BWW Interview: Drew Hirshfield Returns to Bay Area for LION KING

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Drew Hirshfield spoke with BroadwayWorld San Francisco about playing Zazu in the national tour of Disney's "The Lion King." Hirshfield is originally from the Bay Area and even participated as an actor in ACT's annual "A Christmas Carol" back in 2006. Read the full interview below.

The show has been going for a few weeks in San Francisco now and will playing through the end of December. Do you see any build up in momentum with a longer run like this? Or is it more difficult to stay on top of your performance energy?

I've been doing this now for a couple of years, so it becomes routine. Not to say that there's not maintenance to do and stamina levels to maintain. But before this we came directly from Albuquerque, New Mexico and we played for a month. We grind out eight shows a week every week of the year.

Is each city different?

Every city seems to have its own personality in the way they relate to the show. Some cities seem like Legacy Audiences, where they've seen the show before and they're coming back for a second or a third time, or bringing family, and some cities they've maybe heard about this thing and have never before seen it. San Francisco definitely seems to be a Legacy city, where it seems like people know the show and they're here to celebrate it again with us.

How does the audience reaction in each city affect your performance, especially since you are in a more comedic role?

It's a live thing, so it's always changing. I think that's part of the discipline of keeping it fresh and dynamic is to allow it to be different every night. Of course the patterns are the same, but the way the energy operates in the room changes every night. You want to get something that's only happening in the room tonight.

Zazu is quite the character. Have you always excelled in comedic roles?

Yes. It seems like I end of doing comedic stuff, but that just kind of happens to me. I'd love to do some serious stuff, if you know anyone who's hiring.

You're originally from the Bay Area. How has that background prepared you for performing in a Broadway tour?

I grew up in Santa Rosa, but I went to drama school here in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theatre - great training there. The practice of doing theatre alone will prepare you for the next thing you do. I credit a lot of my stuff that I did at ACT. My actor training there is part of the reason why I step into the show and hope that I figure out what to do.

Part of what makes "The Lion King" production a spectacle is its clever use of puppetry and simple design aesthetic. As Zazu, you use one of Julie Taymor's brilliant puppets. Was it difficult to learn to use?

Yes, definitely. I didn't have puppeteer experience prior to coming on board here. And "Lion King," I should say they make a practice of hiring actor first and turning them into puppeteers. I think my first day jumping off with the tour, I met the puppet master and he said, "Okay, here's what you need to do. Pick them up and see what you can do with them." And I was pretty nervous because I couldn't make them work very well to start. Like so many things, it took a little practice and chipping away at the skill set every day. And even after a month of rehearsal, I would say, for me, I didn't really have a full connection with the puppet for several months down the line.

Do you ever feel like your Zazu puppet is its own being?

On a good night, for the most part, it's become an unconscious thing - the connection with the puppet. He really does feel like he has a specific energy that's all his own. And he's so beautifully made. He's a simple puppet. He's a beautifully expressed puppet. It's great to get to play him every night.

What kind of upkeep goes into taking care of the puppets off stage?

We have a puppet department of three people who work on the puppets. They're experts at this. There's something like 200-odd puppets in the show when you consider everything from the shadow puppets to the big elephant you see in the opening number. There's always someone from our puppet staff on sight during the show, and they spend a lot of hours during the day before making sure the puppets are all in working order. I have sometimes snapped Zazu's neck or knocked a foot off, and the puppet shop assures me it's part of the course and not worry. We use the puppets. We put them to the test every night.

I love the way designers chose to make Zazu a white puppet against your very blue costume. How long does it take you to put on all that blue makeup?

We have a makeup artist that does the makeup for me, thank goodness. It takes me about 35 minutes. I do find blue makeup in strange spots on my pillowcase from time to time.

You spend a good portion of the second act off stage. What do you do in your down time? And how do you step back into character so quickly?

I do have a nice break. I read. I shoot the breeze with colleagues. And not a whole lot of attention has to go into refocusing since I've been doing it for a while.

We all know Hakuna Matata is Timon and Puumba's philosophy. Do you have a personal life philosophy as an actor?

Enjoy the small stuff. It's kind of like Timon and Puumba. Don't take it too seriously. We're just making a puppet show every night.

"The Lion King" continues through December 31 at SHN Broadway in San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre. Visit for more information.

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From This Author Harmony Wheeler