In Arts & Entertainment

Tshidi Manye plays Rafiki in the opening number "The Circle of Life" from Disney's "The Lion King" national tour. (PHOTO: Joan Marcus)

Pulling the strings: Behind the scenes with "The Lion King" puppets

"The Lion King" is one of the Broadway's grandest spectacles. Of course it qualifies as a spectacle financially, grossing over a billion dollars and becoming the fourth longest-running Broadway show in history. But even more of a spectacle is the actual creation of the show itself, managing a seemingly impossible feat: capturing the essentially elements of the classic animals-only Disney animated feature and bringing it to the stage with an even more dramatic, vibrant visual style.

The inner workings of that spectacle are right there for the audience to see on stage, with the puppetry, the costumes and the actors all seamlessly coming together in plain sight to bring non-human characters to life. Original "Lion King" director and theater icon Julie Taymor called the visible mix of on stage performance work and behind the scenes technician work "the double event."

"It's really stretched the definition of what a puppet is," said Bruce Paul Reik, a long-time puppet assistant for the travelling tour of "The Lion King. "The zebras are worn by a performer, and you see the shape and movement of the zebra, but at the same time, you see there's a human in this thing. You experience the puppet, and you experience the performer – and maybe it's a triple event because you experience the mixture of those two things. I think that's a wonderful aspect."

Taymor's concept of "the double event" has helped transform "The Lion King" on stage into a phenomenon, one that's arriving at the Milwaukee Theatre beginning Tuesday, Nov. 11 and running through Sunday, Dec. 7 (the show comes to town as a part of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts' 2014-15 theater schedule). It's a kind of psychological magic, where the behind the scenes strings are right there to be seen but somehow makes the show and the animal characters more immersive in the process.

"Both the puppet and the I, we have a simultaneous experience," said Drew Hirshfield, who plays Zazu in the upcoming production. "Just as much as I'm operating a puppet and having an experience in the world of 'The Lion King' as Zazu the puppeteer, I, Zazu the person – the other half of the Zazu character – am also having an experience. I'm a fully engaged actor as well as a fully engaged puppeteer."

Of course, it takes a lot of time and practice to make "the double event" actually come alive and make magic on stage. Other than maybe some childhood hand puppets, Hirshfield had no previous acting experience with puppetry before auditioning for a role and becoming a member of the touring show back in July.

"I went through a cycle of auditions just as an actor and then they brought in this puppet," Hirshfield recalled. "It was exciting, and it was hard. I remember thinking I wasn't all that good at it, but I guess it went OK because here I am."

Earning the part, however, was just the beginning of Hirshfield's puppeteer journey. As practice started, the actor admitted being overwhelmed at times by the complex creation, a hand puppet that's operated with both hands. The right hand controls the head and neck movements of Zazu, with his index finger articulating the mouth and the thumb moving the eyelids, while his left hand keeps the body up in the air and beats the bird's wings. Meanwhile, the actor is dressed and painted blue to represent the sky supporting the winged creation.

"You're using all of these muscles that you wouldn't probably otherwise be prepared to use," Hirshfield said. "So you have to go slowly. If you go too quickly, you could hurt yourself. You could sprain your wrist, sprain your arm or get in trouble with your shoulders. You can't go too fast. You have to build these muscles, as well as build your expertise with the puppet."

Then there's the tough balance of performing on stage alongside a puppet, not wanting to upstage the actual physical character with one's acting and performance.

"I try to trust my instincts," Hirshfield said. "It's not all that calculated, I don't think. I feel like as long as I'm having the experience fully of what's happening on stage and the puppet is as well, and we're totally connected – me and the puppet – then something's going right. It's about connection; if me and the puppet are fully connected, then we can connect to what's on stage."

After four weeks of rehearsal, puppet practice and getting familiar with his feathered on-stage counterpart – plus the usual line memorization and acting focus – Hirshfield was ready to hit the stage.

"Such a big part of the role of Zazu is bringing this puppet to life, because I'm always with the puppet except for one or two carefully crafted moments," Hirshfield noted. "It's been a great challenge and a great joy to learn how to get this little guy to live."

While Hirshfield and the rest of the actors bring the puppets alive on the "Lion King" stage, it's people like puppet assistant Reik who keep the puppets alive behind the scenes. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Reik worked in puppetry, dance and costuming in theater, TV and film before joining onto the North American tour of "The Lion King." He's now been with the puppetry department for nine years, a fitting place since the show combines the worlds of dance, costuming and puppetry in such a uniquely vibrant manner.

"I feel like everything I've done up to getting hired for 'The Lion King' all feeds into and supports what I do for the show," Reik said. "My job employs all of my artistic abilities and skills that I've built upon over the years. For instance, in a day to day thing, I might have to sew something or sculpt something or paint something or interact with performers. It feels like a perfect fit for me because I feel like I am drawing on all my experiences from the past."

Reik's role in "The Lion King" mostly consists of monitoring and repairing the costumes and puppets. Even though he's not involved with choreographing the dancing or designing the puppets per say, his knowledge of dance helps him troubleshoot and solve problems with regular wear-and-tear with equipment and wardrobe.

"Things are constantly breaking or wearing out, and I feel like anytime I'm confronted by something I have to repair, I'm always asking, 'How did this happen? Why did this happen?'," Reik noted. "Some of it is just an aspect of repetitive movement, but for me, there's a benefit in having been a dancer."

After almost a decade of work with "The Lion King," Reik hasn't seen much change with the puppets' art design, even saying you could call the production "a period piece" considering the consistency of the show's art and design. While some costumes and puppets have been altered with more durable materials, in the end, Reik and the rest of the puppetry department's job is to maintain the show's beloved signature feel, look and movement.

"I feel like I have not gotten into a rut with this show," Reik said. "Had somebody told me when I was hired on this nine years ago that I would be on the show for this many years, I would laugh. I would find it unbelievable. But this show has a great spirit and feeling, and there's a recurring feeling of being inspired by the show, being in the environment of the show, being around the performers and how they bring the story to life. There's a great culmination of sound and visuals that has, apparently, an enduring life. I've heard the show hundreds of times and seen the show many times – mostly from backstage – and stuff still moves me."


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