Bury St Edmunds/Colchester: Are you brave enough to enter Dinosaur Zoo at the Theatre Royal and Mercury?
- Credit: Archant
“Our carnivore, he’s a little cheeky at times and sometimes we have issues getting him fed on time before the show. That can be a problem but fortunately kids are quite bite size so that works out well,” laughs Dinosaur Zoo’s Australian lead keeper Lindsay Chaplin.
All happily stashed away at the moment, the show features a range of prehistoric beasts from cute baby dinos to teeth-gnashing giants and the carnivorus theropod Australovenator, based on the most complete meat-eating dinosaur skeleton found in Australia.
“I’ve been likened to a sort of cross between David Attenborough and Bindi Irwin,” laughs Lindsay. “It’s my job to introduce all of our creations as they come out and try to control the mayhem as it happens on stage when you get kids and animals involved - and puppeteers for that matter. Anything can really happen.”
Direct from the West End, the show uses puppetry to bring five species to life.
“We have some baby dryosaurs which are pretty cute, we can hold those in our arms and they’re good fun for everyone, especially the kids who are a little bit because they’re fairly harmless ones. We’ve got a meganeura, a giant insect which was around even before dinosaurs existed; that’s fun. We’ve also got a leaellynasaur, she’s a very cheeky little herbivore; that’s good fun when you have the two of them on stage.
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“Then we’ve our hero carnivore the Australovenator, he’s the one the kids are jumping up and down to see and then he comes on stage and they all seem to disappear under their chairs; then we have a grand finale with a beautiful big thorapod called titanosaur.”
The wonderful thing about Dinosaur Zoo, compared to shows like Walking With Dinosaurs, says Lindsay is their beasts are very much in the moment. If they see something they want to check out they will.
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“We don’t want them to feel like they’re sitting back watching a film or a TV programme about dinosaurs because they can do that anytime they want. For us it’s an opportunity for them to realise the dinosaurs are looking at them and reacting to what they’re doing and saying - that’s really exciting.
“As the show’s been getting bigger, the challenge for us is to keep it as interactive as we can. I’m scanning the crowd to work out who I think might be good on stage, then afterwards we do make sure the kids are able to meet the babies if that’s all they’re able to handle or get up close to the bigger animals. It’s very important for us to feel like everyone’s had a go.”
Working very closely with palaeontologists, they are all accurate recreations of different sized prehistoric creatures.
“The carnivore’s about four-five metres long and is taller than a grown man. Our giant thorapod doesn’t actually fit all the way on stage, she’s that big. She’s a bit of a Barnum’s elephant if you know what I mean... we get the illusion of how big she really is by not showing all of her.”
Lindsay didn’t need convincing to brush up on her dinosaur knowledge.
“I’m a bit of a nerd really deep down, as a kid I remember having a sweater that had glow in the dark dinosaurs all over it and I wore it to death. Eventually I just had all these bits falling off of it,” she laughs.
“I’ve always had a love of dinosaurs and the fact I now can bring dinosaurs and puppetry which I adore as well together in my job... I do pinch myself, every now and then I’ll have these moments on stage where I just have to go ‘I love my job’. All I’ve ever really asked from my career is to be able to perform and travel and the dinosaurs are a brilliant way for that to happen.”
You’d think director Scott Wright would be a fan of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
“I appreciate it kick-started a global resurgence of interest in dinosaurs at a time when it was felt palaeontology was a dying science, but the commercialisation of dinosaurs is perplexing, which is ironic coming from me having created a show about dinosaurs.
“Of course, they can be used as a gateway for learning, which is always commendable but sometimes this can be exploited well beyond any real validation. We hope in our show we at least impart some valued lessons about the true nature of animal behaviour while having some fun and a good laugh too,” says Wright of Australian-based visual and physical theatre company Erth.
He describes the show as the sort of live animal presentation you might see at a zoo or a wildlife park only with dinosaurs, from very small babies to some of the largest ever found.
“We teach the audience aspects of animal husbandry and invite some members of the audience on stage to assist us with feeding and caring for our dinosaurs. This is the show Steve Irwin would be doing if dinosaurs were alive today.
“The show is naturally geared towards kids. Children worldwide love dinosaurs but one of the surprising things about the show is adults get a real kick out of it too. The show does have some great educational overtones but at the end of the day it is very funny and has a lovely endearing nature to it.”
The aim says Wright, who describes himself as just a theatre director who knows a lot about dinosaurs even though a lot of people think he’s a paleontologist, is to have fun and be honest.
“Dinosaurs are awesome but they can also be big and scary, every kid knows that. We like delivering the facts and since working with museums the importance of honesty has allowed us to tackle some pretty sticky questions like ‘is it real’.
“Once upon a time we would try to explain our way out of such a question with awkward charm, but these days we are straight up ‘yes it’s a real puppet’. Thanks to the magic of theatre and people’s desire to suspend their disbelief, more often that not two minutes after you announce all the dinosaurs are puppets, people forget and continue on the journey.”
The idea for the show had been brewing for a while, every since the company started custom making life-like dinosaur puppets for museums around the world; developing some pretty cool ways of presenting them within a museum setting. Realising they were on to something unique they started doing small outdoor street shows at festivals around Australia.
Wright has been interested in dinosaurs since he was kid.
“There was a lot less known about dinosaurs (then). I remember making a papermache dinosaur with my dad and grandpa which I dragged around with me from one house to the next and it slowly fell apart, but not without a tonne of new paint and repairs. I think it eventually made way for Star Wars action figures, need I say more?”
He puts the shows popularity down to its fun, edgy charm and the fact most people’s experience of dinosaurs is based on inanimate objects in museums or as animated creatures in film or television.
“By bringing our dinosaurs on to the stage we come one step closer, realising everybody’s dream of having these awesome creatures alive and well in our modern world.”
Constantly building new dinosaurs, Erth is preparing to launch a new show about the thylacine, an Australian creature that became extinct 80 years ago.
“It’s a very beautiful piece that has been designed with an exhibition featuring artefacts and art works. This way we meld the worlds of museums and theatre together to build catharsis in a work that explores a broad perspective of opinions and facts, while at the same time being very moving for children and adults alike.
“We also have plans for other prehistoric shows and some classic contemporary children’s stories.
Zoo keeper Lindsay will on the lookout for brave youngsters when the show visits.
“If you’re feeling up for it when I do ask for volunteers by all means stick your hand up. Something I’m asking now of our audiences is kids have a dinosaur-themed joke in mind and please don’t make it do you think he saw us,” she laughs, “I’ve heard that one enough.”
Dinosaur Zoo comes to the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, today and tomorrow and Colchester’s Mercury Theatre on April 26-27. For more info about the show, www.dinosaurzoolive.com