Meet the people pulling the strings for ‘Lion King’

09/21/2012 2:36 PM

08/08/2014 10:33 AM

There’s the living cast of Disney’s “The Lion King,” – a traveling troupe of more than 50 actors, singers and dancers with trained voices and limbs and long theatrical resumes.

Then there’s the non-living cast, made of rubber and carbon fiber and parachute nylon. That cast is nearly quadruple the size and requires just as much attention and maintenance.

The nearly 230 puppets and masks that populate the stage version of “The Lion King” were an integral part of director Julie Taymor’s artistic vision.

They range from a 4-ounce lioness headdress to a complicated bird controlled by an actor’s thumb and index finger to a menacing mechanical mask that seems to operate by magic.

The collection includes zebras, jaguars, hyenas, leaping gazelles and 18-foot-tall giraffes inhabited by unhidden human actors. When they’re not in use, the puppets are carefully stored or strung up backstage, hanging from the rafters until it’s time to go on.

They are as basic as the uncomplicated shadow-and-rod puppets that help narrate the story and as delicate as the full-sized, 15-pound Timon puppet, whose face is made of foam so sensitive, the touch of a human finger will ruin it.

In charge of this cast is Michael Reilly, whose title is “puppet supervisor.”

He and his staff of two are in charge of maintaining the puppet menagerie and teaching cast members how to manipulate it.

Reilly, who grew up with parents who worked in theater, went to technical school in Canada, where he studied art and auto mechanics. He didn’t imagine his training would lead him to a career in theater, but it turns out his skills were perfect for “The Lion King,” where he must keep puppets painted, re-feathered and in working mechanically.

“I get to paint. I also get to rewire motors. Who gets to do that?” he said.

One of the most difficult parts of Reilly’s job is helping the actors learn how to work the puppets.

He teaches the four actors who bring Bertha the elephant to life how to coordinate their steps. He helps the inhabitants of the giraffe costumes, who must get into their costumes with the aid of 6-foot ladders, learn not to fear the stilts.

“Most people have never worked on stilts before,” he said. “They’re pretty terrified when they get up there.”

Backstage in St. Louis, where “The Lion King” stopped before it came to Wichita, Reilly demonstrated several of the show’s masks and puppets.

Mufasa’s mask, a large and majestic lion head, is made of carbon fiber painted to look like wood and weighs just 11 ounces. Scar’s complicate mechanical head is just 7 ounces but is controlled with a remote that actor Brent Harris holds in his palm, unseen by the audience. It takes actors like Harris, who operate the more complicated puppets, hours of practice in front of a mirror to master the puppets. Most actors become proficient with their puppets in about four weeks but don’t master them for about six months, Reilly said.

Keeping the puppets looking new also is in Reilly’s job description.

While in St. Louis, it was time for the four-and-a-half-pound Zazu puppet to get a refeathering, something that happens every year and a half or so.

Reilly and his staff spent three weeks individually hand-cutting and painting the bird’s 1,000 features, made from parachute nylon. (They originally were made from silk, but it wasn’t durable enough, Reilly said.)

Replacing the features, one-by-one, was a two-day ordeal.

“Part of the job is to make everything look like it just came out of the box,” Reilly said. “You have to stay one top of that.”

Another big part of the job is attending to puppets in distress, and there’s no way to predict when that will happen.

Reilly or one of his staff members must be at the theater during each performance, waiting on the other end of radios in case Scar’s remote control shorts out or one of Zazu’s strings breaks.

He remembers one time a leg falling off of warthog Pumbaa, whose costume is a 45-pounder worn like a backpack. The staff had to reattach it in time for the next scene.

“When Pumbaa breaks, he tends to be in an absolutely apocalyptic fashion,” Reilly said with a laugh.

Despite the nomadic life that goes with it, Reilly said he loves his job and the people he works with, who become like family.

“Every single day, I’m doing something different,” Reilly said. “It uses a lot of skills I’d otherwise have no use for.”

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