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Another world

Experience the dinosaur age at Jordan Center

March 16, 2008
By Keith Frederick,
It might sound like a prehistoric nightmare — or maybe a rejected car insurance commercial — but Justin Terry spends most of his days inside a dinosaur.

Terry is the suit captain in charge of the smaller dinosaurs for the show “Walking with Dino-saurs: The Live Experience,” a ground-breaking live show based on the successful BBC documentary of the same name. The arena tour will stop at the Bryce Jordan Center for a series of six shows beginning Thursday.

The show features 15 life-size dinosaur puppets walking around the arena in a realistic history lesson that chronicles the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods — as well as the “terrible lizards” that inhabited them.

“It is the story of the evolution and ultimate destruction of dinosaurs,” Cameron Wenn, the tour’s resident director, said in a phone interview. “It’s the story of what made them successful or unsuccessful during their time.”

As the suit captain, Terry is in charge of a group of puppeteers who operate the liliensternus from the Triassic Period, the utahraptor from the Cretaceous and the baby tyrannosaurus rex from the Cretaceous.

“Of the 15 dinosaurs, 10 are controlled by three or four people,” Terry says. “The others are me and my boys.”

These self-contained puppets are small (about eight feet tall and 15 feet long) and consist of a kind of body suit. The puppeteers control the dinosaurs with an electronics rig located in the torso of the puppet.

But the job is as much physical as mental. Terry calls it “a full-body performance.”

“A lot of it is just physical control with movement,” he explained in a phone interview. “Our hands are free to control all the hand controls. The rest of it is just physical posturing to create life-like control in the body.

“It’s pretty much like running in a sauna. There’s very limited visibility, so you always have to be aware of everything that’s around you. Everything on your body is always working at the same time.”

It’s a job that Terry came upon by chance.

‘‘I graduated in May of 2007 (with a theater degree from the University of Northern Colorado),” he said. “I went through an acting course and a casting director said that some of my special skills could work with the suit performers.”

For a show that employs 65 people, visits a new city each week and cost $20 million to create, training can’t stop with just an Intro to Dinosaurs course.

‘‘When I first got here, we did a month and a half of training ... We actually still train about four or five times a week,” Terry explained. “There’s a lot of leg and core training, because each suit has 80 to 100 pounds (of weight). We have to learn to move very quickly without injuring ourselves.’’

The larger rigs, he said, which include such legendary beasts as the stegosaurus, the adult tyrannosaurus and the gigantic brachiosaurus, are operated by a team.

“Each larger dinosaur has an undercarriage. It’s kind of a ground-level go-kart thing that’s attached to the legs of the dinosaurs,” Terry said. “One person drives that and then there are two people inside what we call the voodoo lounge.”

The voodoo lounge is a sort of crow’s nest, where the animatronic puppeteers can control the arm, leg, torso and facial movements of the dinosaurs by remote control.

During the show, the dinosaurs’ story is told by a character called ‘‘Huxley, the Paleontologist’’ — the show’s only human character.

With the majority of the show being made up of massive puppets, ‘‘Walking with Dinosaurs’’ can be a very large production to keep going — but its been to 30 venues in the past eight months.

‘‘We generally travel on a Monday to the next city that we’re going,’’ Wenn said. ‘‘It’s about a 24-hour process to get the show into a venue.”

But once the show arrives, nothing changes from venue to venue, he said.

‘‘The show is very consistent, in the sense that we travel with our own arena flooring and our own lighting rig. The show itself stays the same.’’

Wenn, who has been with the show since the planning and development stages, said the North American tour has already been booked through the end of the year, with no end in sight.

‘‘We’re getting a great response,’’ he said. ‘‘I think while people out there want to see it, we’ll keep it going.’’

With a show that appeals to such a wide range of people, it may be going for quite some time.

‘‘We’re very specific in the age group we play — from 3-years-old to 103,’’ Wenn said with a laugh. ‘‘Everybody that comes to it finds something appealing about it.’’

The show brings a reaction from both the audience and the people behind the scenes.

‘‘It’s a pretty amazing experience,’’ Terry said. ‘‘So far (reactions) have been really, really fantastic. We have tons of adults walking away from it talking about how amazing it was. It takes them off guard. It exceeds their expectations.”

Then he added, with a laugh, ‘‘It’s the best show ever. Make sure you make a note of that.’’

Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.

Article Photos

Courtesy photos
A mother and baby tyrannosaurus rex, from the Cretaceous Period, are part of the “Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience” show. The tour stops at the Bryce Jordan Center, University Park Thursday through March 23.

Fact Box

If you go
What: “Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and March 23
Where: Bryce Jordan Center, University Park
Tickets: $29.50, $44.50, $52.50 and $69.50. Tickets are available at the Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State Tickets Downtown, all Ticketmaster locations, www., www. Ticketmaster. com or charge-by-phone at 865-5555.

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