INTERVIEW | Matthew Forbes, Zazu Lion King UK Tour

The theatres may be shut for the foreseeable future right now but continuing to chat about the wonderful industry is exactly what I am driven to do in the upcoming weeks. Other than listening to the musical soundtracks repeatedly during my working day or tuning in to one of my favourite musical theatre podcasts, taking part in numerous musical theatre quizzes and watching some fantastic stuff streamed online (thanks to WOS for this fantastic updated list of where you can watch some theatre stuff), I think we have the perfect opportunity to become more to theatre than we ever have. 

Up until recently, Matthew Forbes was performing in the UK Tour of The Lion King, which hopefully will be back to normal once their run hits Cardiff over the summer. With the uncertainty of so many shows up and down the country, supporting our theatres one way or another is pivotal to its future. Therefore enjoy this interview with Matthew Forbes about his role as Zazu, his career and the other shows he's already been involved in during his career. 



Matthew is not only a professional actor and voice actor, but he is also a director too! How long have you been doing each specific role in your career and which one stands out to you the most? 
I trained at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, graduating back in 2008. I’ve been working professionally as an actor and director since then. I began just focusing on acting in theatre, honing my craft and gaining experience in a wide variety of shows.. A few years after graduating I was lucky enough to get an audition for the National Theatre smash hit show; ‘War Horse’ and managed to secure a role. After working as a performer in London’s West End production of the show for three years I was asked by the National Theatre to join the creative team as part of the puppetry directing team.

I’d never directed a show on that scale before, and so was understandably nervous, but received wonderful guidance and support from the team at the National, since then I have worked on productions of ‘War Horse’ around the world. Following ‘War Horse’, I have worked as a Director on a variety of shows, bringing puppets and objects to life. I like to hope that having experienced both on and off stage gives me the ability to see the ‘bigger picture’ when it comes to putting on a show. I’m aware of the needs of both Actor and Directors. Hopefully, as an Actor I understand what the Director needs of me (even if it’s just as simple as being quiet while they figure something out), and as a Director I know that the Actors are looking for someone to ignite their creativity and guide them through rehearsals to achieve the finished product, but also just to tell them which side of the stage to enter from!

Read more: War Horse UK Tour Review.
Your work as a director takes a strong focus on puppetry, object manipulation and physical theatre. How did you become so interested in these within your own work?


‘War Horse’ gave me a huge education in the disciplines of Puppetry and Object Manipulation. The rehearsal process for that show is intense, it gives the performers a deep and complex understanding of the artform- it’s like doing a Master’s Degree! I enjoy bringing life to inanimate objects; it’s like being a child, and perhaps one of the purest artforms. It gets both the performers and audience to suspend their disbelief. We know the puppets are just inanimate objects but by investing so much in them (just as a child does with a cardboard box that becomes a spaceship) puppets often create a hugely emotional for the audience. Indeed the horses in ‘War Horse’ come to life on stage, the audience believe they are real, and that in turn causes a deep emotional connection, which often results in tears by the end of the show.


When you work on puppetry in particular in a director role, how do you create the different animals and characters in your stories? What is your typical creative process?


I always start with the script- if there is no script I work on the ‘treatment’ and style of the show to understand the basic foundations of the story. I always approach puppetry from a realistic point of view first- it’s important to know what the rules of the puppet are. Of course puppets can do anything… but it’s helpful to give yourself a framework to work within. I secondly check to see if a puppet is actually needed. Productions can sometimes include puppets because their ‘cool’ or ‘in vogue’, and not because they actually need them.

I personally think that a puppet should only be used if a human can’t do a better job. Once these initial questions have been answered I’ll then work with the performers using simple puppets made from paper on the basics of puppetry; breath, focus, weight, and effort. Once we’ve mastered these principles we’ll then move onto the specifics of the show, and rehearse each scene as you would a ‘normal’ show. I’d always ask the performers to try and rehearse the scenes as themselves first to understand the emotions or movements and then try to put them into the puppet. Puppetry often takes much more rehearsal to look good, this is something that people can sometimes forget. It’s a little bit like choreography in those first rehearsals; who holds this bit of the puppet? How do we move over there without tripping over each other? Once the logistics of the movements have been ironed out, there is then space to improvise.
" I enjoy bringing life to inanimate objects; it’s like being a child, and perhaps one of the purest artforms. "

Who/what inspires you and your work?
I don’t think I have a specific person who inspires me. I think I take inspiration from across all sorts of different areas; Actors, Directors, Producers, Music, and Fashion. I think as an actor it’s useful to be open to all kinds of influences. You never know what your next job is; and to be able a character truthfully you need to be open to whatever the character may be influenced by. I enjoy good storytelling; whether that be on stage, tv, film or radio- if the relationships between people are strong and interesting you can guarantee that the audience will be engaged.  


