Sunday, 11 May 2014

ERTH's Dinosaur Zoo

The other day I had the pleasure to see the Australian puppet show ERTH's Dinosaur Zoo at the Ottawa International Children's Festival. I'm extremely interested in dinosaurs as well as puppets (for many years I had ambitions of being a paleontologist) so this show was doubly interesting for me.

The host tends to a female Leaellynasaura, while her mate peeks out from behind a curtain.

The conceit of the show is that an animal handler is bringing out various Australian dinosaurs to show them to the audience. Unlike the Walking With Dinosaurs arena show (which, they were proud to tell me, ERTH's show predates), it's a small, intimate performance. They really sell the idea that these are live animals; at one point, the host brings a child volunteer onstage to help calm a dinosaur while he administers eyedrops, and the puppeteers give the creatures a faked unpredictability that feels very real -- and sometimes scary for the kids.

The puppets, built by Bryony Anderson and others, are terrific. The dinosaurs' skin looks like latex but is actually painted fabric, which is much lighter. From a paleontological standpoint, they're extremely accurate -- not a pronated hand to be seen! -- although the Leaellynasaura puppet doesn't reflect the 2009 discovery that its tail was three times as long as the rest of its body. Leaellyn possesses an elegant leg mechanism that the puppeteer operates with one hand. It consists solely of joints, string, and counterweights, and it moves beautifully.

The big showstopper, Australovenator. Puppeteer Miron Gusso is standing at his full height inside the beast.

Thanks to their tour manager, Rachael King, I had the opportunity to meet with the three-person cast after the show and talk shop. They were very friendly and encouraging, and emphasized the importance of really building a puppet around the puppeteer's body for maximum comfort, ease of movement, and direct control. Guys, if you're reading this, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me!