Earth to dinosaurs

By Dionne Christian

Big things are set to roar in to the spotlight on stage at the Bruce Mason Centre, writes Dionne Christian.
Dinosaurs come to life in Erth's Dinosaur Zoo.
Dinosaurs come to life in Erth's Dinosaur Zoo.

Tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops and stegosaurus: if you've got a pint-sized palaeontologist in your home, chances are you know all of these, but what about leaellyNasaura, titanosaurus, minmi and australovenator?

They were dinosaurs, too, and could have stomped or flitted across the very ground you're standing on because these "terrible lizards" lived in Australia and quite possibly New Zealand. They don't have the same high profile as some other dinosaurs, but a show's coming to town where they get their turn in the spotlight.

Erth's Dinosaur Zoo roars onto the Bruce Mason Centre stage, in Takapuna, after performances pretty much all over the world -- from one of the oldest theatres in Wellington to the Los Angeles National History Museum and even at a birthday party for Robert Irwin, son of the late Steve "crocodile hunter" Irwin.

The show uses giant puppets, inflatable environments, and aerial and flying creatures to bring to life -- well, as close as you can get -- cute baby dinosaurs, cunning carnivores, humongous herbivores and some of the largest insects that have walked the planet or flown across it.

Erth co-founder and artistic director Scott Wright says although many of the show's stars will be unfamiliar to many of us, the concept is not. The dinosaur petting zoo is presented as a live animal display, like Steve Irwin might have done at Australia Zoo, but instead of crocodiles and snakes there are dinosaurs. It's a truly immersive experience the audience sits on the stage at the Bruce Mason Centre and some lucky ones - those who are brave enough -- are invited to help feed and pet the dinosaurs.

"They're all puppets; some are operated by hand and others are so big, someone has to climb inside," says Scott, who's sometimes mistaken for a palaeontologist because of the knowledge he's built up through creating and working on Erth's Dinosaur Zoo.

"We don't try to compete with the likes of Walking with Dinosaurs because our show is far more intimate and we allow the audience to get much closer. It's not just as 'sit back and watch' type of experience. We make a show where you get to touch."

Dinosaurs come to life on stage in Erth's Dinosaur Zoo.
Dinosaurs come to life on stage in Erth's Dinosaur Zoo.

Illustrators, sculptors, painters, engineers, textile artists and sound designers -- among others -- work for the Sydney-based theatre company Erth, started in 1990, to create this menagerie of dinosaurs and insects. They've consulted with real palaeontologists, who have the most up-to-date research on fossil finds, to bring this cast of ancient animals unique to Australasia to the stage.

Scott says the show evolved out of work Erth does, making life-size dinosaur puppets for international museums.

The team decided to make a show that was funny and educational about what was going on Downunder when dinosaurs roamed the planet.

Given they walked the Earth around 65 million years ago, dinosaurs have endured in popular imagination well beyond any extinction event and remain hotter than a meteor storm over Mexico. Scott's theory is kids can't get enough of dinosaurs because they are such fantastical creatures.

"For a child, imagination is such a significant part of the world -- far more so than for us adults -- and part of the appeal of dinosaurs is having to imagine what the world might have been like with them around.

"Dinosaurs are such stupendous, unbelievable beings who really did exist at a time when there was nothing else around. They weren't driving round in cars or having to go to school to learn their ABC; there was nothing but the natural environment and I think imagining a world without people and buildings and roads appeals to children as much as the idea of these creatures who stomped around and, in some cases, ate one another."

Scott says watching audience reactions is one of the best parts of performing. The shows tours to cities and small towns alike and can be staged in or outdoors. He says some kids aren't as brave as they try to make out; others surprise when their curiosity outweighs fears they may have about getting personal with a large dinosaur (albeit a realistic-looking puppet).

In the years Erth's been touring the show, he's seen many more girls coming along and joining in question-and-answer sessions.

"Palaeontology really is a science of the imagination and it's great to see girls breaking the 'gender mould' and getting involved," he says.

"It's also fantastic that youngsters can see a way to work with dinosaurs, which might not involve becoming a palaeontologist."

Walk with dinosaurs: Auckland's dinosaur delights

Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland Domain, Parnell: If ever there's a place to encourage a future scientist or palaeontologist, it's the museum's Natural History Galleries. These feature life-sized replica skeletons of four-metre tall cryolophsaurus and malawisaurus plus a flying pteranodon to give an insight into the dinosaurs that may have lived in New Zealand. You'll also learn about Joan Wiffen, the amateur palaeontologist who proved NZ was indeed once home to dinosaurs because, for a long time, many thought we weren't.

Crystal Mountain, 80 Candia Road, Swanson: There the Crystal Mine Museum and gift shop, an animal petting zoo with fairground-style rides and Dinosaur Gully. The latter is home to two stegosaurus, three small triceratops, a menacing T. rex and a brachiosaurus. Position yourself in the right place and you get a frightening glimpse of what it may have looked like if a T. rex and brachiosaurus faced off.

Dinosaur Kingdom, Butterfly Creek, 12 Tom Pierce Drive, Auckland International Airport: Since it opened in 2014, Dinosaur Kingdom has become one of the most popular attractions in Auckland with 30 or so static and animatronic dinosaurs built to scale and representative of different eras.

Animatronic dinosaurs at the Dinosaur Kingdom, at Butterfly Creek.
Animatronic dinosaurs at the Dinosaur Kingdom, at Butterfly Creek.

Once you're done walking with the dinosaurs, Butterfly Creek's other attractions beckon.

Lost in Time Mini Golf, Metro Centre, 291-297 Queen St (between the Civic Theatre and Aotea Square) and Safari and T Rex Alley, 3 Tamaki Drive, Hobson Bay: What would it have been like to play alongside dinosaurs? Lilliput Mini Golf has two courses where you can find out. Lost in Time Mini Golf is divided into four sections taking players through a World War I battlefield, mock gold mine, bush setting and into a room of pre-historic dinosaurs including an ankylosaurus, triceratops, stegosaurus and T. rex. The T. rex will roar and eye you up and down, so sticking to a winning game plan and not being intimidated is a real challenge. Safari and T. rex Alley are on the site of Auckland's first 18-hole mini golf course which has been completely revamped to include a course with the very largest of dinosaurs - the brachiosaurus stands 5m high.

Stardome Observatory Planetarium, 670 Manukau Rd, Royal Oak (at the back of One Tree Hill): Each weekend in May, Stardome holds its Dinosaurs at Dusk show which, from pterosaurs to paragliding, is a full-speed flight through history as the origins of flight are explored. You'll need to arrive at least 15 minutes before the 3pm show as late admission is not possible once a show gets under way.

- Weekend magazine

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