June 17, 2003
an interview with
by Chris Jensen
John Plumpis plays Timon in Disneyís national touring company of "The Lion King" now beginning its final week in Charlotte. We talked to him at Caribou Coffee in Founders Hall (Charlotte) on the morning of June 11.|
How long have you been with this tour of "The Lion King"?
We started rehearsal Feb. 18, 2002, so about 16 months now.
And you are committed throughÖ?
April 18, 2004. Principals have to sign for a year, and Iíve re-upped for a second year.
About how many shows do you think youíve done so far?
Iíve done about 420.
How do you keep your performance fresh after 420?
I donít. Iím stale, boring, tiredÖ No ó you have to keep re-investing in the play, remembering a couple of things: That it might be the 400th time for you, but itís the first time for your audience. That there are kids out there who have never been to the theatre before, and itís a huge responsibility to keep minting it afresh. And from an acting standpoint, there are different tricks that you can play on yourself. You say, "Iím going to concentrate on this part of my performance tonight," whether it be something technical like your accentÖ I think all of acting is about action, so maybe I will play the scene in a slightly different way. Or you say, "Iím going to be more charming tonight, and tomorrow Iím going to be more forceful," to keep it interesting for yourself. Because when you check out, thatís when mistakes happen, thatís when the show gets boring. Thatís when people leave saying, "It looked good, but it sounded like acting. It sounded phony."
Youíve done some other national tours, including "Barrymore" with Christopher Plummer, who is pretty cute for an older guyÖ
Youíre not the only one who thinks so. Itís so funny. We would go places and the women would be at the stage doorÖ
What is it about him?
Heís a really, really old-fashioned kind of classy actor, he is still super handsome and sexy and women dig him. I was jealous.
Anyway, you have done several national tours; how does "The Lion King" compare?
I did "Barrymore" for about seven months ó about 200 performances. For "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" I was out on tour from January until July and then October until February. During the three months off, and I stayed in Los Angeles and did some work there. And then the tour with the Suzuki Company of Toga was just a matter of weeks. "Clytemnestra" was a bilingual production. I left school early to rehearse in Japan and then we came back and did about a week each in several cities ó Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Berkeley.
Tell me more about a bilingual production ó what is that like for the audience?
That was before the days of really easy simultaneous translation. Since then Iíve been to other foreign language, Japanese and Suzuki productions where you have a little earpiece that provides simultaneous translation, or they will have supertitles or subtitles, like at the opera. Our production was a classical play done in an avant-garde style, and what Mr. Suzuki counted on was that, while the audience was getting a little bit of the literal sense, several of the actors were so powerful that the visceral response carried the play. And I think he was right, because it was about parents killing parents, and children killing parentsóit was the Orestes story really. I think it was successful. My parents cameóthey donít speak a word of Japanese -- and my mother said her stomach was tight the whole time, it was so intense.
When was that?
That was in 1987.
Back to "The Lion King"Ö Have you ever played an animal before?
No. But I will qualify that by saying that Timon is really not an animal. Heís a wise-cracking sidekick. That heís a meerkat is kind of incidental. There are a couple of meerkat things that I do with the puppet, but the play isnít really about animals. Itís about a father and his son, a man and his little boy. Itís not really about a lion and his lion cubÖ
Tell us how you prepared for the role of Timon.
Well, itís funny. You sort of get pigeon-holed; you begin to be typecast. And because of the way I look ó Iím a curly-haired, short Greek ó I tend to play a lot of short, funny Jews. And in the commercial things Iíve done, Iíve sort of gone in the direction of the wise-cracking New Yorker. So this role was right up my alley. In terms of auditioning, I studied the movie very closely. I think in this instance, youíd be a fool not to do a facsimile of some sort of the film, because deciding that Timon is a farmer from MaineÖ well, thatís not who he is, and thatís not what his function is in the play, and you wouldnít get the role.
I noticed that Nathan Lane did Timonís voice in the movie. Any inspiration for you there?
Absolutely. What I do takes off from him. My performance stands on his shoulders, so to speak.
Where did you grow up, and where is home today?
