Julie Taymor most recently directed the play 'Grounded', starring Anne Hathaway, at the Public Theater in New York City. She also completed a cinematic version of William Shakespeare's ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’, starring David Harewood, Max Casella and Kathryn Hunter, and filmed during her critically acclaimed, sold-out stage production that ran at Theatre for a New Audience's new home in downtown Brooklyn. The film was shown at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Mavericks in Film Programme and released last summer. In 1998, she became the first woman to win the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, and won a Tony for Best Costumes, for her landmark production of ‘The Lion King.’ The musical has gone on to become Broadway’s all-time highest grossing show and the fifth longest-running show in Broadway history. Her 1996 Broadway debut, ‘Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass,’ earned five Tony Award nominations. Other theatre credits include 'The Green Bird,’ ‘Titus Andronicus,’ ‘The Tempest,’ ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ ‘The Transposed Heads’ and ‘Liberty’s Taken.’ Her feature films include ‘Titus,’ starred Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming; the biographical film ‘Frida,’ starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina, which earned six Academy Award nominations, winning two; the Beatles inspired ‘Across the Universe,’ nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy; and her Helen Mirren-starring adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest,’ which had its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival following a world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. Beyond the theatre and screen, Taymor has directed five operas internationally, including ‘Oedipus Rex’ with Jessye Norman, for which she earned the International Classical Music Award for Best Opera Production and an Emmy for a subsequent film version; as well as ‘Salome,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ ‘The Magic Flute’ (the abridged English version, which inaugurated a PBS series entitled “Great Performances at the Met”), and Elliot Goldenthal’s ‘Grendel.’ Taymor is a 1991 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” Fellowship and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement in the American Theater.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIE TAYMOR BY ALISA SOLOMON UPON THE PLAY’S OPENING AT THEATER FOR A NEW AUDIENCE
Julie Taymor’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Theatre for a New Audience was, in a way, 30 years in the making. Back in 1984, she inadvertently planted the idea in Founding Artistic Director Jeffrey Horowitz’s head that she should direct the play some day.
At that time, Taymor was a young but highly experienced theater artist who had been living in New York for a few years after spending some four years studying and making theater in Indonesia, with earlier stints elsewhere in Asia and Europe. She quickly began making waves in the downtown New York theater scene—and making them with beautiful, billowing fabric, like the sheet that changed from a huge tablecloth into the undulating Red Sea in Elizabeth Swados’s The Haggadah in 1980. That project also featured Taymor’s life-size puppets of disputatious rabbis and their wives; leaping shadow frogs, flies, and pestilent plagues; a looming straw Angel of Death. Horowitz was only one of many producing directors knocked out by the work who invited Taymor to design a show. Specifically, she made masks, puppets, and costumes for Theatre for a New Audience’s 50-minute version of Midsummer that ran at the Public Theater. Afterwards (as Horowitz tells it), Taymor idly mentioned to him that had she directed the production, she’d have done it differently.
Though Horowitz was not about to mount Midsummer again any time soon, he hired Taymor to direct The Tempest two years later—the production that, as he has said, put the Theatre “on the artistic map” with its enchanting intelligence: Ariel as a Bunraku puppet, Stephano and Trinculo as commedia dell’arte characters, Caliban encrusted in clay. From then on, Taymor had a home at Theatre for a New Audience. (Another relationship blossomed out of the 1984 Midsummer: a friend of the composer Elliot Goldenthal had urged him to go see Taymor’s work in that show. They quickly became regular artistic partners—he provided the music for The Tempest and virtually all subsequent productions—and, eventually, life partners.)
Theatre for a New Audience regulars will well recall the psychologically rich and robust reading of her Taming of the Shrew (1988), the terrifying stylized violence of her Titus Andronicus (1994), and the whimsy of her production of Carlo Goldoni’s philosophical fable, The Green Bird (2000). And by the way, she kept a bit busy in the meantime, plying her theatrical wizardry in opera houses, film studios, and iconic productions like Juan Darien and, of course, The Lion King.
To open Theatre for a New Audience’s first home, Horowitz is making good that 30-year-old notion. With A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taymor reenters Shakespeare’s world of magic, menace, marriage, myth, and transformation, this time as director. We discussed her approach to the play just as rehearsals moved from a midtown studio into the inspiring space of the newly christened Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
SOLOMON: Julie, this is the first production in Theatre for a New Audience’s new home. They invited you to direct it, given your long and happy relationship with the theater, going back some three decades. So that’s a logical choice. So is the play itself. Why do you think A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the right play for blessing the new space?
