Somewhere in the depths beneath Boston’s Opera House lies a home and hospital for the extraordinary puppets that come to life nightly in Disney’s “The Lion King.” One of the guardians of this theatrical ménage of giraffes, hyenas, and gazelles is the company’s Puppet Assistant, Sue McLaughlin.
A native of Milford, NH, Sue has been working her magic with “The Lion King” for 16 years. She was initially hired as a dresser with the original Broadway company, working closely with the Scar and Zazu puppets. More recently, she has been applying her professional touch with the national touring company, which plays the Opera House from Sept. 9 to Oct. 12.
McLaughlin studied theater at Hofstra University and has a master of professional studies in art therapy from Pratt Institute. Originally pursuing an acting career, she eventually found her calling backstage, building an impressive list of credits at Lincoln Center where she was part of the wardrobe department for prestigious productions of “Carousel,” “The Heiress,” and “A Delicate Balance.”
We spoke by phone about her work with “The Lion King” during the show’s Washington, DC, run. Here’s an edited look at our conversation.
Q. As Puppet Assistant, what’s a typical day like for you with “The Lion King”?
A. There are three of us that travel with the show and our job is exclusively to take care of the puppets and the masks. Our day starts before noontime. We’re here at ten or eleven in the morning and we check all our principal masks – check for any damage, make sure they’re clean, make sure they’re working properly. We do that maintenance every day, and then all of the ensemble puppetry is checked once a week . . . There’s also one of us here during the show in case anything breaks during the show and needs immediate attention . . . There’s a total of about 230 puppets and masks in the show that we help to maintain.
Q. During the show, are you able to see what’s happening onstage?
A. Depending on the theater we’re in, I’m in the wings for a good part of the first act. So I can catch little glimpses of some of the scenes. But mostly I’m looking at the puppets and the grasses and the things that have not entered the stage yet.
Q. Maneuvering so many puppets and set pieces must mean that what happens backstage has to be as carefully choreographed as what happens onstage.
A. Yes! Sometimes we say the backstage choreography is as important as onstage. Big scenery pieces coming on and off stage. And once things are in the wings, they’re immediately stored, hanging overhead. So you can be standing someplace that’s cleared, but a large scenery piece or a puppet may be being lowered. We’re constantly vigilant about where we’re standing because people are manually lifting or lowering things with the remotes . . . It’s a lot of people. Once you have the crew and the cast of 45, there’s about 100 people backstage every night.
Q. Although some of the puppets are very large, they’re deceptively light, aren’t they?
A. We’ve been in production for so long that every generation of puppets gets a little bit lighter and the materials we use get a little more high-tech. The masks are made out of a material called carbon fiber. Very similar to fiberglass material. So they’re very light and very strong.
Q. You began your “Lion King” career working with Scar, one of the more menacing characters in the show. He has a very interesting headpiece.
A. Scar has an animatronics motor that runs his mouth, that allows his mouth to drop down in front of his face and allows him to sort of lunge at other characters. I really learned about that kind of intricate piece on the job. I had a very strong wardrobe background, so I already had all of the spatial skills – how to put something together. That was all under my belt.
Q. And then your responsibilities grew when you were invited to join the touring company.
A. I came to them with a strong working knowledge of Scar . . . and then they taught me about patching the carbon fiber, and the painting skills that I needed (to maintain the individual components). Everything from a pop rivet to brazing armature back together. Every day is something a little different . . . I’m just very lucky to have had mentors who had patience and were willing to teach me along the way.
Q. Did your interest in the arts begin at an early age?
A. Gosh, yeah. I remember my Mom bringing me to see shows at the American Stage Festival in Milford. I must have been maybe ten or so . . . There was a girl up onstage I had gone to summer camp with. At that point, I kind of put the pieces together – that those were real people up there. They were just like me. And I was like, gosh, if she can do that, I can do that. I had the opportunity to do some internships at American Stage Festival right after high school. Then I went to Hofstra out on Long Island and got a drama degree and have really worked professionally in the arts ever since then, with a few small hiatuses here and there.
Q. I have to ask if you have a favorite puppet in the show. Or is it like having kids – you just love them all.
A. (Laughs) I’m reluctant to say I have a favorite because I don’t want to hurt the other one’s feelings. It’s very funny because I think of them on a very sort of human level, which of course they’re not . . . Certainly the cheetah is a personal favorite because I think she’s so graceful. There’s something beautiful and magical about that particular puppet that just makes me smile every time I see her onstage.
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
Disney’s “The Lion King,” September 9 - October 12, at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston. Tickets: 866-870-2717 or LionKing.com.