Lion King props chief takes you behind the scenes

Will Pearce spruces up a head mask. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Will Pearce spruces up a head mask. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THE African savannah can be a brutal place. Just ask those behind the scenes who recreate one of the world’s great wildernesses for touring stage spectacular, The Lion King.

Will Pearce is intimately familiar with the instant repairs needed to guarantee a dazzling array of more than 230 puppets ranging from a 15-pound meerkat to 18-foot tall giraffes create a seamless spectacle for crowded galleries every night.

As the head of masks and puppets for the show that will soon land in Edinburgh he admits things inevitably go wrong and he can have as little as 20 seconds to fix an intricate puppet in the middle of a live production.

“Essentially you’ve just got to get people back on stage even if they’ve got a broken puppet,” he says. There’s often little gaffes. That’s what makes live theatre quite interesting. I think some of the audience want to see something go wrong. The worst thing that happened to us is [warthog] Pumbaa’s back legs fell off during the show. Literally the welds snapped and the entire bum of the puppet collapsed. That was pretty awful.

“It can be as basic to fix the puppets as gaffa tape, but sometimes the repairs are so bad they can take all day. We essentially have an understudy for every principal puppet, but ideally we have spares for parts as well. You do know each puppet so well that you know where they’re going to break and how to do a really quick fix. It’s when they absolutely implode, that’s when it really tests you.” A free exhibition opening at the City Arts Centre on Market Street this Saturday – a fortnight before the 15-week Lion King run starts in Edinburgh – is now allowing the public to get up close to the full-scale 
puppets used in the show.

It is only the fourth time in the production’s 16-year history the Exploring the Lion King event has happened. Pearce is inspecting the display ahead of the Saturday’s opening and, as if on cue, one of the rods controlling the legs of a puppet zebra crashes to the floor. He laughs, saying: “See what I mean.” All of the puppets and costumes on show, other than Pearce’s favourite red-billed hornbill Zazu, have been used in live performances. Lead characters Mufasa, Nala and the eccentric baboon Rafiki are all part of the collection. A series of original maquettes, or small models, also reveal the early ideas used by designer and director Julie Taymor to win over Disney to the concept of a Lion King theatre show.

The goal had been to create a “sophisticated” puppet musical, not just a show of “big, cuddly costumes”.

Pearce, who originally joined ­London’s The Lion King production as a puppet assistant in 2006, describes the maintenance programme as huge.

He says: “It’s like painting the Forth Bridge. You could repaint the cheetah and then as soon as she’s done you’ve got to look at the wildebeests. As soon as that’s done, you’ve got another 30­ 
hyenas. It’s constant. Everything’s getting bashed, everything’s getting scratched. As much as the actors look after their 
puppets, it’s inevitable.”

Natural materials ranging from fish bone beads to horsehair have been a key to creating the puppets, but modern materials such as carbon fibre have also been used for the masks.

“There are loads and loads of feathers in the show,” Pearce says. “We use horsehair for the masks and the zebra manes. We use lots of different fabrics. We use hessian for the zebra skins. There are different foams. Pumbaa is made out of [cutting-edge] plastazote foam. We source a lot of the stuff from the UK.”

Multiple fittings are needed to make sure the “animalistic” masks fit the head of each actor.

“We have to take a cast of their heads and it’s got to be quite strong and secure,” Pearce says.

“We have three or four fittings. Once they’ve done all the fittings, they have to go into rehearsal and learn the show, the movement, 
lyrics, vocals. It’s a whole ballet.”

Exploring the Lion King is running from Saturday until January 12. The Lion King musical is showing at Edinburgh Playhouse from 
October 11-January 18.

Animal magic more than pulling strings

CONTROLLING the puppets from The Lion King musical places intense physical demands on the actors and dancers.

The gadgetry is often complex, with lengthy auditions needed to find those best suited to the rigours of bringing each animal to life.

Head of masks and puppets Will Pearce says: “Zazu, for example, is a very complex string puppet.

“He’s got to be presented the whole time, you’ve got to have your arm up the whole time.

“He’s got a trigger to work his beak. Your thumb goes into a cradle and you go up and down to make his eyes blink.

“Even that alone, you can have so many different looks to him. You can bring his eyes down and just shake his head a little bit and he looks really disappointed. There’s also a string that operates his wings.”

Being the three hyenas that join forces with evil brother Scar is also physically draining.

“They have these removable front crutches for legs,” Pearce says.

“It takes the actors a few weeks to learn to walk like a hyena. Then they have this puppet head. The actors cup their legs together in front of them and then they put their hand in the puppet head. The arm becomes the mouth of the hyena so they can talk.”