TAYMOR: It has a history of doing that. From what I’ve read, the New Amsterdam on 42nd street opened with A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1903. And other theaters as well. The actual play is about a marriage. It was probably created for a wedding ceremony. And in a way, when one creates a new theater, it is like a wedding between the public and the new space. The end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is literally the blessing of the house. Titania, Oberon, and the Fairies—in this production they’re called the Rude Elementals, but the Fairies, in most productions—are there to bless this new house.
So it seemed an apt ritual for our new theater, here. My instinct is to do tragedies, normally. I love Titus Andronicus. I think Titus is a completely realistic play, completely. There are some parts that are hard to make work, but basically just go to any war state that we have now and it’s not any less grotesque. And I’d love to do Macbeth. I love King Lear and the other more serious of Shakespeare’s plays. But I think that this one just felt like the right joyous celebration to open Theatre for a New Audiences’ new home.
SOLOMON: Yes, it is a joyous celebration and was part of a wedding celebration as far as we know historically, and yet there are some sinister elements in this play.
TAYMOR: Of course, because that’s natural to Shakespeare. He is basically presenting to you love in all its glory, warts and all. He is saying: This is every aspect of love. As Titus was a complete investigation, a dissertation, on every kind of violence that can possibly be perpetrated, this is every kind of love. It’s love at first sight, innocent love, love twisted by the mind, love twisted by drugs, love twisted by lust, love twisted by jealousy, by a marriage on the rocks, love twisted by violence. You’ve got the Duke of Athens ready to get married to his Amazonian bride, whom he most likely raped and conquered.
He says: I won thee with violence—I wooed thee with violence and won thee by my sword. So what I love about Shakespeare is that he doesn’t create a kind of goody-two-shoes view of marriage or of love. He says, beware of love and enjoy it, but it’s ephemeral, it’s quixotic, it’s unreliable, it’s transformative, it’s not to be trusted: all of these things. And we try and create marriages, and rules, and codification of what is an irrational state of being, an emotional state of being. As soon as you try to put a harness on it, it will sometimes rear its head and gallop away; you’ll lose control.
So the point is that it’s not easy to control. Then, there’s the other aspect of the play, which for us in this day and age is tough, which is that he has conquered this queen, and she doesn’t become unconquered. And Titania is kind of given her comeuppance, in a way, by Oberon having her juiced and having her fall in love with a beast. She is humiliated and runs right back into the arms of Oberon and gives up her Indian boy. That is the symbol of their disharmony.
SOLOMON: Is that something you’re trying to undercut in some way? When you directed Taming of the Shrew, as I remember, you found a kind of counterreading an angle different from the one from which it had been regarded for many years.
TAYMOR: Well, I think that Shakespeare’s too smart a guy. He was very apt at writing the truth about everything.
I think that he saw what middle-age marriage is like. And he understood in The Taming of the Shrew what it is to be a smart woman and just not want to put up with bullshit. So Kate is called a shrew, but is she really? Isn’t she just more loud, more angry because of the situation of her life, that she can’t make a choice of the man she wants? I’m not bothered by the female part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not exploring that. I think the characters and situations are rich enough that one doesn’t need to lay a whole other level on top of it. I really like to just uncover in these plays what is already there.
SOLOMON: That reminds me of what Theseus says about the Pyramus and Thisbe play he’s about to see at the end of Midsummer: “never anything can be amiss / When simpleness and duty tender it.” Then he asks the audience to fill in whatever may be lacking with their imaginations, something that has always been characteristic of your work. Ever since the first piece of yours that I saw in the early 1980s, I have always been struck by how you can create such wonder and beautiful spectacle with, if I may so call them, simple tricks of theater. And this approach seems especially apt for this play, which is so much about the workings of the imagination. Would you describe some of the techniques you’re using here, how they involve the audience, and how far you can go in creating illusion before doing too much for the audience?
TAYMOR: Yes. When I have been interviewed about Lion King, I have often talked about filling in the blanks, that you don’t need it all. The Globe Theater, the theater that Shakespeare worked in predominantly, was an empty space, most likely. What is so profound is that the language fills in those blanks and creates the battlefields and the court, and the throne rooms, and the taverns; he uses language. But for me as a director, his language is also extremely visual and therefore it also inspires me to create visuals.
What Es Devlin, the set designer, and I are trying to do in the design and the concept here, is that everything comes from a bed sheet, everything. It starts with a bed as a most obvious and simple image, of a man—in this case a he-she because our Puck is
whatever gender you want to call Puck—sleeping. And from that moment, the trees that push up that mattress are the dream that infiltrates our minds when we go to sleep, takes over. And then the Rude Mechanicals come and literally take ropes with hooks, very mechanical, very banal, very in your face.
