It’s not every day that you get to see a fire-breathing dragon with a 40-foot wingspan flying overhead. Twenty-three of these creatures are heading to Washington, but there’s no need to panic. They’re coming to entertain, not to burn down the city.
“How to Train Your Dragon,” the animated movie, has been transformed into an arena show that will appear Thursday through Sunday at Verizon Center. Huge puppets join a cast of 20 actors to tell the story of Hiccup, a teenage Viking, and Toothless, a dragon he befriends.
The puppets are no “Muppets” movie variety. They come from the same team that created “Walking With Dinosaurs,” a stage show based on a documentary about the Jurassic giants. Gavin Sainsbury, the head of puppetry for “Dragon,” said the designers got even more ambitious this time around.
“This show is probably the most technologically advanced type of puppetry in the world,” said Sainsbury, who talked by phone with KidsPost during a recent stop in Ontario, Canada. “I can safely say that nobody is doing animatronic puppets to this scale and size.”
The size means that each dragon requires more than one puppeteer.
“With Toothless, it takes four people to bring the creature to life,” Sainsbury said.
Three puppeteers sit in front of the stage in what they call the “Voodoo Lounge.” The lead puppeteer controls a miniature version of the dragon to control the main body movements. Another puppeteer controls the tail and wings. A third controls the mouth, sounds and facial expressions. And a dragon driver, who is onstage, directs the dragon’s path.
Creating Toothless and the other dragons took about 12 months of research and development and another 12 months of construction, according to Nigel Hodgson, who oversees all the creatures in the show. He said one of the biggest challenges was trying to get as much character into the dragons as possible.
“Toothless has an amazing array of facial expressions that he can do,” Hodgson said. “He can communicate with you just through facial expressions.”
He can also fly, which happens with the help of theater magic, Sainsbury said.
“He’ll leave the stage, and then flying Toothless will appear,” he said. “We have two of them — one that’s for the ground and one that’s for the air.”
Projection screens set up around the arena are also part of the magic.
“We have something like 24 projectors,” Sainsbury said. “The fact that we have a blank canvas that is large . . . is astronomical. We can take the audience to all different worlds and scenes.”
The experience is “almost like being inside of a computer game.”
But Sainsbury said that the special effects and animatronics wouldn’t be satisfying without the story, which is based on Cressida Cowell’s book series.
“Mainly, I think, the kids come and see the characters they have fallen in love with,” he said. “And to feel like you could reach out and touch the creatures is amazing.”