by Kellie Abrahamson
Aside from family feasts, folks in the River City have something else to be thankful for in November. Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience; a stage production, a science lesson and a sideshow all at once; is coming to Jacksonville from the 26th to the 30th. The show has wowed audiences in Australia, Canada and now the US and is making its way to the First Coast this month. The production promises to drop jaws and elicit shrieks with its incredibly life-like life-sized creatures.
Based on the hit BBC documentary series, Walking with Dinosaurs takes audiences on a journey through time and they never have to leave their arena seats. Accompanied by our trusty paleontologist Huxley, we’ll head to the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic periods and meet the different species of dinosaurs who roamed the earth during those times. Ten different types of dinosaurs are represented in this unique stage spectacle and all of them are exactly as they were when they were alive: massive, loud and completely captivating.
Recently EU was lucky enough to catch up with resident director Cameron Wenn who gave us the inside scoop on the show, the dinosaurs and all the hard work that goes into making these mammoth actors come to life.
EU: How did you get involved with Walking with Dinosaurs?
Cameron Wenn: I actually first started with the show way back before it was a show, when they were dealing with the concept of the show, the script development phase. I was able to work with the creative team and the design team to kind of help work out what was going achievable and what wasn’t going to be achievable in terms of the technology and in terms of the creative elements of the show and then work on building the script.
EU: What were you doing before you got this job?
CW: I’m a director and a writer.
EU: Were you doing stage productions?
CW: Yeah, yeah, theatrical, as do most of the designers on the show. We have people from film in terms of the technology of the creatures with extensive film backgrounds. And the composers are film composers but everybody else is pretty much theatrical and treated the creative process in the show as a theatrical show.
EU: How does this differ from other theatrical shows you’ve worked on in the past?
CW: [Laughs] Greatly! Well, it differs and it doesn’t actually. It’s never been attempted before, something like this where the cast of characters are actually huge animatronic puppets. We have one actor in the show in each performance. We actually have two actors that share the role as the paleontologist who sort of the narrator character who actually walks us through the show. But the rest of the characters in the show are all dinosaurs so it is a little bit tricky in the sense that it takes three people to operate each one. So each large dinosaur is operated by three different people animatronically and mechanically and then there are some smaller dinosaurs that are operated by single performers. So yeah, it’s a logistical challenge I suppose you’d say.
EU: What was it like rehearsing with these massive performers and their teams of puppeteers?
CW: The puppeteers are extremely experienced and very talented as are the dinosaur drivers. There’s a driver under each large one, not inside the dinosaur but underneath it, that you don’t see. And then there are two puppeteers that work in tandem with that driver to create the character. That’s sort of an easy thing because they all are very experienced people, but it is a logistical thing. Dinosaurs do get tired and need to get charged up again. We can’t rehearse them ad nauseum like you could a real animal because we’re at the mercy of the technology all the time.
EU: How life-like are the dinosaurs really?
CW: They’re incredibly lifelike. One of the biggest successes of the show I think is undeniably that the dinosaurs actually look real and move like real animals. Part of that is the technology which is cutting edge and state of the art, and part of that is the finesse of the performers that actually puppeteer them. But, yeah, I think everywhere we’ve been with the show people are just convinced that they are watching real animals.
EU: Is it difficult moving from city to city and stage to stage with such huge equipment?
CW: Yeah, it’s not a small exercise. We travel in twenty six 53-foot tractor trailer trucks so it’s one of the biggest shows on the road I think you could say and the 26 trucks are all unloaded in one day and the whole show gets set up in one day and it all gets pulled down at the end of our weeks performance in each city in about 4 hours. So it is a logistical challenge there too but Jake Berry our touring manager who is used to doing big rock and roll shows has got it down to a fine art.
EU: So what’s a typical first day in a new town like for the Walking with Dinosaurs cast and crew?
