

* Where: Launch Pad science center, 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa.

* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Bristol Street and drive north. Turn left on Sunflower Avenue, then left on Bear Street.

* Wherewithal: $5 per person, includes admission into Launch Pad.

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* Where to call: (714) 546-2061.

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