But Jackson Eather is really specialized: He plays dinosaurs.
You might not expect a young (21), tall (6-foot-3), handsome Australian to bury his face behind a T-rex’s breastplate, but he has a surprising amount of experience doing it, as he’ll prove Saturday in the new family-friendly touring production of Dinosaur Zoo Live.
“I spent almost all of last year working as a dinosaur puppeteer at a park in Jersey,” Eather explains. “Their audition criteria said they were looking for someone who was good with children and can do a convincing Australian accent,” laughs the native of Sydney.
The puppets they used at the park were built by the same company Eather now works for, so when that company said they were holding auditions for a national tour for someone with puppetry experience — and, once again, an Australian accent — he knew he had an in. “I said to them, you have no idea how well-qualified I am for this!”
Since early December, Eather, four other puppeteers and the crew of Dinosaur Zoo have been holed up — first in NYC, then in Mesa, Ariz. — rehearsing for the show and doing tech previews in front of audiences, but it officially makes it bow in Dallas on Saturday. But its history goes back even further.
“Our director, Scott Wright, started the show as a street performance about six years ago with just two dinosaur puppets,” Eather explains. Now there are dozens, including the largest, the titanasaur, which takes three puppeteers to operate. But his favorite character to portray is much smaller.
“The leaellynasaura is a two-legged, birdlike dinosaur about hip high. You’re not inside of it, so you can watch what’s you’re doing. You can also take it anywhere, which means you can get up to a lot of mischief with them,” he says.
In fact, playing with the audience is a lot of the fun of the show. “We have a script, but the show changed depending on what kids come up onstage,” he explains. “Sometimes you get a real diva but sometimes you get a cute 5-year-old who is really taken away by the magic of it. That’s the best.”
All of which begs a question: With shows like Avenue Q, War Horse, this one and others, puppetry seems to be surging in pop culture lately, even though it’s been around for millennia. What’s the appeal?
“Puppetry was around thousands of years — even before even language. Cavemen used rocks and sticks to recreate the hunt. And in a technological society, where people are pushing the bounds of creativity in the arts, we’ve created almost all we can in term of electronics — but there are very little electronics in our puppets: It’s all man-powered inanimate objects telling the story.”
And dinosaurs especially have an appeal across all age groups.
“Dinosaurs are these are fantastical creatures that were real! They aren’t dragons or unicorns — this is fact, they existed,” he says.
Eather’s enthusiasm underscores his passion for entertaining. He trained as an actor — first in his native Sydney, then moving to New York after high school — and his goal is to pursue a career in musical theater. But for now he’s enjoying the rare opportunity to tour the United States and get paid doing it.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the South and the Midwest, and am really excited to see Texas,” Eather says. “One of my best friends in New York is from Fort Worth, and I have been regaled with how awesome Mexican food is.”
Still, touring has cut into his social life.
“I was cast a month or two before we began rehearsals, so I would be on a date with a guy and have to say, ‘Look, I’m leaving to tour the country so, while I hate to be that guy, I can’t really invest in your emotionally right now.’ But I think for my age it’s ideal. In the line of work I’m in, you never know where you’re gonna be one day to the next.”
Maybe not but with his experience, might he be considering eventually branching off to combine his acting with his puppet skills? Because we both know what the next logical step would be: Performing in Puppetry of the Penis, right?
“Absolutely,” Eather laughs. “In fact, I’ve been practicing in my hotel room.”