Wandering backstage on set at The Lion King is like exploring a magical animal kingdom. It’s all colour, feathers, stripes and spots, and figures of all shapes and sizes are strung up from the theatre ceiling when they are not being inhabited on stage.
Almost as impressive as this visual spectacle is the clearly regimented order of these 250 puppets, masks, costumes and sets. A row of cackling hyenas hangs here, a line of gangly giraffe necks there and then there’s Bertha, the enormous grey elephant, with her baby calf close by.
The stage adaptation of the Disney animation has now been produced in 16 countries, seen by more than 70 million people, been translated into seven languages and brought in more than $5 billion at the box office.
But take a closer look at the sneering face of Scar, the guffawing hyenas or the comically fat and cheerful Pumba and you’ll be impressed by the level of detail. No CGI, no invisible tricks, just beautiful, old-fashioned puppetry.
It’s no accident the show’s American director and co-designer Julie Taymor won not one but two Tony Awards (best costume design and best director – the first woman to do so).
Taymor has moved on to other projects, but The Lion King does not put itself on each night. Behind the show is a crew of 75 local wardrobe, puppet, prop, make-up, technical, sound and lighting experts who work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the show’s smooth operation.
One of the key members of that crew is the deputy head of puppets and masks, Damien Richardson. With a background in scenery construction, Richardson worked for five years as the deputy head technician for Opera Queensland and has been with The Lion King since rehearsals began in Sydney last October.
Richardson and his team are responsible for the maintenance and mending of Taymor’s myriad puppets and masks, from the smallest: the 12.7-centimetre mouse that finds itself on the end of Scar’s cane, to the largest: 3.9-metre Bertha (who is 2.7 metres wide and requires an actor in each of her four legs to move).
A typical day involves Richardson arriving at the Regent Theatre at 5.30pm and going through his daily checklist ahead of the night’s show: fixing broken puppets and masks, painting, gluing, checking batteries and prepping for the 8pm curtain up when they move into show mode. During the performance he remains on call if something goes wrong and continues to fix, paint, maintain and back-up stock.
And plenty does. Just last week the cable strap snapped on Scar’s mask, sending it crashing to the stage from the top of Pride Rock. “We had a look at it, ran around a lot and realised there was nothing we could do. It was only 10 minutes before the end,” Richardson says, noting actor Josh Quong Tart wears a wig and make-up, so all was not lost.
Not long before that incident, the steel that connects the meerkat puppet, Timon, with his actor Jamie McGregor snapped, leaving him with a puppet that wasn’t attached until a suitable break in the show allowed Richardson to switch to the back-up Timon.
The masks are surprisingly lightweight, with most weighing under 28 grams. The heaviest costume – Pumba – weighs 20.4 kilograms. The lead’s masks are bespoke, sculpted from silicone rubber with carbon graphite overlay to snugly fit the actor wearing them.
The wear and tear, including sweat, make-up and the haste with which the actors are required to pull them off and on means maintenance is a show-by-show reality. “The giraffe tails fit all the actors but occasionally crack because the actors sit on them; the 25 ensemble hyenas need a touch-up after each show as they all run into each other,” says Richardson, while the 20 grassland headdresses require around 27 kilograms of synthetic grass a year for upkeep.
It’s all in a day’s work, and part of the reason Richardson loves his job. “Each night is different and each night is a challenge. It’s on the go and anything can go wrong, and it very much does. You’ve just got to be prepared and think really quickly on your feet, in the dark, with one hundred other people running around. No stress!”
*The Lion King is showing at the Regent Theatre for a limited season.