British theatre production to whisk Calgary families back to when dinosaurs ruled the earth

Article content

It’s one of the more unusual dilemmas for a director working in children’s theatre.

But Derek Bond, the writer and director of Dinosaur World, says there needs to be a delicate balance when designing a family-friendly show suitable for children as young as three while maintaining post-Jurassic Park levels of realism.

Article content

It is specifically put to the test when young audience members come face-to-face with a menacing and somewhat unco-operative Tyrannosaurus rex. Like all the dinosaurs on stage, this flesh-eating giant is believably played by a massive, detailed puppet. The puppeteers may be visible, but they seem to quickly fade into the background.

Advertisement 2

Article content

“It’s a bit threatening, it’s a bit scary” admits Bond, in an interview from London. “The children, ultimately, help to get the big T-Rex under control. When (it) comes out, some of them are hiding under their seats or holding onto their parents or their grandparents … and looking very scared. But by the end of that section, they are the ones who are in charge. They are shouting at the T-Rex, scaring him back on stage and they feel great afterwards. You want the children to feel safe, to enjoy the feeling of being scared and ultimately feel empowered by the end of it, having come through the scary bit.”

Dinosaur World ends its North American tour with a May 25 stop at Arts Commons’ Jack Singer Concert Hall for a one-day-only matinee at 2 p.m. The production has become an international hit, travelling to 35 cities in the U.S. and across the United Kingdom. It might be suitable for children, but it’s certainly not Barney. The puppets were created by Max Humphries – a renowned puppet designer who has worked with Cirque du Soleil and is inspired by the traditional Bunraku puppet school of Japan – and brought to life by a team of puppeteers. 

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

For the most part, the dinosaurs are not meant to be scary. They are hulking but relatively gentle herbivores, including a Triceratops, Giraffatitan and a Segnosaurus. The simple storyline has an explorer named Miranda guiding the audience through some dinosaur facts as she coaxes the giant reptiles on stage, with varying levels of success. Children in the audience are invited to interact with them, both during the production and after the show.

Alberta is the perfect place for Dinosaur World to end its lengthy tour. It’s world-famous for finding bones but is also a hot spot for puppet theatre, home to the world-renowned Old Trout Puppet Workshop, Fraggle Rock reboot and the Festival of Animated Objects.

Dinosaur World was born at a vibrant time for puppetry in mainstream theatre, particularly in England. Most puppeteers involved in the production are veterans of the theatrical show War Horse. Based on the children’s novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, it debuted at London’s National Theatre in 2007 before making its way to the West End and Broadway. It has become a full-blown sensation in U.K. theatre.

Advertisement 4

Article content

“It changed everything because puppetry could suddenly be taken a lot more seriously,” Bond says. “There are shows at the moment in the U.K., there are versions of the Studio Ghibli shows Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro. They are phenomenal shows that are playing in London at the moment. There is also a version of the Life of Pi, the novel by Yann Martel, that is touring and is just incredible. The puppeteers in that show won the Olivier Award for best supporting actor (in 2022).”

In 2024, Dinosaur World won the prestigious Olivier Award for best family show.

Bond is a theatre veteran who has worked on everything from award-winning West End musicals to Shakespeare and Neil Simon. He was at the helm of a 2014 production of Little Shop of Horrors at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

“I love the fact that theatre can encompass everything from a huge musical with a classic chorus and chorus line of dancers and it can just be one person in a room above a pub somewhere,” he says. “I try to do as many different types of theatre as possible. I find working in one type of theatre, one genre, informs how you work in others. I was asked to direct a production of Little Shop of Horrors at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The big question for Little Shop of Horrors, of course, is how are you going to do Audrey II.”

Advertisement 5

Article content

Dinosaur World
From the theatre production Dinosaur World. Photo by Robert Day. cal

In a post-War Horse world, puppetry seemed the logical answer, so he took advantage of the abundance of talent in Britain.

“It was my first introduction to working with puppets and I fell in love with it,” he says.

He followed it with a production of Stig of the Dump, about a boy who meets or imagines he meets a caveman. Bond again used puppetry to tell the tale.

“So when this opportunity to work on Dinosaur World came along, I grabbed it with both hands,” he says. “It’s been an amazing thing to work on, to see children all over the world delighted by this show.”

Early in the pre-production of Dinosaur World, Bond went to a workshop where he saw the dinosaurs for the first time. They were not finished. Some were unpainted and missing parts. He was nevertheless wowed by how the performers gave life and movement to these massive puppets.

Dinosaur World
From the theatre production Dinosaur World. Photo by Robert Day. cal

“For an audience, it’s even more amazing,” he says “They can see it for the first time with lights and sound and the puppets are, of course, finished and the puppeteers have been rehearsing for weeks to get the movements exactly right. Part of the show is we get kids from the audience to get up and help Miranda, who has grown up amongst these dinosaurs and brought them to Calgary. So some children get to come up and meet these dinosaurs face-to-face and get up really close to them. That is so exciting for them.”

“There are gasps in the audience when the puppets first come out,” he says.

Dinosaur World will be performed on May 25 at 2 p.m. at Jack Singer Concert Hall at Arts Commons. 

Article content