Founded in 1990 in Ballarat Victoria, Erth has been creating art for the public domain and is internationally recognized as an innovator of physical and visual theater, with its truly fantastic aesthetic with performances that include large-scale puppets, stilt-walkers, inflatable environments, aerial and flying creatures. Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo is one of their most amazing shows, where audiences can come in close contact with prehistoric insects, mammals and dinosaurs. The show came to Singapore in February 2015, and Singapore Fossil Collectors had the honour of sitting down with their Artistic Director Scott Wright for an exclusive interview.
What’s the genesis of Erth?
It came about because we were doing a lot of shows on the street 15 years ago, and we made a conscious decision that we were interested in going into museums, because there were all this information and these things that few people got to see. It was only by coincidence that the Director of the Melbourne Museum asked me if we’d ever thought of making dinosaurs, and I kinda lied and said “yes”.
Three weeks later we had money and were making dinosaurs. Even from the beginning we made only Australian dinosaurs, and they were a big success. Other museums started hearing about it, and we were making museums for Los Angeles, Auckland, and the Australian Museum.
It took a while for us to realise that other people were achieving some success out of what we made, so then we realized that we should actually just make them for ourselves.
How do you get inspired creatively?
When we work for the museums, we’d always work with the paleontologists. Out of that would always come some really good relationships. I really like Luis Chiappe, he’s the feathered dinosaur expert at the LA Natural History Museum. In Australia there’s Scott Hocknull, who was recognized as Young Australian of the Year. They’re the kind of people that are accessible. I can talk to them about stuff, and in so doing we learn about the dinosaurs.
It then goes to our in-house designers. They collect as much information as they can such as from online sources, and they start drawing and making models. It’s exactly what we all dream about, isn’t it? Making them come alive is the big thing. There’s this conflict of anatomy because they’re puppets – the human body doesn’t belong inside a dinosaur – and people point out that their legs are sticking out. But it really doesn’t matter. It’s the awe and that visceral experience. The fact that we work really hard on behavior. We don’t dumb things down. We look at chickens, cassowaries, emu, dogs. I would take the puppeteers to spend days at the zoo.
The puppeteers will pass the performance art down to newer puppeteers. The way it works in the company is that people inherit behaviors. The way that people learn the show is based on how croissants or sour dough is made; we take a little bit of the original and we put it in with the new ones. It’s really nice.
It takes two weeks to learn how to move properly, and averages a month before they’re instinctive. Different people have different traits. Sometimes it’s a bit schizophrenic in that some people who are very gentle and quiet and humble, they get inside one and they go like “rawrr!” They have to have that right to make decisions.
As the director of the show, how do you manage between allowing the actors to have the autonomy while keeping to a coherent story and narrative?
I’m a pretty generous director. All I ask is that people keep the puppet alive, and I also encourage them to change what they do themselves, to keep things fun for themselves and for me. As the host, when you present the show, if it’s the same over and over again, it can get boring.
When collaborating with the paleontologists, how do the worlds come together and how do you spark that inter-disciplinary collaboration?
Actually, no. There’s been a few people who’ve been a little difficult to work with, just because as you say it’s the left side of the brain. Luis Chiappe said to me, “Paleontology is a science of the imagination. Imagination is our most admirable tool. It’s only with imagination that allows us to hypothesize how dinosaurs behaved.” There’s a mutual admiration that we can deliver something that they may not, but we will need the knowledge that they have, and that’s the collaboration in its truest sense. But I’ve also met paleontologist who only want to argue. We tell children all the time, it’s all just theories. There’s no hard science. The only things we’ve got are their fossils. We don’t have anything else. No one know what they really ate or what they sounded like. We can base ou
r informed guesses on other living creatures. The problem with carbon dating is that no one has put a piece of bone on their desk and watched it for a million years to see what happens.
When you think about the science and art and what you really bring, what are some unique ways where Erth has contributed to paleontology?
What we do is a bridge between art and science, between the theatre and the museum. We give them a fresh perspective. We honour the science, but love the art. When we’ve done the show in museums, in some cases the museums will do surveys. For example when we did a residency at the Auckland Museum for two years, we had this story about a female dinosaur and a male dinosaur, they didn’t like each other and had to be separated. Eventually they made a nest and laid eggs and the eggs hatched. The evolution of this story happened over two years. So people returned to the museum five or six times. At that time only a third of the museum was open because they were retro-fitting it for earthquakes. So there were less museum space to visit, but their attendances were more and they made some astronomical returns. But they also realized that some 45 percent of the visitors had never been there before. It’s amazing.
Dinosaurs are a gateway. Once upon a time, dinosaurs were just something that kids liked. There was a time when dinosaurs were sort of going ‘out of favour’, and then with Spielberg’s Jurassic Park suddenly the world got interested. And now dinosaurs are a way for children with learning disabilities to learn big words. Children with autism or Aspergers they become obsessed, they learn Latin, they learn to identify a whole taxonomy. Parents and grandparents now have discussions with their children about science. The value of dinosaurs to our society is far more than in commercial gain. I get asked a lot, “Why do children like dinosaurs?” The child sees the world with infinite potential. When they are introduced to a dinosaur and told “This really existed”, we have the fossils to prove it, then they see the world with a whole new potential. Their imagination and knowledge is widened. It’s not like say vampires or unicorns, there’s not enough evidence. With dinosaurs, it’s the world. Wow, the world existed before me.
What’s your innovation process like?
It’s whatever we can get our hands on. Because we’ve been working together for 25 years, as Artistic Director it’s my job to come up with the ideas, and up to the team to work out how they can make the ideas happen. We’ve experimented many different things to create our toolbox of tricks. It comes down to what’s the idea, what do we need to do, and what do we need in order to do that. It comes down to things as complex as registered projection, tracking things with infrared, and video mapping, or something as simple as inviting a child onto the stage. We are a company that does puppetry, but puppetry by our standard is a very broad spectrum. I’ve made shows where you need a magnifying glass to watch it, right up to doing shows to open the Sydney Olympics, and everything in between.
We live in such a fast world that everything almost needs to be delivered as quickly as you’ve thought of it. The only challenge we really face is patience. Actually what I desire most is more time away from society to just create. We are a resident company in a really great performing arts building, and I bring in my peers, guest artists. We’re making a new show called Erth’s Prehistoric Aquarium, looking at everything from coral reef spawning, bioluminence, Plesiosaurs, Kronosaurs, Paracyclotosaurus, the whole story underwater that seldom gets told. Sometimes the things we do are so simple, like having balloons fall out of the roof. Other times we’re using iPhone devices to programme LEDs to make bioluminescent creatures. That’s what we do as smart human bein
gs; we love to creating our own problems and to solve them. I have such a privileged job, and I’m always learning, I’m never going to stop.
Erth has achieved global renown as an arts company. Do you have any advance about how more nascent Singapore arts companies might also break into the international circuit?
By building your own reputation where you are. We participate in most of the major arts festivals. We didn’t go overseas until someone noticed us, supported our reputation through word-of-mouth, and started inviting us. We grew up in a small regional town, we had never even thought of going overseas. Doing what we did patiently and persistently for at least ten years. Perfection really comes from making lots of mistakes, so you just got to do things for the sake of it and make lots of mistakes. If you stumble on something that people really like, that’s when you start to exploit it. You go “This image or this idea works, you stick to it, you keep doing it, you grow that reputation.”
Thank you so much Scott for the interview and the inspiration. We look forward to your new shows!