Walking With Dinosaurs | Michaela Strachan Interview

Walking With Dinosaurs | Michaela Strachan Interview

The SSE Arena, Belfast • 31 August – 02 September 2018

Interview: Anna Wherrett

When I think of Michaela Strachan, she brings back fond childhood memories of Saturday morning television; sitting in pajamas, eating Sugar Puffs and watching Wide Awake Club. The bubbly presenter would be widely known for an array of TV, theatre, pantomime roles and also for that gigantic smile! Strachan even has a couple of pop numbers under her belt.

We see the presenter switching from TV to the arena spectacular, Walking With Dinosaurs; in where she will be the first female to take on the role of Huxley the Paleontologist. 

I began by asking Strachan how the transition from Children’s TV to environmental and animal themed television programmes had come about? Strachan explained: “I trained in musical theatre, that’s where my career was heading. Then I auditioned for Wide Awake Club, the Saturday morning children’s programme in 1986. I honestly didn’t think I would get it. While I was doing that I was asked to front a programme called Owl TV which stood for ‘Outdoors Wildlife’ it was a kid’s wildlife programme on ITV. They really just wanted a children’s presenter to front the programme, it didn’t really matter if you knew about wildlife or not.”

Strachan’s passion for learning about the environment had been unleashed. She then did a 15-year stint on The Really Wild Show (1993 – 2006). The TV personality would be further recognised for her presenting on subsequent worldwide wildlife programmes over the last decade. Strachan elaborated, “I didn’t come from a wildlife background. I had a huge empathy for wildlife but I wasn’t knowledgeable about wildlife, I didn’t do biology or anything. From The Really Wild Show, my knowledge and my passion grew.”

“Lots of other things came along like Orangutan Diary and Elephant Diaries, that led me to the Springwatch.” I chipped in – you found out you were allergic to elephants, didn’t you!? “I know it is so ridiculous. There is probably a lot of people that are allergic to elephants, but they will never know. When I was doing Elephant Diaries, suddenly I’m there with orphaned elephants all around me, that is when it was very apparent.” 

Strachan pointed out that she resembled a measles victim. They had been filming Big 5, Little 5 in Africa. “That was the first time I realised there was a problem … we had gone on Safari and I started sneezing before I’d seen the elephants … I didn’t realise how serious it was.” It must be mightily inconvenient when you are a hands-on presenter on a programme called Elephant Times? “It was good for the emotional scenes because my eyes would puff up and get all watery! At their worst, they [the directors] would say ‘let’s do the emotional scenes’.”

I asked Strachan, how did you get involved the Walking With Dinosaurs tour? “That came completely out of the blue for me. The email came through via my agent, ‘Would you be interested? We are looking for a female to do the role and for somebody well-known to do the role.’ In the past, they have had actors to do the role and it has always been a male, but this is the third tour that they have done Walking With Dinosaurs. So they felt it would be good to have someone with publicity to front it.” The modest presenter reveals how human she is, breaking into a coy giggle as she ended that sentence. Strachan continued, “So they then sent me clips of it, as soon as I saw it I thought, oh my goodness – I want to be part of that, it just looks amazing! I’d never done anything like this before. I’ve done theatre, I’ve done pantomime but this is arenas! I mean, we were in the O2 Arena last week. It is such a buzz walking around backstage if you know all the people that have been on that stage! I mean iconic world famous people have performed on that O2 stage.”

Strachan admits that it has definitely pushed her out of her comfort zone: “It brings in my musical theatre background, my presenting background, and all those disciplines together; it has been a great experience. It is like being on a rock tour. We do three shows at one place, then we pack all the dinosaurs into the 21 lorries … The crew work unbelievably hard, I just prance around on the stage and dance, and try not to be eaten! But they [the crew] work really-really hard and it is a very physical job. I have huge admiration for all the crew.”

I asked Strachan, other than the dinosaurs themselves, are there lots of other spectaculars in the show? Lighting and special effects? “The lighting is stunning and the music is stunning. There is this score that is beautifully written. I think most people won’t clock the score because it is part of the show and everyone is so enthralled with the life-size animatronic dinosaurs. If anybody comes that is musical, please just listen to that beautiful score … I think the best review that I read was that ‘this is a master-class in live theatre of this sort’. I thought this is an amazing thing to say. The staging is fantastic. I don’t think there is anything else like it that is around at the moment, it is very different. The first thing people say when they come out is, ‘Wow – that was amazing’.”

Walking With Dinosaurs has an eclectic production team with some seriously impressive CVs to hand. The show’s director, Scott Fairs is Broadway royalty, whose credits include: Les Miserables, Grease, Chicago, and Cats. Australian animatronic artist, Sony Tinders, was the creative director for the arena spectacular’s creatures; which digitally combines computer hardware and software. Tinders was also a major player in the animatronic production team for film and TV blockbusters, Star Wars and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Asking Strachan to elaborate on the logistics of how the animatronics and puppets work, she enthusiastically explained: “This is animatronic dinosaurs and suited puppeteers. So there are three people that work on the huge dinosaurs. For instance the T-Rex – I mean it’s massive, it is hugely realistic. So, you have got somebody driving it and at the bottom of the dinosaur, there is a sort of a rock. There is somebody in that rock in a go-cart driving it, so they are the ones that get it around the stage. Then you get two people that work the dinosaur from a distance by Bluetooth. So they do something called Voodoo Puppeteering – that is a Voodoo Rig. As they move the rig, the dinosaur does the movements. Then there is a third Voodo Puppeteer that does the sound, the eyes and the snorting. They use a joystick and a keyboard for the sound and things. So there are three people per dinosaur.”