I grew up in western New York, near Buffalo/Niagara Falls area ó smack in the middle: Tonawanda. I didnít have a longing to leave home or anything, but the way things worked out, I left home after high school and went to college in Rochester. I came home for a couple of summers but then I ended up staying away to do theatre or to do a summer job. Then I went to grad school at a program that is now at the University of Delaware. I was in the last class in Milwaukee, before the program moved to Delaware. I stayed in Milwaukee for a couple of years, directed some plays and acted in some plays. I went to New York in 1989, and Iíve been based there since, even though I donít spend much time there. I spent some time in LA in 1995, 1996, 1997.
What did you do while you were in Los Angeles?
The tour of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" was based there and during a break, I did a movie called "Til There Was You." I went back out on the road, and when I came back to LA, I did some auditioning for pilot seasonócame close on a couple of thingsóthen went back out on the road and came back and did an episode of "7th Heaven." And again I did a lot of auditioning for pilots again and came really close on a couple of things againÖ
Your other TV work ó "Law & Order SVU," "One Life to Live," "The Guiding Light," "Another World" ó was all New York-based, correct?
Collectively, there seems to be a lot of very impressive Shakespearean experience in this cast of "The Lion King"óincluding you. Why is that, and how does it help?
Thatís interesting. I think itís markedly different from the other casts ó the New York cast and the other touring cast. But some roles ó for example, Scar ó always call for someone who is more classically trained. Even for my role, because it is based on classic comedic models. And I think part of the reason for that is that they always try to hire the actor first and not worry about their musical theatre experience. They try to hire someone who has a connection to the role, who can deliver the role, and then theyíll teach them the puppetry and the musical things. I mean, Iíve always been a singer, but I havenít done a musical in 15 years.
And when theyíre looking for experienced actors, there are certain things that everyone has done. If youíre a classical actor at a certain level in America, youíve probably passed through the Utah Shakespeare Festival, or youíve done one or another Shakespeare festival along the way, or youíve been hired to do Shakespeare at regional theatres. And that happens to be the route that Iíve gone.
Plus, Shakespeare is the basis of all training, really. Like if you can play classical pianoÖ I know itís all old-fashioned and clichť, but I think itís true. All of the characters in "The Lion King" are based on Shakespeare. People may say that they are Disney archetypes, but theyíre not just Disney archetypes. Scar is Richard III; heís the villain who is a villain because he feels like he was cheated of love. Zazu is Polonius, the officious, too-dignified loyal adviser. He always says, "Iím not going to talk," and then he talks for a half hour, like Polonius does. Timon and Pumbaa are like Shakespearean clowns, not the wise clowns -- but a team that comes very much from the Vaudevillian model. If you look at "Twelfth Night," Feste the jester says some very wise things, being rather all knowing, but he also cracks wise to Olivia, Viola, Sebastian, Malvolio everybody, and even makes a fart joke or two. If you look at Touchstone in "As You Like It," if you look at the Dromio twins in "The Comedy of Errors"óall those jokes are Vaudeville-style jokes, and of course, came way before Vaudeville or the Borscht Belt Ö Questions of mistaken identity and a kind of "Whoís on First?" reparteeÖ Itís all based on something weíve seen before; thereís nothing new. So that was a very long answerÖ
No, Iím glad that you elaborated, because I found that sort of interestingÖ
But just sort of interestingÖ?
I meant extremely interesting! "The Lion King" is an elaborate production, what with the 22 semis that roll into townÖ How does that compare with other tours that youíve done?
"Barrymore" was a two-person play, or rather a one-person play with a guest ó me ó from offstage. All of our stuff fit in less than one semi, and there were 10 people in the company. This is a huge, multi-million dollar production. We have 105 people in the company, and we pick up another 35-50 local people working on the show on a daily basis.
Whatís also interesting ó for better and for worse ó itís controlled by a very large corporation. So thereís a whole corporate structure that you donít often get in the theatre. But I have to say this: while other productions are smaller and the responsibility is given over to the individual company more, Disney holds it much more tightly. And I understand why. Because itís so big, they have to. Things can get really out of hand. And you can see danger spots in terms of public relations, in terms of labor issues, in terms of moving the companyÖ so they hold it more tightly and with good cause.