They hook up the corners of the bed sheet, they raise it up into the sky, and lo and behold, there are clouds. So these Rude Mechanicals who are working men of
Athens or New York City, they are our crew, they are our theater makers, our behind-the- scenes carpenters, tailors, Bottom the Weaver: These are the guys who make magic happen. They take from nature and they make tables out of trees and chairs out of trees. They make costumes out of the sky. It’s this constant back and forth between the poetic, the ephemeral, the spiritual, the intangible, irrational world, and the banal, direct world.
Also, the forest comes alive. Now, does it come alive with every single plant and green leaf? No, of course not. We’re using black and white bamboo rods. It’s extremely sculptural. Between the rods and the sheets, that’s pretty much the elements of this production. There are one or two cases where we have some furniture, but that’s for the Rude Mechanicals, who are the practical guys. The rest is constantly moving canopies that become wedding tents, that become tablecloths. I’ve worked in that vernacular before with [The] Haggadah at the Public Theater. The tablecloth in the Passover ceremony just spread out and became the Red Sea. Or The Tempest where the sail was the shadow screen at the same time.
Midsummer is on a bigger scale. You’re seeing all of the ropes. The theater is very exposed. And we’re using lights and projections. So you may get literal trees, but they’re on moving fabric. It’s not like a static image; it’s on something that’s changeable and moving. It’s very ephemeral and dreamlike in that sense, and extremely hard to control. We are doing our best, but it is humans, and ropes, and wind, and air. And so it has a kind of changeable, quixotic quality.
SOLOMON: That does seem to fit the sense of the play itself: the forest is unpredictable and—
TAYMOR: Well, that’s the point. This day of midsummer madness that Shakespeare was riffing off of, is like any of those things in topsy-turvy. In most cultures there is at least one day where everything turns upside down. What he did with this night is to put everybody into an unsafe place where anything can happen.
What’s more, Demetrius is the only one of the lovers that is never unjuiced. It’s a small, but important twist that the love juice reveals the simple truth of his love for Helena. The drug melts away societal notions of money and beauty, the notion that Hermia is the more appropriate mate. It is only in this state that Demetrius’ first yearnings for Helena can be rediscovered.
SOLOMON: And isn’t he the one who keeps referring to rationality to talk about the sudden love that he experiences?
TAYMOR: Yes, completely. They’re always talking about what is rational. And even Bottom talks about that. The beauty of Bottom’s dream is, I think, at the heart of what Shakespeare is also saying: Don’t explain it. Don’t analyze your dreams. The dream is somehow connected to the unfathomable, which is God-like, and we as humans shouldn’t go there. I mean, we shouldn’t try to control that, as well. I love that. I think that’s beautiful.
And that’s why children are so important to this production because they’re pre-control.
SOLOMON: You’re using children as the Fairies—right?—or the Elementals, as you are calling them.
TAYMOR: Yes, there are 20 prepubescent kids. They not only play the Fairies, as written, but also play the forest. They’re the trees, the creatures, dogs, does, snakes, bats, moths. They are the wind, they’re your mind. They’re Puck’s posse, who terrorize the Mechanicals when Bottom changes. They’re an incarnation of the emotions of the lovers. They’re the nightmare of Hermia. They are the elements.
SOLOMON: Were you jumping off of the scholarly conjecture that historically, in the original production, the Fairies were indeed played by children?
TAYMOR: No. I don’t care what other productions did, though I would imagine that they would have been children. I think it works better with children, just the idea of it, the energy.
Most initiation ceremonies all over the world are when you’re 13 or so, when you finally start to have sexuality that is recognizable and separates boys from girls, and they have to control their nature. That’s what we call it: our nature. So I wanted that feeling. What has been amazing in the rehearsals with these kids is the sheer joy they get out of a trap opening, or a line coming down.
I mean, seriously, the unfettered, sheer, pure, direct, emotion.
SOLOMON: Isn’t that the thrilling thing that theater lets all of us do—I mean, don’t we get to have that sort of childlike wonder?
TAYMOR: Well, that’s what I hope. It goes to a DNA part of us that relates to the first shadows on the wall that were made into foxes and rabbits. Where we suspended our disbelief and we said: “Oh, yes, I know it’s a hand with a light behind it casting a shadow; but no it’s not, it’s a fox, it’s a rabbit.”
SOLOMON: “How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear,” as Theseus says.
TAYMOR: Yes. That’s exactly what it is.
SOLOMON: So let’s talk about shadows, since it’s an element that you have long used in your work, and was such a significant part of your early study in theater. Oberon is the King of Shadows. The actors are referred to as shadows, most famously in Puck’s epilogue. How are you pulling up the shadow element and physicalizing that?
