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Backstage: Two shows have given the art of puppetry a new lease of life

The Lion King: the 18ft giraffes are operated by actors on stilts. Photo: Catherine Ashmore The Lion King: the 18ft giraffes are operated by actors on stilts. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
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So gobsmacking is the magic of War Horse and The Lion King that the time, effort and expertise that goes into making and maintaining the puppets at the heart of both these extraordinary shows seldom gets a second thought.

Notching up West End runs of 16 years (The Lion King) and eight years (War Horse) respectively, not to mention countless overseas clones, a whole new international career path has opened up for puppetry technicians and creatives.

Masks from The Lion King are mostly made from carbon fibre, but with hand-crafted embellishments and painstaking decoration . Photo: Helen Maybanks
Masks from The Lion King are mostly made from carbon fibre, but with hand-crafted embellishments and painstaking decoration . Photo: Helen Maybanks

“Prior to War Horse and The Lion King, puppetry was always seen in the UK as something for kids,” says Jimmy Grimes, associate puppetry director of War Horse, and a former actor. “Those two shows have changed all that and taken it to a different level. They have been the catalyst for training a whole generation of puppeteers, makers and technicians. Even if the run of War Horse finished tomorrow, I know the skills I have acquired on the show are transferable.”

Grimes joined the War Horse bandwagon three years ago, and works alongside long-serving puppet maintenance technician David Cauchi and his deputy, Katie Eldridge. Between them, they ensure the actor-puppeteers master the key principles defined by Handspring, the South African-based company that created the lifesize equine bamboo-frame puppets, which, in no time at all, become as rounded and complex as any of the human beings on stage.

“In the training process, you try to get to the point where the actors can tell an emotional story through the puppets,” says Grimes. “Sometimes just showing the horse breathing is more poignant than getting it to stamp its leg. Everything the horse does has significance, but the rule of thumb is always ‘less is more’.”

The teamwork between the three horse-handlers is key. They have to learn to read each other’s body movements and react to the slightest impulse. “No two performances are ever the same. The aim is to get them to improvise within the structure they’ve been taught,” Grimes says.

When it opened at the National Theatre in 2007, the expectation was that War Horse would run for three months. None of the creatives ever imagined it would still be packing in audiences after eight years.

Over the years there have been various modifications to enhance the puppets’ resilience to wear and tear. “The legs tend to present more problems than the other parts because they’re worked more than the rest of the horse,” explains David Cauchi, who worked on The Lion King for nearly a decade before joining War Horse at the New London in 2009. “We have spare legs, necks, heads standing by so that if anything goes wrong during a performance they can easily be replaced during a scene change.

Each mask for The Lion King is a bespoke piece. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Each mask for The Lion King is a bespoke piece. Photo: Helen Maybanks

“There is also a contingency for pausing the show if it’s something more serious. One of the actors would shout ‘freeze!’, everyone leaves the stage, myself or another technician would go on stage and fix the problem, then the show carries on. It’s almost as if someone has paused the TV for a few minutes.”

Grimes and Cauchi hold what they call “puppetry hour” every week when they get the operatives together to air their grievances, work on something that can be improved, or try out new ideas. “Someone might have come across a video of a real horse doing something, so we see if we can work that into the show,” says Grimes.

Not surprisingly, both War Horse and The Lion King have always put great emphasis on maintaining the highest standards, and this applies as much to the puppets themselves as it does to the performance.

At the Lyceum, home of The Lion King for an astonishing 16 years, Joe Beagley, head of masks and puppets, and his team inspect the show’s 250 puppets and masks every morning, both for safety and what he calls “aesthetics”.

“More than 2,000 people come every day to see the show, eight times a week, so that’s a lot of people to let down,” says Beagley. “My aim is to spot any signs of wear and tear before a puppet or mask starts to look tired. If I’m doing my job right, there shouldn’t be any need to wait until a puppet looks as if it needs replacing.”

Beagley’s department on the seventh floor of the Lyceum is four-strong, with casuals taken on during busy times, such as cast changes. Each mask is bespoke, so anyone coming into the show as a full-timer or understudy has to be precisely fitted. The puppets and masks are mostly made from lightweight carbon fibre – some weigh as little as four ounces – but handcrafted embellishments involve a variety of materials, from peacock feathers to broom bristles, as well as the painstaking decoration with specially mixed paints.

He shows me the intricate Zazu puppet, one of the smallest in the show, which has a flexible neck made from a wire slinky. The mechanism used to operate it looks quite delicate and has been known to break or wear out.

Jimmy Grimes with Joey from the National Theatre’s War Horse. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Jimmy Grimes with Joey from the National Theatre’s War Horse. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

At the other end of the scale are the towering 18ft giraffes, each operated by an actor on stilts, and a 13ft-long elephant requiring four actors to walk it down the aisle in the show’s spectacular opening number.

With puppets of these dimensions, some with built-in batteries and mechanisms, there are obviously going to be health and safety concerns. “It is one of the reasons we have such a long rehearsal process,” explains Beagley. “Some of these devices can weigh up to 25 kilos, so we have to be absolutely sure our actors know exactly what they are doing and aren’t going to injure themselves. Luckily, carbon fibre is incredibly light, so the weight is normally from the mechanism within the puppet.”

In recent years, Beagley’s department has embraced 3D printing for replacing worn-out mechanisms. “Before 3D printing they had to be machine-made from aluminium, which was more expensive and time-consuming. With 3D printing you know you are going to get an exact replica.”

The global brand that is The Lion King – it has been produced in 20 countries and played to an estimated 80 million people – ensures that jobs in any production are highly sought-after. Beagley says his department has a low turnover of permanent staff because he and his colleagues enjoy what they do so much.

But with 10 other productions still going strong around the world, there is clearly opportunity for transference of the workforce, in terms of both performers and technicians. Beagley says he is frequently in touch with his counterparts in other productions, offering practical help or just sharing knowledge and resources.

“Our department gives young people coming into the business an opportunity to hone their skills. It takes a year or two for people to be fully confident of what they’re doing. It is a real springboard for future employment, a kind of seal of approval. Our international reputation is such that if you’ve worked on The Lion King you’re almost guaranteed a nice props job somewhere in the world.”

War Horse is playing at the New London Theatre; The Lion King is at the Lyceum, London

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