The boy from Oz: Queer puppeteer Jackson Eather of ‘Dinosaur Zoo Live’

Sydney-born puppeteer Jackson Eather

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.

ERTH Petting zoo, CarriageworksIn 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.”

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Your curtain speech at “Avenue Q” delivered by Jac Alder … but which one?

When Avenue Q opens tonight following its weekend of previews, there will, as ever, be a curtain speech delivered by Theatre 3′s long-standing co-founder and executive producer, Jac Alder.

The question is, which one?

As I reported in this week’s edition, Michael Robinson and his team built a monstrous 36 puppets for the show … and one of them is of Alder himself.

So who will deliver the speech? Apparently, both: Alder will voice the reminder to silence your cell phones and drunk plus-ones, but someone else will be pulling the strings … or manipulating the hand.

This could start a trend. I’m sick of seeing the same folks trot up every show telling me how to behave — I already know, but increasingly, the folks sitting next to be don’t seem to. Maybe if they heard the same from a foam head, they’d actually pay attention.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Whitty banter

Gay ‘Ave. Q’ scribe Jeff Whitty builds a pyramid of laughs in cheer-full musical ‘Bring It On’

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CHEER UP | Whitty swore off writing musicals — but changed his mind to take on two new ones.

Jeff Whitty will probably spend the rest of his life living down the legacy of creating the musical that turned Muppets … sorry, puppets — into sexed-up losers. Avenue Q became the surprise hit of the 2003-04 Broadway season, sweeping the Tony Awards (including one for Whitty’s book) and forever changing our view of Sesame Street.

One of Whitty’s collaborators on Q went on to co-write The Book of Mormon, but Whitty himself has been busy as well, opening two musicals in the past 13 months, including the cheerleading comedy Bring It On: The Musical, which opened this week at Fair Park.

The gay librettist, who is also an actor (he’s in rehearsals to appear in a play he wrote, in which he’ll star in drag — a first) chatted about his love of cheerleading, his failed promise never to do another musical and the filthiest show he’s ever seen.

Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas Voice: Here’s something the librettist never hears: My favorite thing about Avenue Q is not actually on the cast recording, it’s the name of a character, Miss Thistletwat.  Jeff Whitty: Thank you. I was in Paris with one of the [French] producers and we had this great lunch with champagne at 1 in the afternoon and everything. I asked her, “How did you translate the name of Miss Thistletwat?” She got really embarrassed, but she told me; it would translate as, like, Miss Grassmuncher, which [is slang there] for lesbian.

I also love when Kate fingers Princeton. That’s the audience’s fault — they are putting that in, I don’t actually say it. There are actually only 13 swear words in Avenue Q, and they are carefully placed — like five “fucks”, one “pussy” and four “shits” …. By the way, I’ve seen four international productions of Avenue Q and Paris was the filthiest. Kate rimmed Princeton. Even to me, that’s a little much.

Since last year, you’ve opened two other musicals: Tales of the City and Bring It On, which is now in Dallas. I didn’t want to do another musical after Avenue Q after learning how hard they are. I said no to everything for quite a while. Then on a plane to London [while watching DVDs of the miniseries Tales of the City], suddenly a bolt of lightning struck that said there could be this really chewy, big musical made out this material. I know Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters [who co-wrote the score] and we opened last spring. The show was not finished and we didn’t have enough previews to nail it, but we’re figuring out what the next step for that show will be.

Your colleagues on Bring It On are composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, who did the barrio hip-hop musical In the Heights, and Tom Kitt, who composed Next to Normal, a musical about mental illness. Who said, “Wow, those guys would make a great team to write a musical about cheerleading.” It’s a funny story, how that evolved. I have been wanting to do a cheerleading musical since 2004. Real athletic cheerleading is amazing to watch, if you see it on ESPN; plus, it has a built-in performance component that is so helpful in a musical. A cheerleading structure is perfect and it’s something you can see live that a lot of people haven’t.

My agent knew [of my interest] and told me about Bring It On; I said “Sign me up!” I’d never done a movie adaptation but I was totally onboard. Plus at the first meeting, the [producers] said they’d be interested in doing an original story instead of basing it on the first movie or one of the four [direct-to-video] sequels, so this was a huge opportunity. [Director] Andy Blankenbuehler had choreographed In the Heights [so he had worked with Lin-Manuel]. So that’s how that came together.

It’s a different style for you, too, not just Miranda and Kitt. Yes, Tales is full of angel dust, pot-smoking and child pornographers and Avenue Q is called the “potty-mouthed puppet musical.” So I really wanted to do a musical I could bring my nieces to. There are these warnings of sexual content, but really?

All three of the musicals have been excruciating. You have to get all of these disparate parts to have this one sensibility and have cohesion. I was working with great collaborators [in Bring It On], people I loved to be in the room with. When they start to click they are truly exciting. It’s been a great

Here’s a very gay question: Among you, Miranda and Kitt, who has the bigger Tony Award? You ever whipped ’em out and compared? They actually made the stand bigger since I won! But I’d say Tom [Kitt] wins, because he has a Pulitzer, too.

Where do you keep your Tony?  I have this trophy collection I pick up from flea markets — weird, old stuff, like senior body building trophies. So my Tony sits among all those.

