In the four-plus years that Australian theater and puppetry group Erth Visual & Physical has been touring with the interactive Dinosaur Petting Zoo show, artistic director Scott Wright has encountered plenty of frightened children in the audience — and hysterical parents.
“There’s something we’ve found where adults kind of find it funny to see children terrified,” Wright said recently, while on a vacation from creating the long-extinct denizens of the Dinosaur Petting Zoo in New South Wales, Australia.
“We tell the kids that the dinosaurs are all puppets, and they all put their thumbs up, but two minutes later they’ve forgotten what you’ve said completely. All they want is for the dinosaurs to be real, so they believe it, and when the T. rex gets angry because his tooth fell out, they scream, and all the adults just laugh.”
To inspire screams, the puppets need to be realistic, and the team at Erth has plenty of experience with over 12 years of building dinosaur puppets for museums around the world. The creations are meticulously researched and up-to-date with current paleontological theories — a new Tyrannosaurus rex puppet made for this year’s nine-plus month U.S. tour, which heads to The Egg’s Hart Theatre Saturday morning, features feathers in accordance with the latest research on theropod dinosaurs’ relation to birds. (A show for school groups will also be at The Egg on Friday morning.)
Dinosaur Petting Zoo
Where: The Hart Theatre in The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
How Much: $10; adults free when accompanied by child (requires reserved tickets)
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
But Wright insists that the show, which is touring the U.S. for the second time this year, does not take itself too seriously. With a focus on prehistoric species native to Australia, the show also takes on the rugged, easygoing spirit of Australian culture.
“A petting zoo is very much an American thing, so I guess it was always meant to be a joke, something funny,” Wright said. “We weren’t going to take ourselves too seriously; we were going to let kids have an experience with dinosaurs unlike any they had had before.”
This “petting zoo” aspect of the show presented new challenges for Wright, a longtime puppet maker who has been with Erth since its founding in 1990. Unlike similar touring productions like Walking With Dinosaurs (another Egg visitor in the past), which have dinosaur puppets with latex skin, Dinosaur Petting Zoo has had to find different materials more suitable to being touched on a nightly basis.
“Latex actually deteriorates — the oils and acids in our skin deteriorate it, which is why you don’t touch those dinosaurs [in Walking With Dinosaurs] — they’ll fall apart,” Wright said. “We tried to make things so that they can be touched, so that when we do put a child’s head into the mouth of our T. rex, no one’s going to get hurt. It’s always just a bit of fun.”
The show, which lasts approximately 50 minutes, doesn’t follow a plot or script. The puppets are brought out onstage, and volunteers from the audience are brought up to interact with the puppets and puppeteers. After the show, many of the more popular dinosaurs make appearances in the lobby for everyone who wants to get a chance to touch them.
Cue from Steve Irwin
Along with providing information about each species of dinosaur brought out, the puppeteers also teach children about animal husbandry. Caring for animals that went extinct 65 million years ago may seem like a lot of guesswork, but the show features professionals such as zookeepers who bring experience caring for modern-day animals.
“We talk about how you approach a wild animal; we talk about the fact that animals use smell as a way of communication,” Wright said. “We talk about the potential of animals getting sick because we touch them, because we don’t have clean hands. We talk about the food that the carnivores ate. One of the easiest analogies is that it’s very much like what Steve Irwin would do if he was still alive, except if instead of crocodiles he had dinosaurs. It’s very much a wildlife presentation like you’d get from a wildlife expert.”
The show’s large carnivores such as T. rex are often audience favorites, but the production features more than dozen species that were native to Australia. These include everything from one of Wright’s favorites, leaellynasaurus — a small, bipedal herbivore with large eyes and nocturnal vision evolved for life in the Antarctic Circle — to another new addition this year, the giant long-necked sauropod titanosaurus — so big that only it’s head, neck and shoulders fit into the theater.
“T. rex was discovered over 100 years ago. I don’t mean to rubbish T. rex, but it’s kind of like the world’s idea of dinosaurs has stopped at T. rex, if you’re talking about popular culture,” Wright said. “New dinosaurs are discovered all the time, and it’s important to try to educate people about a broad perspective, not just honing in on the popular ones.”
New discoveries mean that the show is constantly growing and evolving, with new puppets created every year.
“The show just keeps getting bigger and better,” Wright said. “I guess for Americans, because this is the second year the show has been to America, it’s still about people discovering the show and kind of getting to know the show. In the next 10 years, people will be able to come back to see the show again and again and again. We’ll just keep putting new dinosaurs in, swapping them around and mixing them up.”