The other part of it is that Disney has the resources to make something like this. I canít imagine someone saying to [director] Julie Taymor: "I have this great idea. Letís turn ĎThe Lion Kingíóletís say itís a public property ó into a stage musical based on your vision." Can you imagine going and raising that money? Disney has the millions of dollars to workshop the production and develop it and to give her the freedom, really to have carte blanche to do what she wanted to do, to make it work. Because Julie was a very fine, well-known sort of avant-garde director who directed a lot of things in the downtown, fringe-y scene. She did some avant-garde kind of operas and theatre, but she was never a director in the popular culture. "The Lion King" has given her entrťe into the film world and more theatre. Sheís working on "Pinocchio" for Disney, and it will be interesting to see how she does the puppet work in that, too.
You have lots of theatre experience, in addition to film and TV. My question is: Why more theatre? Do you like it better, or are there more opportunities in theatre?
Yes and yes. In any career, you play to your strengths, whether itís the strength of what you do or the strength of where your contacts are. There are more opportunities in the theatre, and it is what I love. The theatre is the medium in which the actor is in charge. When I go out on the stage, no one is editing my performance. Itís me up there for those two hours. Iím in charge; Iím shaping it. Film is a directorís medium. In film, you can make a really bad actor look good by lighting or music. You can make a pause shorter or longer; you can have someone react to the actor in a more or less powerful wayÖ On the stage, you either sink or swim.
And about contactsÖ Because I started out in the theatre and people met me in the theatre in New York, thatís where my opportunities lie. Thatís where I get auditions. My experience is that you meet with and are hired by a handful of casting directors rather frequently because you are known to them. I would venture to say that the same is true in other businesses, that you might leave your company because of a contact you make with someone in another company.
What is your favorite part of the show, your favorite moment onstage in "The Lion King"?
Well, the opening of the show is fall-down beautiful. And when we come into a city and I get to watch the opening of the show in rehearsal, I still cry. For me, I would say the first scene, the "Hakuna Matata" scene, because people are waiting for it. They are already pumped up. Timon and Pumbaa are already their favorites. I think thereís a kind of wonder at the way the puppets, the characters, are presented. Iím all in green and my puppet hangs in front of me. I manipulate the puppet in full view of the audience, and I love feeling and seeing people sort of get used to that, wondering: "How does that work?" And then eventually I disappear for them and they just watch the puppet. Just the wonder at those first moments, and theyíre all expecting to hear "Hakuna Matata." There have even been a few cases when they start clapping along in time with the song.
What question about "The Lion King" are you asked most often?
"Why is Timon green?" Let me explain: My face is painted green, I wear a green leafy wig, and I wear a green dappled costume that looks from far away as if it could be leafy. Underneath it I wear a harness for the puppet that is about five feet tall, maybe taller, and the puppet hangs on that. And I manipulate the puppet from behind. My right hand goes in the back of its head, its feet are attached to my feet, its back is attached to my chest, its right arm is attached to my right leg, and I manipulate its left arm with my left arm. So thatís the way it works.
Itís based on a form of Japanese puppetry called Bunraku puppetry, and in that form, one or more puppeteers will manipulate the puppet, and the puppet sometimes is very largeÖ and the manipulators, the puppeteers, are dressed in black so they are invisible. Thatís the same idea hereóthat I, the operator, am the greenery behind the animal. So I am the jungle. Itís the same reason that the guy who plays Zazu, the birdóhis costume and his face are painted blue because the bird is in the sky.
These are all simple, old-fashioned symbolic things. Everything in the play, all of the costumes and make-up, are based on natural elements or traditional African designsÖ For example, all of the lionesses wear different prints, and Julie didnít make them up. She sought them out and then adapted them to each costume.
What question would you like to ask the audience after they have seen "The Lion King" for the first time?
