Meet big, beastly friends

Giant puppets inspired by dragon movie take over Tacoma Dome

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comNovember 30, 2012 

  • HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON LIVE SPECTACULAR

    When: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Tacoma Dome

    Tickets: $30 to $64 through Ticketmaster. Everyone older than 2 years old must have a ticket.

    Information: dragonslive.com

When dragons start flying inside the Tacoma Dome next week, they will no doubt make young audience members believe that dragons really exist and that you can make friends with them.

It’s all part of the illusion that the engineers, actors and puppeteers of Dreamworks’ “How to Train Your Dragon” live spectacular have worked to create. The show uses live actors interacting with animatronic dragons as much as 20 feet tall and with wingspans as wide as 40 feet to portray the story line of the popular Dreamworks movie.

Amanda Maddock is one of those puppeteers. She was a principle puppeteer on Disney’s “The Book of Pooh,” Nickelodeon’s “Lazytown” and in the world tour of “Walking With Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular” which came to Tacoma in 2007. Her puppet-building work has been seen on “Crank Yankers,” Disney’s “The Muppets,” and the Broadway and international productions of “Wicked.” And that’s only a small portion of an extensive resume.

But rarely, if ever, do audiences get a look at her. “That’s the thing about puppeteers. You’re always hiding in the wings,” Maddock said.

The New Hampshire native, 35, first got interested in puppetry during high school.

“I got re-exposed to ‘The Muppet Show.’ It was such an influential show. It turned the light bulb back on,” Maddock said. Already interested in visual art and theater, she thought “Maybe puppetry is this art form where you get to do both.”

But the creatures in “Dragon” are as different from a Muppet as a moped is to a Ferrari. Each dragon has a driver and up to three “voodoo” puppeteers. The term refers to the fact that the puppets are controlled by puppeteers who are backstage.

“It’s still the idea that you are giving life to an inanimate object. I’m still bringing breath to them. It’s just two tons (of puppet),” Maddock said.

The main dragon, Toothless, is the most complex. Its three puppeteers operate its eyes, jaws, sounds, lasers, facial expressions, wings and tail. The complexity serves to bring alive the dragon character that audiences know from the film. Naturally, the puppeteers and performers look to that movie for inspiration.

“You’re taking so many of the cues from that,” Maddock said. However, because she operates in a different medium, her dragons offer both different opportunities and limitations. The main goal remains the same: to make the audience believe.

“That’s the thing that I’m really proud of,” she said. “They come in and lose themselves in the show. What they’ll see is a living, breathing dragon on stage that they would want to become friends with.”

Believability is also the goal for “Dragon” actor Gemma Nguyen. She’s one of two actors who play Astrid, the female lead.

Nguyen is a third-degree black belt and six-time world champion in sport karate. She also holds a third-degree black belt in tae kwan do. She turned her martial arts knowledge into stunt performing and that work lead her to being cast in her first acting role in “Dragon.”

“She’s the girl power,” Nguyen, 25, said of Astrid. “Hiccup (the male lead) has a crush on her. But she will not have anything to do with him because he’s an outcast.”

It’s no accident that Nguyen’s martial arts and stunt performing background put her in line for this role. She spends a lot of time on stage using those skills.

“(Astrid) is the most skilled dragon trainer. She translates really well on stage. She’s a kick-butt character. She flies and flips and does martial arts stunts.”

Nguyen is undaunted by the size disparity between her and her dragon co-stars. “I’m 4-foot-10 and some of these dragons are as big as a whale. But it’s like having a big pet dog on stage with you.”

Nguyen spends a good amount of time before each show stretching and warming up. “The show itself is a great way for me to stay in shape.”

Is it hard to act with puppets?

“It is not as challenging as you would think because they are so realistic. Every puppeteer’s personality comes through. Every show is unique,” Nguyen said. “The audience’s reaction helps the illusion that the dragons are real.”

Nguyen is confident that many of those audience members will be true believers when they leave the Tacoma Dome.

“I remember my first time seeing the show. It’s one thing to be in the show, but when you see all the incredible special effects, the sound, the music ... you are completely captivated. You are really in this world with the dragons.”

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