text

Success ... Troy Sussman, Anton Berezin and Theresa Borg run Life Like Touring, with Elmo, Scooby-Doo and Ben Tennyson. Photo: Angela Wylie

AS THEATRICAL exports go, Life Like Touring doesn't quite rank with Hugh Jackman or Geoffrey Rush. But when it starts its tour of the US this month, this small Australian company will truly have made it to the big time.

The children's theatre company, which operates out of a nondescript industrial building in Melbourne's East St Kilda, will open Scooby-Doo Live! in York, Pennsylvania, on January 19, and then take the show to all points over the next six months, including a 2500-seat venue at Madison Square Garden in New York.

''It's so exciting to be able to take an American product, make it successful here, and then have them ask if we could please bring it back there,'' says its business manager, Troy Sussman.

''We're kind of like a cultural mixed drink,'' says its producer, Anton Berezin. ''There's a little bit of everything and we show it to the Americans and they go, 'I kind of recognise that but it's different'. And that makes it attractive.''

The raw ingredients that Life Like and its sister company The Entertainment Store work with are licensed characters (from the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon), oversize foam heads and colourful costumes, and music - often, but not always, pre-recorded. They mix it up everywhere from council fun fairs and shopping centres to the West End theatre in London where Dora the Explorer enjoyed a three-week run in September.

In luvvy terms, it may not be especially fashionable, but from this recipe partners Sussman, Berezin and creative director Theresa Borg have fashioned a business that turns over about $12 million a year and employs about 20 full-time staff and a lot of young actors. They started with Santa but got a big break when the Wiggles hired them to tour the sub-brand - Dorothy the Dinosaur, Wags the Dog, Henry the Octopus, et al - in 2000.

They no longer work with the Wiggles but their roster of characters now includes the gang from Sesame Street, Ben 10, Jake and Finn from Adventure Time (''It's the new Ren and Stimpy,'' Sussman says of the cult animated series) and Yo Gabba Gabba! (''A fabulous dad brand,'' Borg says of the show that features drop-ins by an endless array of indie bands).

They've turned down some big brands, but they've also turned down a lot of obscure pet projects along the way - and that can be heartbreaking, says Berezin. ''You see years and years of people's investment and you think, 'Someone needed to tell you five years ago that no one's ever going to buy it'.

''If I see another pirate concept,'' he adds, ''I'm going to spontaneously combust.''