35 Who Made a Difference: Julie Taymor

Transcending genres, the designer and director creates shamanistic theater

Julie Taymor
Wikimedia Commons

Watch the opening of Disney's Broadway musical The Lion King, and you feel something like a sense of the ecstatic—the ecstatic not just as a state of pleasure or excitement, but the ecstatic in its old, almost archaic sense of being lifted out of one's familiar state. The animals of Africa come parading down the aisles as if they too had undergone such a transformation, their skin and feathers turned into poles and fabric, their bodies turned into hybrid surfaces mixing the flesh of the puppeteers and the mechanisms of puppets. They are grand and finely wrought, as miraculous as their live counterparts, leaping and loping onto the stage as if celebrating themselves and their maker.

Such is the thrill of Julie Taymor's theater magic, though the ecstasy is not always so sunny and the transformations are not usually so celebratory. In her stagings, her puppetry and her writing, the ecstasies more often descend into darkness: the human is turned into animal, playfulness is turned into violence; a boy becomes a jaguar and devours his taunters; a mother becomes a killer and spurs her sons to revenge. It is no accident that Taymor is the chosen director for a forthcoming Broadway production of Spider-Man—another tale of troubled transformation in which human and animal intertwine.

Taymor, who won two Tony Awards for the direction and costume design of The Lion King, who won a MacArthur "genius" award in 1991, who directed Anthony Hopkins in the film Titus and Salma Hayek in Frida and who is the director of last year's acclaimed production of Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, is really a shaman of sorts. She has the ability to move between worlds, pass across borders, descend into darkness and reemerge with promises of transformation. Her major tools are puppet and mask, which in their expressive detail are objects that seem in the midst of transformation themselves—ecstatic objects, half-human, half-thing; half-alive, half-dead. She was drawn to their powers even as a child. And when Taymor was 16, she finished her Newton, Massachusetts, high school a semester early and studied in Paris at L’École de Mime Jacques LeCoq, where she worked with masks, learning, she told Smithsonian in 1993, "how to transform myself into a nonhuman object" as well as "how to infuse an inanimate object with character."

Using these otherworldly talismans, she has steadfastly attempted to cross boundaries, not only between the human and nonhuman or between life and death—the shaman's traditional realms—but between theatrical genres: Western staging and Indonesian drama, folk tale and high art, realism and fantasy. In the 1970s Taymor spent four years in Indonesia, ran her own theater troupe and toured with a theater piece called Tirai, meaning "curtain." Only, in this case, the curtain is torn: it is about a tragic failure to negotiate transitions between Indonesian culture and the West. A young man, trying to straddle the divide, ends up lost, at home in neither.

But if transitional challenges were unreconcilable to some, Taymor managed to pass back and forth with great care, eventually returning to the United States and working first as a stage designer, then as a creator and director. She staged a series of theater pieces that crossed ethnic and historical boundaries. One was about the Jewish celebration of Passover (The Haggadah). Another was about an American Indian seer (Black Elk Lives). Her first triumph came in 1988 with Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass, which she wrote with her musical collaborator and longtime companion, the composer Elliot Goldenthal. It was a tale, told with puppets and masked characters, of a jaguar who is turned into a boy. Like Tirai, it is ultimately a tale of a failure, in which its characters are unable to negotiate the boundaries between the human and animal worlds.

But Taymor's reputation was made by her ability to explore both. By staging dramas about opposing worlds or tragic failures to manage them, Taymor ended up becoming the shaman who could manage both. At their best, Taymor's works allow opposing worlds to interact. In the 1992 film version of her staging of Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, for example, there are two Oedipuses, one singing words adapted from Sophocles, the other, a Butoh dancer, mimicking the doomed king, enacting his history in formalized gesture. One is the man, the other, apparently, a kind of puppet, though by the end, both are enmeshed, for Oedipus too, we see, is a puppet, his destiny manipulated by the Fates.

Taymor is not, of course, always successful. There are times when she veers too far in one direction or another and something seems missing. When the film Frida, based on a biography of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, is merely telling its tale, it becomes an overly conventional homage; only when it turns as surreal, mercurial and conflicted as the images painted by its subject does it come fully alive.

Now Taymor and Goldenthal are working on an ambitious opera, Grendel, to première in Los Angeles next May. It will retell the Beowulf saga from the monster's point of view, and again promises to explore the boundaries between human and beast. If it succeeds, it will take its place in Taymor's attempt to create a form of shamanistic theater. This may also be what has lured her to the film she is now making (for release late next year) using Beatles songs to chronicle the 1960s—an era with its own theatrical reverberations of disillusion and ecstatic transformation. In Taymor's universe, drama becomes ritual. Its aim becomes ecstasy in that ancient, liberatory sense. And if risks undertaken by its characters often end in failure, the hope is that similar risks, undertaken by creator and audience, may end in triumph.

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