Julie Taymor’s 1997 Tony Award for The Lion King—the first “Directing” Tony given to a woman in the fifty-year history of the Tony Awards—sits in an eclectic collection of professional memorabilia in Taymor’s New York apartment/studio. Javanese-style rod puppets, souvenirs from Taymor’s 1970s work in Indonesia, adorn an end table. In a hammock overhead, a larger-than-life bas relief of a Native American mother, a character from Taymor’s 1982 designs for Savages, nurses her baby. An Emmy award for her 1992 television film Fool’s Fire sits atop a TV. An Academy Award belonging to Taymor’s long-term partner Elliot Goldenthal for the score of Frida, which Taymor directed, is a recent addition.
Taymor’s wide-ranging work in theater, opera, film and television seems, at first glance, to have certain trademarks. She often uses masks and puppets. She draws on non-Western, particularly Asian forms. In fact, this lexicon represents less a movement away from traditional Western forms than it does creative vocabulary that extends beyond them. Constructed actors expand her casting pool beyond the limitations of live actors. Combining Western and non-Western forms, mixing film and stage devices creates all manner of permutations of directing tools.
The forms of Taymor’s work are geared to, and as varied as, the themes she tackles. For her 1984 and 1986 adaptations of Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads, a work partly about the transience of relationships and identity, she created, first, a hologram-like world of fluid projections on moving scrims, and later an environment in a prism of mirrors, which endlessly reflected and confused reality. In her 1994 staging of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus, a clown presented the goriest horrors—a severed head and hands, a rape—in gilt frames. This implicated the audience in a culture of violence as voyeuristic diversion that dates back past Shakespeare’s time to the Roman Colosseum.
Taymor was born on December 15, 1952, the youngest of the four daughters of Betty Bernstein Taymor, an activist in Democratic politics, and Melvin Taymor (d. 1997), a gynecologist. Raised in a secular Jewish household in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, she studied theater from age ten at the Boston Children’s Theater, and during her final year of secondary school, at the Theater Workshop of Boston, where director Julie Portman focused on experimental ensemble creation. During high school, Taymor also spent a summer traveling in Sri Lanka and India, getting her first taste of what would later become a serious involvement in traditional Asian theater.
Following high school, she spent a year in Paris studying at L’Écôle de Mime Jacques LeCoq. She attended Oberlin College, in Ohio, between September 1969 and June 1974. For part of that time she earned credits away from the college, apprenticing with experimental theater companies in New York and taking anthropology classes at Columbia University. Her main focus at Oberlin was a theater group run by Herbert Blau, which developed performance projects through ensemble workshops. Taymor credits Blau with helping to shape much of her ongoing approach to performance, which involves “idiographs,” tightly compacted, pared-down forms of expression.
With a one-year Watson traveling fellowship to study puppetry in Eastern Europe, Indonesia and Japan, Taymor headed for Java after college. There she became involved with W. S. Rendra, one of Indonesia’s most respected (and controversial) directors and playwrights. He encouraged her to direct. She spent four years in Indonesia, living in Yogjakarta and then Bali, and ultimately creating her own theater company, Theater Loh, with Indonesian and Western actors. She conceived, directed and designed Way of Snow, a trilogy about cultural dislocation and madness, using masked actors, three-dimensional rod-puppets and shadow puppets—some made from the traditional carved water-buffalo hide, others from modern Plexiglass. Taymor’s troupe performed Way of Snow on the Islands of Java and Bali between 1974 and 1975. Her next piece, Tirae, was also an ensemble creation, this time for masked and unmasked actors. After returning to the United States, she managed to remount both pieces in New York in 1980 and 1981.
From here, Taymor’s career took off quickly. She designed costumes, masks, puppets and sometimes sets for various shows over the next four years: from 1980 to1982 The Haggadah, conceived, composed and directed by Elizabeth Swados, at the New York Shakespeare Festival; in 1981 Black Elk Lives, written by Christopher Sergel, based on the novel Black Elk Speaks, directed by Tom Brennan, at the Entermedia Theatre, New York City; in 1982 Savages by Christopher Hampton, directed by Jackson Phippin, at Center Stage, Baltimore, Maryland; and in 1984 The King Stag by Carlo Gozzi, directed by Andrei Serban, at the American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
At the same time Taymor continued to develop her own projects, adapting non-theatrical materials, usually in collaboration with writers and often with composer Elliot Goldenthal. Her first version of The Transposed Heads, which she adapted with Sydney Goldfarb, played at the Ark Theater in New York in 1984. Two years later a new, totally restaged version, with music by Goldenthal, played at the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and at Lincoln Center in New York City.
In 1985 Taymor directed Liberty’s Taken, a picaresque musical about the American revolution, on which she had been working for four years. She wrote the book with David Suehsdorf, an old colleague from Herb Blau’s Oberlin Group, Goldenthal wrote the music, and G. W. Mercier—who would also work with Taymor on subsequent projects—collaborated on the design. The show had just a few performances at an outdoor theater in Ipswich, Massachusetts, with hordes of mosquitoes and biting green-head flies plaguing performers and spectators alike.
