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April 27, 2012

'The Lion King' performer Amyia Burrell talks about her start at Walt Disney World

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'The Lion King' performer Amyia Burrell (second from left) visited a Disney Performing Arts workshop with castmates (from left) Electra Weston, Nick Cordileone and Paul Sadler.

An actress with the touring production of a Disney show has returned to her roots and helped other performers with skills she has gained. Amyia Burrell, an ensemble performer for the award-winning national stage tour of "The Lion King," visited a Disney Performing Arts workshop this week and spoke with students about performing professionally.

Burrell plays a variety of animals -- with 14 costume changes -- in "The Lion King," which has an engagement at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in Orlando through May 14. She spoke to me this week about the show and what it's like to revisit Walt Disney World years after getting her professional start there. 

Burrell's first professional performing contract was at Walt Disney World when she was a 21-year-old dancer in "Mickey's Twas The Night Before Christmas." She went on to dance in "Cinderellabration" and "Dream Along With Mickey," also in the Magic Kingdom. Burrell also played Squirt in "Finding Nemo -- The Musical" at DIsney's Animal Kingdom during her stint at Disney Parks from 2003 to 2007.

During that time, Burrell went to another Disney property, Tokyo Disney, from 2004 to 2005 and performed in "Rhythms of the World." Since 2007, however, she has performed in the touring production of "The Lion King."

Describe your experience at Walt Disney World.

Working at Walt Disney World is an experience like no other. You just create this huge family and it's a wonderful work environment. You're around people who are amazingly wonderful all the time. I had the best experience of my life working here.

What was your favorite role?

I enjoyed every single one of those roles. Of course, I loved performing on the castle stage because it's just the most amazing place to perform. On the days it was kind of rainy, we got to do meet-and-greets. I loved doing the meet-and-greets -- just to go out and see the little girls who wanted to meet the princesses. "Nemo" was actually one of my favorite performances here. They did a really, really good job on that one.

Do you have childhood memories of Disney Parks?

My mom actually told me this story the other day. She grew up in California, and I did, too. She can remember her first time going to Disneyland Park with her dad. It is one of her most vivid memories. And coming to watch me perform for the first time on the castle stage at Walt Disney World, she said she was just in awe because the parks have such happy memories for her. That was such a wonderful story for me to hear.

Did you always want to be a performer?

I did. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I started dancing when I was 3. I actually went to college and studied bio-medical engineering, but I was unhappy that I wasn't dancing. When I got my first contract at Disney World, I said, "I'm going to go for it." This is something I've always wanted to do, but I never imagined myself at this point.

What is your favorite thing to do at Walt Disney World?

My favorite thing to do is to go to Animal Kingdom and go on the safari. I'm not a roller-coaster rider so I steer away from those. I love Animal Kingdom -- to do the safari or just walk around and see all the animals. [Burrell said she is excited to possibly check out Wild Africa Trek.]

You taught a workshop at Walt Disney World this week. What was that like?

We taught some choreography that coincides with what we do in the show [The Lion King]. It was a regular jazz workshop class that I taught with another one of the cast members, one of our dance captains from the show. We taught it to some cast members from "Festival of The Lion King" [a musical at Animal Kingdom], and we also had some of the staging specialists and character performers.

Do you get nervous before performances?

When there are shows that are extra special, like when your friends are there, I get a little nervous. Since I worked in this city for a long time, I've had a lot of friends come to my performances, and that kind of makes me nervous because I always want to do a good show.

What is your favorite scene in "The Lion King"?

I have a couple of favorite scenes. I love the opening number -- "The Circle of Life." I am one of the zebras and nothing beats this scene. We're standing off stage and we're doing our off-stage singing and we can hear the reactions from the crowd. And, actually, from where I stand out in the wings, I can kind of see the audience at one point. Seeing their reaction to what's going on on the stage when the sun first comes out and then giraffes move across the stage -- the audience just loves it. My first time seeing it, my mouth was open the entire time. The elephant coming down the aisle is just one of the most beautiful scenes I've ever seen.

I have to say that another one of my favorite scenes is "Lioness Chant." I love "Lioness Chant" because it's all of the females in the show -- singers and dancers -- and that's our one number where we're hunting. The gazelles are jumping across the stage and we're all swiping and hunting the gazelles. In the end, we make a big circle around a gazelle for the kill. The energy is so high on that part. It's an amazing scene to play in. There are six female singers and six female dancers and also the baby Nala.