Is there any difference in the way you approach a puppet role as a performer? 
I don’t think so. The initial rehearsals are often a bit different- as humans we know how to walk, move, move, and how we can alter these to fit the character. With a puppet these are all things that need to be worked out logistically first; who controls this bit of the puppet? If I move this arm what does that do to the body? Once the practical questions have been answered in terms of how to operate the puppet then I’d say the rehearsal process is fairly similar.

You’ve worked on many shows as director, has one stood out than most and why?
When you work on a variety of different projects each stands out for different reasons; good and bad. I don’t think I have a favourite, it would be like picking you, favorite child! That said, I was thrilled to direct the world premiere of Sandi Toksvig’s adaption of ‘Treasure Island’; it was the first show to be produced at the reopened Leicester Haymarket Theatre. It was a brilliant family show for Christmas with a professional cast of nine, and a community sourced chorus of sixty! It featured songs, live music, dance, puppetry, and a guest appearance from ex-footballer Gary Lineker!


What’s the most challenging aspect of your job, either as a performer or director?

Erm… answering this question!? Hehe. 
Every job comes with its own challenges, I guess one of the biggest is ‘am I doing this right?’. Arts is always subjective; what one person like, someone else might hate. We all want to do the right thing, give the best performance, direct something groundbreaking, but none of us know what the ‘magic formula’ is, if we did we’d all be using it, all of the time! All we can do is persevere and hope that we’re doing the ‘right thing’, at the right time, for that specific project. 

"Zazu is an utter joy to bring to life. "

You are currently working on a variety of tours including Disney’s The Lion King, how did you bring the iconic character of Zazu to life?
Zazu is an utter joy to bring to life. I started with the script, and he has some of best comedy moments in the show. A lot of his dialogue was made famous by the wonderful Rowan Atkinson in the original animated Disney movie- so there are some big shoes to fill, but I hope that I’ve been able to make it my own. I’ve tried to be truthful to the original movie, but also give it a fresh twist.

Zazu is a puppet that I operate with two hands. My left hand is responsible for the wings of the bird, and right hand takes care of the blinking eyes and the movement of the mouth. I have to make sure that I lip-sync anything I say or sing with the puppet, and as I’m not hidden in any way I also have to perform the character within my own body too. Having these two things happen at the same time is something that Julie Taymor (the original director of the stage show) called the ‘Double Event’. The audience can see the puppet bird respond and can also see me and my response, both influence each other and the audience is able to process both things at the same time, which in turn giving them a deeper and more complex understanding.


What’s your favourite part about Zazu? 

Zazu has a brilliant sense of humour. He is the right-hand-man (or bird) to King Mufasa, and so has a lot of responsibility, he’s quick-witted and very intelligent. He’s desperate to look in control and so when young Simba plays tricks on him during ‘Can’t Wait to be King’ he gets very flustered, which is great fun to play on stage.



When you aren’t working on shows, what is your favourite thing to do to unwind?
I’m a big fan of Disney, so enjoy watching the classic movies. I’ve got several books on the history of Disney; it’s amazing to discover how Walt Disney created his huge empire, and how so many times it nearly all collapsed around him. He was incredibly passionate and driven and the story of Disney’s success shows that you can overcome adversity if you keep working hard.

"While we’re all staying at home, we’re turning to the Arts. We’re listening to music, watching movies, reading books, watching TV show and live theatre broadcasts."

How are you finding the current uncertainty surrounding the industry during the pandemic? How do you think people should continue to support the theatre right now? 
I think you could argue that this is the most challenging times for the Arts ever. Theatre, Film, TV & Radio are all dependent on people coming together, but in a world of social distancing, this isn’t currently possible. I’d urge people to support their local theatre, perhaps donate some money, or better yet, book tickets to see a show! Why not book to see something that you wouldn’t normally see (you’ve got plenty of time to do some research at the moment)! While we’re all staying at home, we’re turning to the Arts. We’re listening to music, watching movies, reading books, watching TV show and live theatre broadcasts. All of these things were created by artists, who currently are unable to work, and unable to create more content. If we don’t help the theatres, companies and institutions that produce this work then we won’t have any new content to enjoy in the future. 

If you can, please Support Artists, Stay Home, Protect the NHS and Save Lives!


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