'Walking with Dinosaurs' takes science to the sports arena
The live show featuring large robotic creatures is taking aim at the growing edutainment market.
TACOMA, WASH. - The Tacoma Dome is no stranger to brawling monsters – it is a sports arena, after all. But this summer, it's the first stop for a different sort of leviathan, the Australian sensation "Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience." The show made its US debut here in July.Skip to next paragraph
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Based on the Emmy Award-winning BBC TV series, seen by an estimated 700 million viewers, "Dinosaurs" is precisely what the title promises – 90 minutes of mammoth, life-size reptiles performing with lights, script, and music. Unlike many dino performers (think Barney), these Australian creations neither sing nor dance. They are scientifically accurate, not to mention technological and creative marvels – not bad for a passel of pachyderms from prehistoric times. And they are just the first wave of what their creators call "immersion edutainment."
"We've been hearing from everyone that high quality, live entertainment for kids is dying on the vine," says producer and entrepreneur Bruce McTaggart, "We want to change that."
He approached the BBC, whose "Walking with Dinosaurs" program mixed high-tech computer renderings of the creatures with in-depth scientific presentations. He felt they were the prefect place to start. "Who doesn't like dinosaurs?" says Mr. McTaggart. "They belong to everyone on earth and yet they're dynamic, we're still learning about them all the time."
But nobody, including the BBC, believed it was possible to translate the quality of the two-dimensional, computer creations to the stage. Enter a small army of some of the theater world's oldest and most traditional crafts – wigmakers, puppeteers, set and light designers, as well as directors, composers, and some very buff actors (the small costumes weigh over 50 pounds).
The result is a narrated tour through the many ages of the dinosaurs by a lone, onstage "archaeologist." In keeping with the educational thrust of the BBC TV series, the patter is full of the science and geology of the times – plate tectonics, continental drift as well as details about the 10 species represented, from the familiar T.Rex to the lesser known Liliensternus. All appear in the proper millennia and scientific order.
The biggest challenge was making the dinosaurs move properly. Herky-jerky, theme-park style animatronics would not do. "We wanted a fluid, believable movement onstage," says creature designer Sonny Tilders. They solved the problem with an elaborate combination of space-age puppetry, hydraulics, and age-old artistry. Vast metal skeletons draped with meticulously painted "skins" are powered by small electrically powered scooter cabs underneath each of the large creatures. Masked drivers maneuver the beasts.