Julie Taymor

Julie Taymor

Taymor's theatrical roots ran deep. Born in Newton, MA, she gave performances for family and friends at age seven, leading to her playing Cinderella - among other roles - with the Boston Children's Theater. Her first exposure to Asian theater came while visiting Sri Lanka and India on a cultural exchange program when she was 15. She also studied mime in Paris before beginning her folklore and mythology studies at Oberlin College, where she joined Herbert Blau's experimental theater company, which included teaching assistant Bill Irwin. After graduation, Taymor went to Indonesia for four years, courtesy of Watson and Ford Foundation fellowships, and developed a mask-dance troupe, Teatr Loh, living with one of the actors in a small compound with a dirt floor and no running water, electricity or telephone. The tensions she witnessed as a slow-moving individualistic culture confronted the fast pace of consumer-driven change inspired her first major theater work, "Way of Snow," performed by an international company of actors, musicians, dancers and puppeteers.Taymor designed her first U.S. production, "The Odyssey" (1979), at the Baltimore Stage, then received her first NYC acclaim as production designer for Elizabeth Swados' "The Haggadah" (1980), creating a giant Seder tablecloth that billowed up Peking Opera-style to become the Red Sea - not to mention life-size puppet rabbis debating Passover scholarship and alarmingly graphic plague effects projected through Plexiglas shadow puppets. A mutual friend sent composer Elliot Goldenthal to see the show, calling it "just as grotesque" as his own work. With that, Taymor and he soon become companions, as well as co-creators of "Liberty's Taken" (1985), an irreverent look at the American Revolution, produced in Boston and featuring a bobbing-wooden-heads-on-wheels device to satirize the morality legislating Boston Committee of Safety. There were tentative plans to make movies out of two Goldenthal-Taymor collaborations - their mask-and-puppet adaptation of Thomas Mann's fantastical novella "Transposed Heads" (1986) and "Juan Darien, A Carnival Mass" (1988), which Lincoln Center revived in 1996, giving Taymor her first Broadway credit.As visually rich as it was musically complex, "Juan Darien" blended rain forest rhythms, the Latin Mass, and Day of the Dead imagery to tell the story of an orphaned jaguar cub, nursed to health and, miraculously, into the human form of a boy, Juan Darien, by a woman who lost her own son to a plague. Combining elaborate costumes and various forms of puppetry - from the Japanese bunraku style of large, eerily lifelike wooden figures manipulated by black-clad puppeteers to simple hand puppets a la Punch and Judy - "Juan Darien" follows the boy's life up to his flogging and crucifixion, as well as resurrection in jaguar form. All the human characters but one (Juan) wore masks designed by Taymor, haunting oversize heads reminiscent of primitive art and tribal carvings. Her staging resembled a kind of theater-cinema, suggesting the three-dimensional equivalent of pans, tracking shots and close-ups as full-scale characters and sets shifted to miniatures that turned and moved through stage-space. It was genius, pure and simple, but a little overwhelming for the Lincoln Center membership audience.Hewing to the artistic high road, Disney gambled that Taymor's genius could sell tickets. For her part, Taymor preserved the essence of "The Lion King" franchise characters while placing her distinctive stamp on them. A soft, furry, bland animal story was anathema to her, so she created puppets and masks with a sharp-edged, rough-hewn look that continued her trademark obscuring of the lines between actor and puppet and costume. Cable-operated masks hung over the actors playing the lions like headdresses, suggesting ancient religious masks. But when the lions turned aggressive, the masks lowered smoothly to cover the actors' faces. One low tech to high effect sequence involved the brilliant sea of savanna that as it grows revealed the actors underneath, wearing tables of savanna-like hats. Her masterstroke, however, was to create life-size animal puppets operated by actors in full view of the audience. A giraffe, for instance, was actually an actor wearing a cone-like giraffe neck and head - balanced on arm and leg stilts. It was this idea of the "duality of the puppet and the actor" that sold Disney. The company did not even balk at her changing male monkey Rafiki into a female baboon-cum-shaman, allowing a darker tone to underscore lion cub Simba's journey to adulthood, while merging South African music with Elton John's pop tunes.Taymor took this widely familiar story and elevated it to a theatrical event that continued to play for several years. This was in stark contrast to her previous work that enjoyed only limited runs, like her 1992 staging of Stravinsky's opera "Oedipus Rex" (conducted by Seiji Ozawa) in Japan, employing a cast of 120 and playing for only two days. Or her 1993 production in Florence, Italy of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," which ran fewer than a dozen performances. Besieged by opportunities since her "Lion King" success, Taymor made her feature debut with "Titus" (1999), an adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, based on her bloody 1994 stage version at New York's Theatre for a New Audience. Taymor's artsy, edgy and avant garde take on The Bard's early tragedy - complete with music video-style editing and cinematography - was a lightning rod for discussion, with some praising its ingenuity and daring, while others were offended by its goriness and lack of reverence for the source material. Taymor later attempted to launch a film version of "The Magic Flute," but the project languished in development hell.Her next directorial effort, the biopic "Frida" for star and producer Salma Hayek, was deemed far more conventional - albeit visual arresting - and the tamer Taymor disappointed many aficionados who admired her earlier boldness and daring. She did, however, win over new fans which resulted in a $25 million take at the box office in a limited release. Moreover, the film was nominated for numerous awards, including six Oscars; winning two for Best Original Score and Best Makeup.Back in the theater world, Taymor directed "Grendel" for the Los Angeles Opera, an adaptation of John Gardner's novel about Beowulf told from the monster's point of view. She returned to features, directing the ambitious musical romance, "Across the Universe" (2007), a psychedelic romance between two star-crossed lovers (Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood) set in Greenwich Village amidst the turmoil of the late 1960s. The film was groundbreaking in its use of 33 songs by The Beatles - including "Hey Jude," "Come Together" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds - that also served as inspiration for the characters and story. Taymor ran afoul, however, with producer Joe Roth, who re-edited her original cut for test screenings without her permission. Tensions flared in private, but publicly both put on a professional appearance. Nonetheless, the film's release was long delayed - it was originally slated for a late 2006 release - though Taymor and Roth later came to terms and "Across the Universe was set to premiere in theaters in September 2007.