Strachan goes further into detail: “The suited puppeteers are for the smaller puppets … like the baby T-Rex, the Liliensternus, also the Utahraptor is two suited puppeteers … They are running around with 20 – 40 kilos on their backs and they work the puppets from inside … It is unbelievable how realistic they are. I think it is their eyes in particular because their eyes are constantly moving as well, it’s incredible.”

I did wonder, how on earth they moved the dinosaurs from city to city – surely they need to take them apart? I asked the presenter, you couldn’t possibly fit them all in the trailer at their full size? “The other day I watched some of the ‘get out’ [where they pack up] from my co-stars and I’m watching their legs being taken off, their stomachs taken out and their neck wrapped around their bodies. Obviously, they are treated incredibly gently as they are worth a lot of money and they cost a lot to fix. So they are bundled into their container, then into the lorries and off they go. So yes, they are taken apart up to a point.

I was briefly running through the names of some of the dinosaurs, some are real tongue twisters. With it being such a monumental show, I asked how the rehearsal process went and also if there were any mental blanks when it came to the pronunciations. “That’s not difficult as I do that with wildlife all the time. However, it was a big script to learn – there is no doubt about it. It takes a lot of effort, concentration and time to learn the script. The hardest bit is then putting the script to the music because as I say, it is beautiful, you have got to make sure that you hit your music cues. You almost have to learn this orchestral score to know exactly when to come in and to know when to be out, because there is a big crescendo. If you are still talking when the crescendo is still going on, no one is going to hear you. So that was the time-consuming bit. What they said at times was ‘you wait for the two tuba notes’… I’m sitting there, you know – I’m a little bit musical. I’m thinking, okay, I can’t quite remember what a tuba note sounds like, then they say ‘you wait for the ping’. I’m thinking – I can’t even hear the ping; but once you’ve got it, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Now I’ve done it so many times, I’ve done it 40 times already: I have that score in my head when I wake up, singing that score, I go to bed singing that score, so I know that score really well now.”

For audiences in Belfast that are thinking of coming to watch the show, I enquire, is it mainly an audience of children and their families, or is it across the spectrum with a lot of adults in there as well? Strachan assures: “It is a real family show, it can be between the ages of 2 – 92. Lots of friends have said,‘Can we come without kids?’ Of course, you can come without kids! Everybody that has come to the show comes out having had a great evening, but taking away something different. Most of the adults that have come had said, ‘Gosh, I learned a lot, a lot that I probably knew when I was a kid!’ Kids go out knowing it all from the start, then come out just loving being back close to the life-size dinosaurs. So it appeals to everyone.”

I ask, what is the standout moment on the show? “I think for everybody the standout moment is when the T-Rex comes out, that is towards the end of the show. I mean, because it is the highlight and also because it is the end of the show. Also, because the T-Rex is the Cretaceous period before the Comet. That is where the show ends. So the T-Rex comes on to this amazing music does this huge roar. Another is when the two Torosaurus’ come on and they do this amazing fight. The choreography for that took a while and a lot of rehearsing to make that work! We also see the Brachiosaurus’ come on, they call it the ‘Brachiosaurus ballet’, it is obviously not a ballet. It is this lovely music, where a mother and her Brachiosaurus child have a moment, it is really touching. I mean they are so huge, they reach the top of the arenas. It means their necks can go out over some of the audience. So the kids absolutely love it!”

200+ million years ago, it is difficult to comprehend that span of time and hard to get your head around. How do you think scientists have managed to recreate the creatures, how sure can we be that they are accurate? For example, it is only in recent years that it has been suggested that the T-Rex had feathers. Strachan pauses before answering and agrees, “I can’t answer that question because I’m not a paleontologist, but I ask exactly the same question. How do we know that is what they looked like? From a few fossils that have been left behind? You think how few actual complete skeletons have been left and that is what we are basing our knowledge on. I know there are all kinds of amazing scientific formulas that paleontologists have used, but I certainly can’t get my head around it … I think what is amusing with science, is that fact is based on theory. It is a theory for so long that it becomes fact; well, that’s how I see it. Then the next theory is based on the fact that was once theory. So maybe we have got it completely wrong, I mean who knows! I’m sure a paleontologist would argue with me and say, ‘no that is definitely what they look like’, but as someone who doesn’t come from a scientific background, I’m baffled by the whole thing. I think, how on earth do we know what something looked like 200 million years ago. Most of us can’t even write 200 million in numbers without getting confused about the naughts, so I’m completely in awe of the paleontologists and their patience to dig away at areas where they ‘might’ find something.”

It seems the most obvious question at this stage, I ask Strachan: what is your favourite dinosaur? “My favourite one in the show is the Ankylosaurus, which is the one that is very heavily armoured and has a club tail. He is so heavily armoured that he doesn’t really need much of a brain as he has just got brawn. He has quite a dopey ‘people’ face; he sort of bumbles around and plods along, waving his tale around, hoping it will hit whatever is attacking him. I guess it amuses me and appeals to me. The T-Rex is of course, incredibly impressive, but quite frankly it roars too much and it’s way too much noise for my liking. I quite like the Herbivores, also the Plateosaurus – it’s the second that comes on during the show. Again it sort of bumbles around and it looks after it’s young, it eats vegetation. It’s pretty harmless, I kind of really like the more harmless dinosaurs!”

To conclude our interview, I ask Strachan, if you were to sum the show up in one sentence what would you say? “I would say – it’s an amazing theatrical experience.”

There was a lot to get in that 30-min slot, just as well that both of us can talk very quickly. I have got to say Michaela Strachan is one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever interviewed. Forget Jurrasic Park; state of the art animatronic dinasours, that reach the roof of arenas, roaring over the crowd?! Yes please!

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