You’re the only gay guy on the creative team for Bring It On. Do you still like to gay it up? It is a musical, after all.  Absolutely, I always try to put gay characters in my shows. I didn’t wanna go with a cliché in Bring It On, but without giving anything away, you’ll see there’s a character there that’s definitely a first-of-her-kind in a musical. I found a fresh take.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

‘Tales from Mount Olympus’ comes to a close at Theatre Three

Bruce Coleman wields power over the gods, turning Greek myths into Day-Glo puppets for Mount Olympus

With adult hindsight, Tales from Mount Olympus director Bruce Coleman  sees the importance of these stories and the meanings behind them. The moral tales and life lessons come much clearer with life experience. But he also knows that the gods and goddesses have their own subtexts that speak directly to LGBT audiences. The characters are already  interesting, but it sounds like they have some major fab cred behind them.

“Well, yes! I mean Artemis is the goddess of all lesbians. She made Zeus promise her that she’d never have to marry a man,” he laughs. “Goddess of the hunt? OK, go on, girl. And everyone knows Dionysus [the god of wine] is our patron saint.”

But one puppet god might end up catching some eyes ogling a little more intently.

“Someone had looked at my Poseidon and said he is not the god of the ocean,” Coleman chuckles, ”he’s the god of hotness!”

DEETS: Theatre Three, 2800 Routh St., Suite 168. 2:30 p.m. $20–$30.  214-871-3300. Theatre3Dallas. com.

—  Rich Lopez

Mything the mark

Puppets rule in ‘Mount Olympus,’ but the effect ends up wooden

Theatre TooJeffrey Schmidt | Theatre3Dallas.com

Puppets and theater don’t come to mind often, save for Avenue Q. That Broadway hit knew how to mix its Sesame Street-like puppets with a contemporary storyline.

Theatre Three’s world premiere of Bruce Coleman’s Tales of Mount Olympus tweaks the idea using puppetry to tell the classic stories of gods and monsters from Greek mythology. Coleman, who wrote, directed and designed Mount Olympus, exudes innovation. He mentioned that this show is a built of worldly components of theater. The Greek myths are narrated in American storytelling fashion with Hungarian black lights and Japanese Bunraku puppetry. If only as a whole, they all worked.

The show begins with more primitive puppets. Gaia, or Earth, was a large globe with her face painted on and rotated thanks to the actor in black. Her husband, Uranus, was an interestingly constructed creature made up of Christmas lights. Ultimately though, they came off as school craft projects. This remained the same for the following set of gods, Cronus and Rhea.

Two-dimensional pedestals with large heads depicted the married couple while actors from behind emoted with their hands. When Rhea gives birth, her babies are delivered by a magnificent puppet of of a bird in beautifully done Day-Glo feathers to Cronus who ate them for fear they would revolt and overthrow his power. There is some injected humor here as he burps after each devouring and the bird acts as a busybody telling everyone’s business, but there is nothing compelling here. Actors don’t voice the characters. Instead, they are pre-recorded and acted out. This is more of a disconnect than an effective too, but more on that later.

Before long, we are introduced to the glorious puppets of the gods. We see Aphrodite borne from her shell albeit not nude. Coleman initially planned for that bit of nudity, but construction became an issue. Hades, Poseidon, Hera and others are all brought out in striking puppet form. The faces are bold and can be seen clearly from each seat and two actors control most of the characters with one as the brain, and the other as the body.

Zeus however is part of the stage. His huge face is depicted on a wall with a moveable jaw like Big Tex. Understandably, it depicts his grandiose standing, but it’s also underwhelming. When he speaks, the bottom of his beard scrapes the floor and distracts from everything else.

Act 1 has been filled to the brim with more Greek stories before intermission. The tale of Aphrodite infidelity to Hephaestus by her affair with Ares and Persephone’s trip to the Underworld to become Hades’ wife all play out before the break and feel a little rushed.

The first half lacks any emotional punch and the visuals wear off quickly despite the detailed construction of the sets and puppets. Coleman did allow for humor so there are moments when a puppet is actually funny by way of a gesture or the shakes. When two gods give a high five in Act 2, it’s a priceless, hilarious moment.

Theater Three
Jeffrey Schmidt | Theatre3Dallas.com

Thankfully, this is where Olympus redeems itself somewhat. By telling the whole tale of Perseus and Andromeda (or for the cinematic-minded, Clash of the Titans), there is time to get invested into the characters as Perseus sets out to save Andromeda from the Kracken. The innovation explodes here. When Perseus meets Pegasus, the winged horse provides a gasp of wow and although Medusa isn’t as threatening as she needs to be, it is an inspired piece of work they created. I don’t want to give too much away — either in the Kracken’s appearance or Cerberus’ the three-headed dog — but there is some room for surprise in the show, even if they are small ones.

Act 2 may stick with you, but the show won’t. The play feels much more like a production intended for school-age children, which is hard to reconcile with Theatre Three’s usual professional standards. The recorded narration is also miscast, as the voices are never powerful enough. Zeus should ring through the stage, but instead sounds far from almighty-ness. Actors could have possibly voiced the characters with more depth and emotion but the choice to go with recorded narration takes away from the dramatics. I wanted so much more from this show, which I would have gotten if I was a whole lot younger.

Tales from Mount Olympus at Theatre Three (in the Theatre Too space), 2800 Routh St., Suite 168. Through Nov. 28. $20–$30.  214-871-3300. Theatre3Dallas. com.

—  Rich Lopez