Technical Director David Benken has been fitting 'The Lion King' into theatres all over North America for 20 years. Photo by Joan Marcus.
David Benken takes understandable pride in Pride Rock.
Benken, who graduated from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, will celebrate his 20th year as Technical Director for The Lion King in 2016. In a career spanning more than 50 Broadway and international productions, he counts among his greatest accomplishments solving how to take that iconic moment when Pride Rock rises up from the Broadway stage – and recreate it out on the road, where no two theatres are alike.
The Lion King left home in 2002, launching its first national touring production in Denver. Benken faced a litany of technical challenges making the then-record $15 million Broadway spectacle road-ready. Not because Denver’s massive Buell Theatre – larger on and off stage than most Broadway theatres – presented any of its own spatial challenges. Because other theaters would be much smaller. When you go on the road, you actually have to plan your entire tour to accommodate your smallest theatre.
Most theaters, for example, would not have room under the stage for Pride Rock to rise up from underneath, as it does on Broadway. Basements don't exist that are deep enough to accommodate it, Benken said.
And compromise was not an option.
“The idea was that if you are going to do a tour, you are going give people on the road the same show that you gave them on Broadway,” Benken said. “And that was fairly radical for its time. Back then, there were some seriously reduced versions of shows going out on the road.”
Not The Lion King.
“We were not going to give people some pared-down version of The Lion King," Benken said. "We were going to give them the whole thing. And we did. I think the national tour that started in Denver set a very high bar for all shows after it.”
Benken began adapting the Broadway version of The Lion King for the road more than two years before it opened in Denver. His revised technical plans were due 16 months before the show opened here in April 2002.
After several months and several attempts, the design team hit on the solution: Pride Rock, itself an 18-foot set piece, would not ascend from below. Rather it would slither onto the stage and slowly rise as Simba and his father climb to its top.
“From a technical standpoint, the effect is actually much more complicated on the road than it is in New York,” Benken said. “For Broadway, we just built a staircase on top of an elevator. Except for building the elevator, that was pretty easy.”
And by creating new circular movements, this solution, Benken said, further enhances Director Julie Taymor’s original vision that everything should come back to central theme of a "Circle of Life."
“I think the solution we came up with in Denver worked out quite well, and it is used all over the world now,” he said.
The unseen part of this story is what happens when Pride Rock has to slither back off the stage.
“This 18-foot set piece has to be able to collapse down to about 7 feet because in most theatres, there is just no room to store something that big in the wings,” Benken said. “That’s technically the most complicated and impressive part of the whole Pride Rock technical design -- and no one ever sees it."
That is just for starters. The Lion King is a show with 500 lighting cues, 100 sound speakers, dozens of puppets and set pieces, and 60 automated effects. It requires a lot of heavy equipment to make them run like they should. A lot. And because space is always the primary obstacle, Benken simply hangs most of that equipment in the air.
“We have literally 10 or 12 tons of equipment up there,” he said. "The funny thing is the theatre in Denver (The Buell) had plenty of space on the sides to accommodate it, but the problem is we knoew we would soon be moving on to much smaller spaces. So on both sides of the stage, we hung a 28-foot by 4-foot truss that contained all of the automation control panels, all the dimmers for the lighting, and the consoles for all the sound amplifiers."
“All told, including scenery, The Lion King actually hangs more than 100 tons of equipment from the ceiling.
"So whenever we go to a new theatre," Benken said, "one of the biggest questions always has to do with the grids: 'How much weight they can handle?' Because we definitely push it.
But he promises he has never taken a ceiling down.
“No, and I don’t intend to start now,” he said with a laugh.
From theater to computers and back
Benken learned about theatrical lighting in high school back in Cincinnati, but he went to college in Fort Collins to learn computers instead. But given how computerized technical theatre has become, "one very much informed the other," he said, and after graduation, he was hired as the Technical Director at the Lexington Opera House in Kentucky. He was lured back to Colorado to work for Hewlett Packard and US West as a computer programmer.
He found his true calling in the theater in 1996 when he was hired to work on The Lion King, which would open on Broadway the next year. Benken’s credits have since included the Denver-born The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, The History Boys, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Boy from Oz. Cirque du Soleil, and the upcoming Misery, opening Nov. 15 on Broadway with Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis in starring roles.
The bulk of Benken’s work as a Technical Director is getting a show up and running, or, in the case of a tour, out the door. From there, he continues to supervise all personnel and technical matters from a distance, usually while working on other projects. That means he doesn’t visit the show every tour stop, even though it takes five full days to load the show into any new city it visits. With The Lion King's fourth Denver stop opening Nov. 4, there is no pressing need for him to be here. But he was certainly here in 2002 when The Lion King national tour launched, and he will never forget it.
“It was so exciting for everybody. You could feel it with the stagehands. There is that opening night lift you get when the audience sees your show for the first time. It’s why theatre is so wonderful from my point of view. You have just spent six or seven weeks in the theatre working 8 a.m. to till midnight most days, and it all pays off when you hear the response from that first live audience.
“And the response from Denver audiences was just phenomenal. People really loved it. Standing ovations, the applause, everything. It was pretty amazing. After the show opened, everyone was looking for tickets.
“You could definitely feel that this was something special for Denver. It was definitely special for us.”
Disney’s The Lion King
Nov 4-29 at the Buell Theatre Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE TTY: 303-893-9582 Groups of 15 or more: 303-446-4829 Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby. Buy and print online at DenverCenter.Org. Accessibility performance: 2 p.m. Nov. 28
Please be advised that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts – denvercenter.org – is the only authorized online ticket provider for Disney's 'The Lion King.'
Previous NewsCenter coverage of The Lion King: Circle of Life: The Lion King
tour returns to Denver birthplace
Original The Lion King
orchestra member plays 15
Official show page