Hmmm. There are a number of things. On a very simple level, because Iím a puppeteer in this but Iím also an actor, Iím very interested to hear where they are looking. Because some people say, "I just looked at you; I didnít watch the puppet." And other people say, "You disappeared. I didnít even know you were talking; I just watched the puppet." I like to think that they are unconsciously going back and forth between both. Because all the puppet can do is open and close its mouth; its eyes donít move, it canít smile, it canít frown, the puppet canít make any facial expressions. I can ó not that Iím up there muggingÖ but people will say, " I swore that the puppet winked, or smiled." Thatís the genius of the show. We provide the audience with the raw material, and they make up a lot. Plays are always about the people sitting in the audience. People have associations with "Hamlet" based on their own lives, and they make the story apply to their own lives, the actors or the production are merely holding the mirror. They see what they see on their own.
Another thing I want to ask people is, "Is this your first time in the theatre, and will you come back again, based on this experience?" Because we have a very unique situation in which people are coming in the theatre because they love the movie, in most cases, and because theyíve heard about the show. Not a lot of people are coming because they are interested in mask puppetry. So we have this huge responsibilityÖ We bring them in and sort of blow apart their expectationsÖ because itís not a cartoon. Itís much more adult in its artistry. And Iíd like to know: Based on this, will you come back to the theatre? Do you see yourself coming to see other things?
And another thing that I want to ask them is this: "Is it worth anything? Is it just fun?" What I hope people come away with isÖ Itís the story of a boy who asks his dad: "Are you always going to be there?" And his dad has to answer the question, and the boy has to come to terms first with his fatherís mortality, and then his own responsibility in taking his fatherís place in the circle of life, or in his family. When my own grandfather died, my dad was the oldest son and he kind of moved into the patriarchal positionÖ My dad is still around, but there are things that I do for him now that he canít do, or would prefer not to do.
What I would love for people to come away with is this: going home and looking at their kid, whether itís a mother or father looking at their son or daughter, or a son or daughter looking at their mother or father, and saying: "I love you better now that Iíve seen this," or "I want you to know that I love you and even though I might not always be next to you, I hope that I love you well enough that you will remember me and that will inspire you to do something good for yourself or others. That might sound sappy, but thatís really what the theatre can do and what it ultimately does best. Stanislavsky made this great speech to a class of students near the end of his life, and he said that the theatre is seductive in that it is very self-aggrandizing and it rewards ego, but thatís a very shallow project for your life. If youíre in search of celebrity, someone will always be right behind you, the next cover of "People magazine," the next flavor of the month. But if you have a project that the theatre makes a difference in peopleís lives, then you will always get yourself out of the way. Stanislavsky said you mustnít be in the theatre for just the sake of producing plays; you must be in the theatre in order to make the audience better, finer, wiser members of society.
In great plays, or in plays with great themes, thatís the opportunity that we have. To me thatís worth working on much more than whether Iím going to be on a TV show. I mean that would be great, but my project would still be the same. And it might be just making people laugh and giving them a vacation, but it could also be making them see a new opportunity in their lives and making the world a little bit finer.
And finally, what are your impressions of Charlotte and North Carolina? You arrived during Speed WeekÖ
Iím not a big NASCAR fan, so I couldnít really relate, but itís great to see people downtown. You know, Iíve never spent time in Charlotte before. I love the public spaces. It seems like it should be a bigger city because every building has public spaceÖ and theyíre never crowded, which is great. Itís not like New York where you canít find a seat for lunch in Bryant Park.
And the surrounding area is beautiful. What I love about the Carolinas is that you look out and itís all trees, but there are neighborhoods tucked in there, and every place has its own lovely little shaded area.
The people are really nice. The thing about Charlotte is that itís one of these cities where ó and perhaps some Carolinians feel a bit invaded ó but many people are from someplace else, and that adds to the flavor. There seems to be a teeming undercurrent of the arts community here, although I know itís a huge sports town and Iím a sports fan.
And right here weíre sort of on the wonderful barbecue cusp between the vinegar and the tomato base Ö I love East Carolina barbecue, so last week I took a trip up to Lexington with John [Rensenhouse] and we had Lexington barbecue. Carolina barbecue is my favorite - more than Kansas City or Memphis or Texas-style.
Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you on stage June 19!
~ Chris Jensen