Feeding time at the dinosaur zoo. Will your wee one be brave enough to help out?

Words MARK FISHER   

It started with a white lie. Theatre maker Scott Wright was talking to anthropologist George MacDonald, who was working as the guest director of Museums Victoria in Australia. MacDonald knew Wright’s company built large-scale puppets for outdoor performances and asked him whether he’d ever thought about making dinosaurs. “Yes,” bluffed Wright – and before he knew it, he was building two scale-model creatures for the museum.

They were a hit. Next came commissions from museums all over the world. “It’s turned out to be one of those beautiful accidents where something we never intended to do is something that people really love,” he says.

And because people loved it so much, Wright and his team at Erth Visual & Physical had an idea. “We said, ‘We’re doing really well from commissions for them – we should make some for ourselves.”

It was this idea that led to Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo, a show he describes as “Steve Irwin, only with dinosaurs,” in which the over-fives get as close as they dare to prehistoric insects and some of the largest creatures ever to walk the planet. “The show is like a wild animal presentation,” he says. “If you went to a zoo, this is what you’d expect from a keeper talk. The difference is we let some of our visitors into the enclosure with the animals.”

Talking the form of a hands-on lecture, it shows the dinosaurs being fed and watered and shares the latest scientific knowledge about them. Not only has the show captivated young palaeontologists in Australia for the last decade, but before the Edinburgh Fringe it’s enjoying a lengthy run at Washington’s Smithsonian’s National Zoo – one of the world’s great science institutions.

“We had consciously thought that museums would be great places to become friends with because they have lots of
things we want to see,” he says. “Our work has always had a focus on natural history. The educational side is the thing that surprises people. It’s a good laugh but inside it is solid knowledge. We don’t dumb it down.”

Even though they can be as much as 5.5m long, each replica dinosaur is operated by just one puppeteer. They’re far from being full size, but they still dwarf the brave young audience members who come on stage to feed them. “They are all hand-made and are good boutique creations,” says Wright. “They’ve also been made with the consideration that people do like to touch. We’re definitely presenting an animal on stage, not a glossy theatre prop.”

The combination of fun and fact is part of the appeal. “We always bring kids on stage to help us,” he says. “We might – or might not – put them in dangerous situations, but then we’re Australian so we’re used to that! We have that licence to take a few more risks that other people wouldn’t. If they really misbehave, we feed the kids to the dinosaurs. The adults don’t seem to mind.”

WHERE & WHEN

Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo, Underbelly, Bristo Square – McEwan Hall, 31 July–26 August (not 12), 11am,

From £13 underbellyedinburgh.co.uk

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