CW: A week generally goes as follows: We basically travel on a Monday to the new city, load the show in on a Tuesday which involves putting everything from the lighting to the floor to the set to rebuilding all the dinosaurs, that happens on a Tuesday. The show is lit overnight; the lighting guys come in and focus all the lights… And on the Wednesday morning we generally technically check all the dinosaurs out, do a rehearsal in the afternoon of all the technical elements in the show basically and then we open on Wednesday night and play it through until Sunday generally at which time we pull it all out and travel on Monday and do the same thing all over again.
EU: What is the show about?
CW: The show is basically the history of dinosaurs on the planet so we based it on the BBC documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs which was computer-generated dinosaurs in a documentary television format. We’ve taken it into the third dimension and picked dinosaurs that were specific to each pivotal era of their history and we follow this paleontologist through the eras of the dinosaurs from about 220 million years ago to about 65 million years ago when they all died out and each era is exemplified by certain dinosaurs that you would know or not know.
EU: How many dinosaurs will we get to see in all?
CW: We have 15 and that’s including a flying dinosaur, a pterosaur. And we also have two little egg hatchling puppets so I suppose its 17 really. We can’t leave those fellas out.
EU: Who is the target audience?
CW: Well marketers and PR people will always say “Oh this show appeals [to everyone] from 2 to 92” but that’s sort of marketing hype in a lot of cases. In the case of this show it’s actually true. That’s what we see coming into the audience every night when I go into watch the show. There are little kids from 2 years old right up to grandma and grandpa so it a real cross-section of people. Teenagers find something different in it than people in their 40s to people in their 60s or 70s and of course little kids just love it.
EU: So the show is definitely appropriate for small children?
CW: Yeah, one of the bigger sections of our audience will be kids. I mean they have such a fascination with dinosaurs. Funnily enough, people always say they [might be] scared by it. I mean, occasionally you’ll get a kid that’s not prepared for it or finds it a little bit loud but it’s generally that they’re thrilled by it and exhilarated by it, more like a roller coaster ride rather than a horror show.
EU: Aside from the obvious, how does this show differ from other family-friendly stage productions?
CW: I think one of the keys to this show is that’s it’s educational as well. Far from being preachy or lecture-ish, the show is an entertainment spectacular. But within those confines of being a spectacle on a stage there is quite a bit of information and I think people come away knowing more about the planet that we live on and the dinosaurs that lived here prior to us, they know more about them when they left than when they arrived which is good.
EU: How have audiences responded to the show?
CW: Pretty much as one. I mean, we opened in Australia in January of 2007 and the audiences there have responded the same way as the audiences here when we opened it, when we toured it in Canada. Everybody’s pretty much blown away by the show. We haven’t had anybody come out going “Eh that was ok.” [Laughs] It’s not a show that’s designed to have a mediocre response. It’s designed on a grand scale to have a spectacular response and it does.
EU: What’s your favorite part of the show?
CW: I think one of the cleverness’s of the show is that we leave the audience actually relating to the dinosaurs. I think there are some moments of surprisingly tender moments and funny moments that you don’t expect from a big, monster dinosaur show. For example the brachiosaur family, the mother brachiosaur has to save a younger brachiosaur, her baby, from a predator. I mean that kind of thing is kind of universal, I suppose. It’s an instinct that mothers in the audiences have for their little kids even as they’re getting in their seats in the arena you know, “Don’t fall down the stairs.” And I think that relating the show to those universal kind of fundamental things that we all have as animals on the planet, you know, survival instincts, is probably the favorite part. I think there’s a depth to the show that you wouldn’t expect and I think that takes people by surprise and is certainly something that I enjoy.
Dino-philes of all ages should make plans to head to the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena sometime between November 26th and November 30th. Tickets for this not to be missed show range in price from $27.50 to $62.50 and are available through FCCJ Ticketing at artistseries.fccj.org or by phone at 632-3373. For more information on Walking with Dinosaurs visit dinosaurlive.com.