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Prehistoric Puppeteer Adventures

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By Alexander Wowra

A voice fills the air of the silent, dark room and suddenly, with a jump forward and a quick light flashed at her, a woman appears in the limelight. The children in the audience laugh and scream as they startle for a second.

Shannon Fitzpatrick has just gathered all the momentum she needs to tell the story of the findings at the Page Museum . Her tale about the creatures from the ice age is complemented by digital animations complement on a large screen.

Fascinated and curious, the children listen and are on the edge of their seat. But things seem too quiet and too peaceful.

Fitzpatrick is just about to finish her lecture on prehistoric bone remains as all of a sudden some movement in the bushes to her right interrupts her.

The audience and her stare in excitement as a saber-toothed cat comes prowling onto the stage. Moving sleek, it sneaks up closer to the narrator, before it steps onto a rock with its front feet and glances at the audience.

Everyone is galvanized when the cat suddenly bursts out into a majestic roar. The authentic movement of the half mechanic, half puppeteer-controlled creature amazes everyone, young and old.

Fitzpatrick, who interchangeably plays the roles of puppeteer and host together with her colleagues Mark Whitten, Tara Spadaro, Eli Presser and Brian Meredith, explains the challenges of bringing creatures back to life that have been extinct for between tens of thousands and up to several million years ago.

For numerous shows a week she slips into the saber-toothed cat puppet to mimic its movements. “The cat is very heavy, there is a lot of strain on your core and upper body and very little visibility. You can kind of see through the side, but then you can’t see the audience anymore so you have to remember and take mental pictures as you go,” she says.

One puppeteer is maneuvering the cat across stage from within, while a second team member is sitting on a side-section of the stage, controlling the creature’s head, with a third person controlling all the other stage effects and a fourth functioning as the show's host.

Fitzpatrick, Whitten and Spadaro all play the saber-toothed cat at the “Ice Age Encounters” show at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, as well as the Triceratops in one of the “Dinosaur Encounters” shows at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum (NHM).

“The difference between both shows is the time period … ice age creatures and then dinosaurs… The feel of it is different. With the triceratops there’s a narrating character, who at that time was a female fossil hunter (at the time paleontologists were not women), Mary Enning, and you also learn about her story while with the saber-toothed cat it’s a bit more informational,” Fitzpatrick explains.

Triceratops is a little bit more geared towards children because it is more in the style of “a story time with a friend,” including a little baby dinosaur bouncing around, whereas the cat is a bit more scary, she says.

Nonetheless, both shows exist to generate creativity and curiosity about things to explore and learn.

Spadaro loves catering to the kids' excitement. “It’s just so much fun to hear the reactions of kids to me coming out of the cat trap. It really gives me a boost,” she says.

While the saber-toothed cat has a mechanic aspect to it, the triceratops is entirely dependent on the control of one puppeteer inside the puppet. Therefore, the performers have to be flexible in their skill set in order to master the puppetry of two different creatures.

“The physical strength and body positions you have to have to manipulate something like that is really fascinating to me. But also, getting involved in creating the characters for the puppets is fun,” Whitten says.

Meanwhile, Presser and Meredith on the other hand have taken on the role of the T-rex at the NHM, which they say is because of their size and the character of the puppet.

Playing the biggest predator that has ever roamed the planet on land is very empowering, according to Presser. “With T-rex you’re this creature that has so many connotations and kids are very focused on this dinosaur and have grown up with it,” he says.

“Part of it is where you’re creating this kind of awe and terror and you see kids having different kinds of reactions, in part they are cautious, parts of them are accepting that the puppet is alive, some are thrilled… it’s interesting to see that conflict work itself out,” he says.

Fitzpatrick finds that the team has been working together phenomenally as she has lived through the show’s evolvement into something completely different within just one year from when she started, she says.

“The chance to always learn and always grow is great because it’s a challenge every time,” she notes. To her, it is especially the educational value and the creative nature that make this job so appealing to her.

“It’s also awesome giving knowledge to people. We are always learning and I don’t think anyone on this team would be content with just doing the same thing all the time… we’re just always trying to grow,” she says.

Shannon Fitzpatrick explains why she loves her work
Eli Presser tells the story about how he became a pupeteer