Disney’s The Lion King: An Interview with Doc Zorthian

By: Christine Soussa

doc-zorthian-3For almost 20 years Doc Zorthian has been a Production Supervisor for Disney Theatrical Productions. Dedicated to the award-winning, global performances of Disney’s The Lion King where he began working for the Company as an Assistant Stage Manager on the original production in 1997. Most recently many of us enjoyed the San Francisco performance, which concluded at the end of December 2016. Since its Broadway debut in November 1997, The Lion King has become the most successful musical in history. We had the opportunity to catch up with Doc Zorthian to learn more about his role and some behind the scenes insights on this dazzling production.

  • Tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Washington D.C. to a 100% Armenian family. My father was born in Turkey and my mother in the Bronx. My grandparents were Genocide Survivors. My grandmother’s entire family was slaughtered in front of her and she was the only survivor. I don’t know how she did it, she didn’t like to speak of it much, she somehow ended up in an orphanage and then found an uncle in France.

At the age of 15, she literally was a mail order bride. My grandfather saw her photo in some catalogue and she came to New York alone to marry a man who was 35 years old. We don’t know if she ever loved my grandfather, perhaps she came to love him over time. But they did have a relationship that worked. She looked to him for support and stability and their relationship worked. I admired my grandmother, her generation had an unspoken strength and understanding of the world. What some people live through is amazing; I carry the heritage with me and believe that Armenians worldwide have a secret code. Maybe it’s a pride thing but we are all survivors.

  • How did you get involved in stage management?

I’ve always loved theater. I always wanted to be an actor, but it became quickly apparent that I didn’t have the personality for acting. I couldn’t handle the rejection nor the competition. But I didn’t want to leave theater, so I started applying to behind the scenes roles such as stage manager jobs. I would get hired for those roles and really enjoyed doing it. So I decided to listen to the world. I set aside the fantasy of acting and became engulfed in the behind the scenes excitement that helps the production run. I am not big on change. I love a good challenge and for me the challenge is in endurance. I have been the Production Supervisor for The Lion King for almost 20 years and I think I am very lucky. I get paid to do what I love and I’m very proud of it. The production is magnificent and while it’s the same production, given its global reach, the challenge and excitement never stops.

In 20 years the production has been translated into several languages including French, German, Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. Each time we go to a location, we perform in the native dialect, so the Spanish for the production in Mexico is different than the performance in Spain. Same thing with English, we have an American version and a British version.

  • The Lion King is indeed a spectacular performance, I have seen it 3 times, can you share some specifics with us?

Each production has its own team and each department has an Associate Designer who supervises that department for all productions worldwide. For example, there is an Associate Designer for costumes, hair/make-up, lighting, etc. I coordinate all of this worldwide. It’s a very dynamic and fun job. As an added bonus I get to travel the world.

I also maintain the show technically. The Lion King promises its audience that each performance will be the same as Opening Night, therefore there is also a standard control that must be maintained, coordinating all needs is crucial and I love the challenge of doing it.

We also coordinate all travel needs. For example I was in Shanghai on Monday, before then, I had been to the Philippines, Korea and Taiwan, now I’m back in New York. I love the travel component of my job. I am lucky. One of the best parts is that the arts are very unifying. Regardless of culture, language, religion – everyone comes together and works towards the same goal.

For example, it was exhilarating to coordinate a western musical in China. It was a challenge but incredibly fulfilling. All of our foreign productions are incredibly special and I particularly enjoy working with and preparing for our international productions.

  • Is there a particular International performance that stands out to you?

So far we have had 24 global performances, each one is spectacular. One that really stands out is our first performance in South Africa. As you know, The Lion King is set in the Pride Lands of Africa. In 2007 we had our first-ever performance in Africa in Johannesburg. It was amazing and even Oprah Winfrey and the girls from Oprah’s Leadership Academy were there. The performance got a lot of world attention and it created a platform where some of the economic and social realities of the African continent were exposed in an artful and non-political way. The attention we were able to draw to the region was really moving and quite impactful. We performed in South Africa from June 2007- February 2008.

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Nia Holloway as “Nala” and “The Lionesses” in The Lion King North American Tour.

  • You have seen the performance so many times in so many languages, is there a specific scene that all audiences seem to love?

The story and message of The Lion King is very strong and profound. It resonates internationally in a deep way because everyone connects to sentiments around the circle of life, unity, family and the universal powers around us. The opening scene embodies all of this – it still gives me chills. Listening to Rafiki’s singing profound voice, the moving tune, the dynamic, colorful customs and all the characters come together in a magnificent way.

 

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Buyi Mama as “Rafiki” in The Lion King North American Tour.

  • Any words of wisdom for those looking to get into the Arts and specifically theater?

Keep persevering. If you really love something, don’t stop. Get to know the art and its many facets. Don’t stop and understand that it’s a struggle. I talk with a lot of young people and sometimes there is a thought that success comes fast, it doesn’t. Be okay with the struggle because it will pay off if you stick with it.

It was a delight to watch Disney’s The Lion King and can’t wait for them to be back!

Lion King NY

Lion King NY: Dashaun Young as “Simba” in The Lion King North American Tour.  

©Disney. All featured photos by Joan Marcus.

 

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To learn more about AIWA, please visit www.aiwainternational.org. To get involved with the AIWA-SF affiliate, please visit www.aiwasanfrancisco.com or email aiwasanfrancisco@gmail.com

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