Which Disney story would you like to see made into a Broadway show next?

When I was doing "Nemo," I actually thought it would make an amazing Broadway performance. I would actually like to be Nemo (not Squirt). I don't have a little kid's voice, but if I did do a role, I would love to play Nemo.

April 26, 2012

Disney Performing Arts workshop full of surprises, including visit from 'The Lion King' cast

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Decatur Central High students learn choreography during a Disney Performing Arts workshop.

When I grew up in suburban Indianapolis, our high schools didn't have show choirs -- there was band, marching band and choir. But that was way before "Glee" capitalized on the popularity of the show choirs in schools today.

Yesterday, I watched performers from another Indianapolis high school, Decatur Central, take part in a Disney Performing Arts workshop. Tucked away in a studio behind Epcot -- "back stage" as Disney likes to call the area -- the students learned two dance routines for songs for which they had prepared the vocals in advance of their trip. There were jazz hands, jazz squares, a shake-and-bake step, original moves from the students, and even some high-fiving in the mix.

Their instructor, Thomas Murphy, is a longtime Disney performer and choreographer. In fact, he helped design the Disney Channel Rocks! street dance party at Disney's Hollywood Studios. He also performed at Tokyo Disney's "Disney World is Your World" show, which is the source of the workshop's two songs -- "D-Pop Magic" and "Disney World Is Your World."

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Thomas Murphy and Minnie Mouse danced with the vocalists.

Murphy's upbeat personality kept the kids moving and motivated -- even at a 9 a.m. call time, which is practically the middle of the night for teenagers. He encouraged the vocalists to keep smiling when onstage, even if they make a mistake. "Performing is not from the neck down," he told them.

Decatur Central was participating in Disney's Show Choir Magic session, a workshop the group added to their Walt Disney World experience. The goal of the course is to give students a glimpse into the life of a professional performer.

The main objective for the 29 students traveling to Orlando, however, was to perform an original piece they prepared back home in Indiana on a Disney World stage for visitors. The group had to audition to be chosen for this honor. They fulfilled that dream Wednesday night at Downtown Disney.

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The Indianapolis show choir poses with Minnie Mouse and 'The Lion King' performers.

Before they left the workshop, though, there were a few surprises in store for the vocalists. First, Minnie Mouse popped into the room and joined their dance routine. She knew all their moves and was not shy about leading the students with Murphy. Then, the group performed for a panel of "Disney show producers." What the students didn't know, though, was that the "producers" actually were performers from the national stage tour of "The Lion King."

"The Lion King," which is celebrating its tenth anniversary, is in Orlando at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre through May 14. Four performers from the Grammy-award and six-time Tony award-winning show answered questions from the students. The performers were Nick Cordileone (who plays Timon) and Amyia Burrell, Electra Weston and Paul Sadler (all ensemble performers).

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Students ask questions of performers from the national stage tour of 'The Lion King.'

The Decatur Central students asked a variety of questions, including how to pursue a performing arts career and what makes professional performers nervous on stage, and they requested Cordileone voice Timon for them, which he happily did.

But what really got everyone laughing was when the performers talked about times they had flubbed their scenes and what they did to recover on stage. Sadler described his first role in "Phantom of the Opera" and completely forgetting his opening lines. He said he tried to buy himself time to think by running around the stage growling. His cast mates, of course, knew he should be speaking and had to turn away so they wouldn't laugh during the production, he said.

For Weston, it was an incident that occurred when she was playing Queen Sarabi in "The Lion King." She and Mufasa are supposed to present Simba to the other animals from atop Pride Rock. Unfortunately, they were halfway up the rock when it was discovered that she wasn't holding the lion cub. They both debated what to do, before Mufasa ran back to get Simba, and Weston had to maintain her composure and try to look regal in the process.

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'The Lion King' cast members (from left): Paul Sadler, Electra Weston, Amyia Burrell and Nick Cordileone.

Clearly, with real-world anecdotes such as these and more, the students received valuable insight into acting, stage productions and how to create performance magic - something Disney excels at every day for its park guests.

Tomorrow, I'll share my interview with "The Lion King" cast member Amyia Burrell, who was once a Disney Parks performer.

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