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A mother and baby T. rex in the 'Walking with Dinosaurs' live show. (Photo: Patrick Murphy)
A mother and baby T. rex in the 'Walking with Dinosaurs' live show. (Photo: Patrick Murphy)
A mother and baby T. rex in the ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ live show. (Photo: Patrick Murphy)

It’s not just the work of Will Shakespeare that makes it across the Atlantic. British dramas, comedies, and high-energy musicals regularly take up residency on Broadway (and then usually tour across the U.S. too), but sometimes it’s something very different.

Liverpool-born Steve Cooper has spent nearly five years touring the U.S. and the world playing to millions of people, and though he’s on stage every night and usually gets the biggest cheers (and screams), he admits “no one ever sees me.”

Unusually, the show he works on was born out of a six-part BBC documentary mini-series that first aired in the U.K. in 1999 and was on the Discovery Channel a year later. Since then it has spawned videos, apps, books, toys, stamps and a 2013 movie, but years before that an Australian special effects team were inspired by the Kenneth Branagh-narrated show to develop a live tour.

Working as a sound engineer at the time, Cooper, 30, was luckily rostered onto duty when Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular came to town, “and I was blown away by it,” he recalls. He got to know the crew, and asked if there were any jobs available. “It was just a three-month contract, but how could I say no?” he says.

After serving his time as a driver in the 20 truck convoy—the dinosaurs fold in on themselves, “Transformers-like,” for storage and transportation—he got the chance to move into the world of the dinos themselves. Initially, he worked in the smaller, one-person “suit dinosaurs, which weigh about 20-30 kg (44-66 lbs),” but then he moved onto bigger things.

Each of the larger dinosaurs requires a three-person team: two voodoo puppeteers working their “wireless magic above and in front of the stage” while Cooper is the driver in the chassis. This chassis, often hard to notice and lying under the dinosaur’s stomach like a kind of large, camouflaged, bumpy garage dolly, is the literal driving mechanism for the dinos as they walk realistically around the arena, “though they also monitor the hydraulics, the batteries and so on,” Cooper adds.

Inside, the dinos themselves are an ingenious metal skeleton utilizing pistons, hydraulics, air bags, bungee cords and car batteries while outside on the skin there’s the new addition of feathers. “The show has a consultant paleontologist and several other scientists,” says Cooper, “and we’re careful to keep up with the latest discoveries. It was something that the BBC, when they first licensed the show, insisted upon.”

The dinos look more than ready for their moment in the spotlight and are truly an intimidating sight, lined up backstage like classic cars, The detail is astonishing—with every muscle and limb movement as realistic as possible. When the T.rex comes smoothly to life and rises to its full height, you find yourself taking a step back, even though there’s a lady on a cherry picker with a huge bobbin of brown thread working on his head.

Cooper’s “home” for each performance—the T.rex is on stage for about 20 minutes—is a tiny, cramped cockpit not unlike a Formula 1 race car. The crew dons black for the show and Cooper emphasizes on the importance of his radio and headset holding a full charge. “If that goes, I am really in the dark,” he says.

With a traveling crew of just 65 the show is a “well-oiled machine,” says Cooper, nodding towards the countless huge, packing cases scattered everywhere and comparing it to “a huge rock and roll tour on the move.” Nevertheless, despite the dinos being around six years old there are few unanticipated problems. “We have to keeps joints greased and bolts tightened,” says Cooper, and “sometimes just before curtain-up there are urgent calls for bottles of water, which pneumatics shoot out of the nostrils as dino snot.”

During the show, all the crew—the puppeteers, the drivers, the “spotters” monitoring dino heads and tails backstage—are balletically-coordinated. “Depending on the size of the stage, moving the dinos around can be a tight squeeze,” says Cooper, adding, “the larger dinos weigh several tons each, so can’t be stopped instantly. They have their own momentum.”

When Cooper was promoted to the unique position of Head of Creatures, “overseeing the drivers, welders, fabricators, skin/wardrobe, and software guys,” the duties surprisingly included operating one of the dinosaurs. “I chose T.rex—the one everyone wanted,” he says, then pauses.

“Until you get in and drive it. Sometimes she stops for a second or two for no reason, and she’s a devil to operate. She’s like a tank.” For those reasons, the fearsome, jagged-tooth monster is nicknamed “the Diva” by the crew—though you wouldn’t call her that to her face…

Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular is touring the U.S. and Canada into early 2015.

For more on live theater: Join The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time playwright Simon Stephens (@StephensSimon) and producer Tim Levy (@timslevy) along with the National Theatre Live (@ntlive) for a discussion of British theater in America hosted by Mind the Gap (@mindthegap_bbca), Wednesday, September 17 from 2 to 3 pm ET on Twitter. To tweet questions for the panel, please use the hashtag #MindTheChat.

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By James Bartlett
James writes about the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. and can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.