Chippy Duncan is part of a six-strong team who keep the masks and puppets in The Lion King looking their best for every performance. Considering there are eight shows a week in the West End, and 232 puppets, that is no mean feat.
She typically starts her day several hours before the show begins, with a thorough check of any items that may have got damaged during the previous performance. Most of these will have been flagged by the actors, who leave detailed notes of anything they’ve noticed that has gone awry, but the team also continually monitor aspects like paintwork and haberdashery.
“A big part of our job is making sure everything looks as good as it did 20 years ago,” Chippy explains. “But some things are easier to maintain than others. The outfit for Pumbaa, for example, is a kind of huge backpack that has a big metal spine going down it, so if anything happens with that it can be a difficult job to fix. Stuff like that can be really challenging.”
Maintenance is key because these are not items that are easy to replace. Director and designer Julie Taymor made many of the masks herself, inspired by Japanese theatrical traditions, so they each carry her distinct fingerprint. Plus, most are custom fitted to the performers, who are quick to notice if something doesn’t feel right. “People get very comfortable with what they’re used to,” says Chippy. “If you’re wearing something eight shows a week, just one gram of extra weight can make a huge difference.”
“Several of my team have been there as long as me, so we’ve been through a lot together.”
She has worked on the West End production for over a decade, so knows it better than most. The job came up straight after she graduated from her degree at Wimbledon School of Art. “The timing was really lucky, and it meant I got to work with a great team of people. Several of my team have been there as long as me, so we’ve been through a lot together.”
Are there still things about the job that surprise her? “No two days are ever quite the same,” she replies. “The work is so varied – I’m always coming across things I’ve never done before.” The unpredictability is part of the fun, she adds, and it requires a wide range of skills, from sewing and painting to carpentry and metalwork. And she has seen her share of backstage drama – such as the time she watched in horror as Scar’s mask fell from the top of Pride Rock.
“If I know I’m spending a day working on that it makes me very happy – it’s quite therapeutic.”
Chippy says she prefers the more detailed day-to-day tasks, and has a particular affection for the savannah grass headpieces. “I’m really into making sure the grass is really tidy. It’s kind of become my thing, to the point where it’s a bit of a joke among the team! It’s quite intricate because some of the grass is on springs so it doesn’t break. If I know I’m spending a day working on that it makes me very happy – it’s quite therapeutic.”
You might assume that someone who spends their working day working with masks and puppets may not be especially into crafts at home, but Chippy says she loves making toys for her daughter and decorations for the house. Sometimes she’ll even spend a lunchbreak painting.
Although most of their work is done in the workshop, outside of performance hours, twice a week each member of the team will do a ‘show track’, meaning they help backstage. This includes assisting with the puppets that walk and fly through the auditorium at the start of the show, and Chippy says it still gives her a thrill. “Pretty much every puppet is on stage in that first scene, it’s epic. Even though I’ve worked on it for so long it does really get me sometimes.”
“It's a real community – one of the dressers actually lives next door to me, and one of the actors lives nearby.”
It also means she gets to check in with the cast and crew, who she describes as being like a family. “It’s always nice to catch up with everyone. It's a real community – one of the dressers actually lives next door to me, and one of the actors lives nearby. There’s a really nice vibe.”
Keeping the masks and puppets in The Lion King looking as good as new is a role that, by her own admission, Chippy didn’t even know existed when she started out in the industry. But she is clearly glad it does. “I still have to pinch myself that getting to do something that’s so creative and fun, with people you really like, is an actual job.”
Secure your tickets today and book with Disney’s official box office, Disney Tickets, for The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, London.