The Lion King’s latest Resident Director, Jill Williams, cannot wait to bring the show home to Wales
A few years ago, Jill Williams was head of the Class Act Theatre School in South Wales, a role she’d held – and loved – for nearly two decades. The job had special significance for Williams, who’d built the school from scratch into a thriving dramatic centre with 600 students, but now something didn’t quite feel right. “I felt in my heart that I was ready to move on,” she says, “There was something more that I wanted to do.”
Today, she’s in Edinburgh, on the second leg of a three-year tour as Resident Director of Disney’s The Lion King – the best-selling stage show in global box office history.
It’s a meteoric rise for a lifelong theatre-phile who technically never even applied for the job. After circulating her CV, Williams “went and had a chat” with Lion King general manager Richard Oriel, unaware that the directorship was even available. It was only when she received a phone call a couple of months later that she discovered what they had been chatting about.
The show itself is a revival of Julie Taymor’s legendary production, which turns 23 this year, but the cast and crew are all new. Williams’ job is to make sure the production stays true to the original, while bringing the best out in her performers. “We have a dance director and an MD,” she says, “so my role is really with the 12 principals, and ensuring their cover actors are up to speed should they need to go on.”
It’s a new way of working for Williams, so used to building shows from the ground up. “The groundwork is there,” she says, “the shape of it is there, what’s expected is there. We can find our own way of doing things, but the text and direction remains essentially the same.”
It’s been quite a whirlwind nonetheless, and signing up for three years on the road was as much a personal as a professional commitment. “The length of time was daunting,” admits Williams, “and I miss my family and friends, but I’ve loved touring. We’re in Edinburgh for six months, so we’re able to embed ourselves properly, and it’s been a lovely experience living here.”
She’s most looking forward to bringing the show back to Wales. Swansea born and bred, Williams trained at the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, and grew up alongside Hollywood A-lister Catherine Zeta-Jones. Her upbringing was steeped in Welsh musical tradition – “I danced through my childhood, and theatre has been my life as long as I can remember.”
Williams has spent much of her career trying to pass those opportunities down the generations – and not just to create more theatre professionals.
“Working with young people has been a huge part of my life,” she says, “I think theatre has many roles to play in mental health and wellbeing. Young people come along and take part as a form of release, and drama has helped a lot of people overcome problems. It just lends itself so much to personal development and emotional wellbeing.”
After 10 years teaching drama at a local comprehensive, Williams took “a leap of faith” and set up her own acting school, hoping to care for daughter Amber during the day and hold her classes in the evening. “I left what was then an excellent job,” she says, “but I had to do it, it just felt right.”
When Disney came calling the feeling returned, and with Amber grown up, she took another leap. “It’s a huge responsibility,” she says, “and I realise it’s not just another show. But I take it day by day, rehearsal by rehearsal, and we get on so well that we’re like one big family. I’m not just saying that – it’s the absolute truth.”
A long-time lover of all things Disney (“I’ve been on the cruise ships a few times, which I love”), Williams has relished bringing out the drama in one of Disney’s most innately dramatic stories. The Lion King was Amber’s favourite film while growing up, so Williams has had plenty of opportunity to appreciate the story’s theatrical qualities.
“The beauty of the Lion King is that it’s not a Disney princess story,” she says, “it’s very non-gender-specific, and everyone can relate to it. It’s about spirituality and life and death, and it’s got serious undertones delivered in a very clever way.”
Guiding the Lion King cast was always likely to be momentous – “they’re a young company, but they’re not inexperienced” – but for Williams, the first night was near fairy tale. Amber tripped over from Pontardawe to be in the audience, and president of Disney Theatrical Group Tom Schumacher flew all the way from America to attend.
“There’s nothing like it when you see the audience on their feet at the end,” says Williams, “and you think ‘Well, that’s a job well done’. It’s such a big team effort, and that’s so satisfying.”
The first night is almost always special, “I’m just thrilled to bring the production to the Millennium Centre,” says Williams, “I’m proud to be Welsh, and I’m proud of the show.”
The Lion King is at Wales Millennium Centre, 8 July – 27 August 2022 - www.wmc.org.uk.