Taymor’s most important original project during the 1980s was Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass, which she co-wrote with Goldenthal, based on a short story by Horacio Quiroga. Taymor directed, as well as creating the puppets and masks. She collaborated with G. W. Mercier on costumes. This work, about a baby jaguar turned into a human by human love but then driven back to savagery by human cruelty, was Taymor’s first foray into Latin American “magic realism.” Juan was played successively by small puppets (first a jaguar, then a baby) controlled by one person, then by a Bunraku-type puppet with three handlers and finally by a live child actor. The show, which premiered at St. Clements Church in New York in 1988, was revived for performances in New York in 1990 and 1996 and for tours to Edinburgh, Canada, France and Israel in 1990–1991.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Horowitz, the artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, invited Taymor to direct Shakespeare. She directed The Tempest in 1986, The Taming of the Shrew in 1988 and Titus Andronicus in 1994, all at Theater for a New Audience and all with music by Goldenthal. Shrew used no masks or puppets, and The Tempest and Titus used them sparingly: for Ariel, Caliban, and the shipwreck; and for a nightmare sequence of the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. Titus, with sets, costumes and props covering Western culture from Rome to the present and with its circus-like presentation of the gore, was perhaps Taymor’s darkest and strongest work to date. In a much-enlarged form, it became the basis of her first feature film. She later directed and co-designed Carlo Gozzi’s commedia play The Green Bird for Theater for a New Audience in 1996.
By this time, Taymor had already made her first two films. Fool’s Fire (1992) was her own adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Hop-Frog.” It played at the Sundance Film Festival and on public television (PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service). In 1992 she directed a film of a production she directed of Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex, conducted by Seiji Ozawa, at the Saito Kinen Festival in Japan.
Oedipus Rex was the first of several major opera productions that Taymor directed. In 1993 she directed Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Maggio Musicale, in Florence, Italy, with Zubin Mehta conducting. Michael Curry collaborated with Taymor on the masks and puppets. Her production of the Richard Strauss opera Salome played at the Passionstheater, in Oberammergau, Germany, and at the Kirov Opera’s Mariinsky theater in 1995. Her direction of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman opened in 1995 at the Los Angeles Opera and was revived three years later at the Houston Grand Opera. It played at the New Israel Opera company in Tel Aviv in 1998. These opera productions were all extremely elaborate: Oedipus played on an enormous, eye-shaped wooden stage, with a pool of water below and rain falling upstage at the end. The set for The Magic Flute was such an engineering challenge that it had to be built by a bridge-building company.
It was Taymor’s 1997 staging of Walt Disney’s The Lion King that made her a household name and earned her that first-ever directing Tony for a woman. Taymor reworked the basic characters and story from the Disney animated film into an eclectic spectacle, with puppets inspired by African masks and body puppets as well as Asian puppets and technically sophisticated body puppets executed by Michael Curry. Whatever the form of the puppet, Taymor always left the handler’s face visible, allowing the audience to see the “double event” of the actors’ and the puppets’ performance. Additional productions of Taymor’s Lion King subsequently opened in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, as well as in Japan, England and Canada.
With more financial resources now available to her, Taymor concentrated for a time on feature films. Her 1999 screen adaptation Titus starred Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. In 2002 she returned to the magic realism of Latin America for Frida, a film about Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek as Frida and Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera.
Her recent projects include directing a new production of The Magic Flute, for the 2004–2005 season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and an original opera, Grendel, a long-term project she is creating with Goldenthal, for the 2006 season of the Los Angeles Opera and then at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York.
Over the years, Taymor’s work has garnered practically every award in American theater. She received Villager Theater Awards for the sets and puppets in The Haggadah and for direction in Way of Snow; Maharam Theater Design Citations for Way of Snow and Tirae; Obie (“Off-Broadway”) Awards for Transposed Heads and Juan Darién; an Emmy award for costumes in Oedipus Rex; the International Classical Music Award, 1994, for Oedipus Rex; a Tony Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama Desk Awards for direction, costume design and (with Michael Curry) puppet design, Tony Awards for direction and costumes, and a (British) Olivier award for costumes, all for The Lion King. Her film Frida earned Academy awards for best score and best makeup.
In 1990 Taymor received both a Guggenheim Fellowship and the first Dorothy Chandler Performing Arts Award in Theater. In 1992 she was granted a MacArthur Fellowship. In 1999 the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio mounted a retrospective of Taymor’s work. The exhibition subsequently appeared at The National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington D.C.) and the Field Museum (Chicago).
Blumenthal, Eileen, and Julie Taymor. Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire—Theater, Opera, Film. New York: 1995; revised, expanded edition, 1999; Marcus, Joan (illustrator), et al. Disney Presents The Lion King, Disney Press, 1998; Taymor, Julie. The Lion King: Pride Rock on Broadway. New York: 1997; Taymor, Julie, et al. Titus, The Illustrated Screenplay. New York: 2000; Behind the Scenes With Julie Taymor (PBS program for young audiences) (VHS), First Run Reatures, 1992; Frida (VHS & DVD), dir. Julie Taymor, Miramax Home Entertainment; Sigal, Clancy, Julie Taymor and Linda Sunshine. Frida: Bringing Frida Kahlo’s Life and Art to Film. New York: 2002; Oedipus Rex (VHS), Composer Igor Stravinsky, conductor Seiji Ozawa, dir. Julie Taymor, PGD Phillips; Titus (VHS & DVD), dir. Julie Taymor, Twentieth Century-Fox.