TAYMOR: We are doing a lot of shadows because, obviously with fabric, if you’re doing projections, you can’t help but have shadows. But there are deliberate shadows, as well. I never see any evidence that Oberon is called the King of the Fairies. It’s not in the text anywhere, and King of Shadows is. But I think when the actor playing Puck says, “if we shadows have offended,” Puck is talking about the actors. The actors in Shakespeare are shadowing our lives.
They’re shadowing us with a different perspective. And you can like it, or you might not like it. And you might find it fearful. Shakespeare was bringing up the magical world of fairies and elves, which in that time, probably would have been considered dangerous and, like you said, sinister, and anti-Christianity. This is a world of animism and of old fairytales and ancient beliefs that would come from the country.
He was treading on dangerous ground. There’s a part where Oberon says: ‘We are spirits of another sort. We’re not the negative spirits.’ Even though there’s darkness in Titania and Oberon, really Oberon is very positive. He’s trying to help Helena, and help the lovers find their true loves.
SOLOMON: Let’s talk a little about the acting. I know in the past you’ve worked with the idea of ideographs, of a kind of essential, distilled-down gesture that helps define the inner experience and thematic concerns of characters in a physical way. Is that guiding your work here, as well?
TAYMOR: I don’t know if I’ve worked on that, not as much as in the past. I think this has been really more just finding the parts. It’s very physical, though. It’s not dance-y, but there are moves that are highly stylized. And surely for the character of Puck we have talked about the physicality, and the physicality of Oberon and Titania. That’s just how I work. But I wouldn’t say that I’m asking them to find an ideograph in the way that I might have done in the past. Not in the same kind of codified way.
SOLOMON: What qualities are the actors you cast bringing to the roles?
TAYMOR: David Harewood as Oberon brings explosive power, incredible sexuality, but there’s also fun and joy and devilishness. He’s not just the big, bad Oberon. He’s loving, and it’s a very complete character that way. But he’s jealous, he’s got all of that. And our wonderful Tina Benko as Titania is stunning. She has got incredible imperial queen-like nature to her, very chiseled, but also has a low-brow bawdiness, and a very human side. Those characters have to straddle the more stylized idea, something that is more abstract, more an essence of being the Fairy Queen, or the King of Shadows, and not just the humans.
They are not humans. But that doesn’t mean—not unlike the Greek Gods—that they’re not operating with completely human emotion, which they are. So that’s always with these characters, the hardest thing.
As Puck, Kathryn Hunter is such a transformer physically, and she can do so many marvelous things with her body. I am using it. We are really using it. She’s astounding and can contort, and can jump on Oberon, and can move around. Everything she does comes from the character. She operates from the script. The words, the language move her. It’s always organic.
I’ve read many times that the four lovers are indistinguishable, but I didn’t find that at all. They’re very clearly defined. Lysander is a poet, a rebel. Perhaps this is the reason why Hermia’s father, Egeus, doesn’t want him to marry his daughter. Lysander speaks in such forward language, and is a romantic and a wild boy. It’s clear that he’s the ‘hippie.’ He’s the one that the father does not want. Whereas Demetrius is straighter, stiffer, he’s almost—we’re not doing this, but the Wall Street banker’s son—a son-in-law who could be like a mini Egeus.
And he’s a liar. He’s given his love to Helena, and sees somebody else and his eyes turn, for what reason we don’t know. But if you go with those ideas, then, when you’re casting, you can find actors who have such differences that make the characters even more definitive individuals.
SOLOMON: We’re running out of time, so let me ask you one last thing. People know this play; they have expectations of it. They also have expectations of you that maybe can feel a little burdensome. Are there any preconceptions you’d like to disabuse people of in advance?
TAYMOR: One of the reasons I’ve never directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was because I felt like it was what people thought was up my alley because of The Lion King and puppetry, and all that. And that’s why I gravitate more toward the human plays, the plays that don’t have this world of magic and other-worldly creatures. But our Rude Elementals are extremely human in that they don’t have accoutrements that make them Fairies. They’re children. And it’s their energy and their essence that makes them these characters, not objects that they’re holding or anything like that.
I couldn’t imagine—unless you use puppets, which would work very well—how else would you do those characters?
Some people set the play in the streets of LA and street people are the fairies. There’s all that kind of stuff that’s been done a lot. Or, you place it in Haiti, or you place it in Brazil or something, so you use another cultural reference to be able to understand the Fairies. That’s totally acceptable, it’s great, it’s just we’re not doing that. We’re not placing it in a time period or place. It’s really its own time and place and space.
SOLOMON: And maybe all importantly the space of the theater.
TAYMOR: Really all importantly. You’re extremely aware of the theater. Everything—the scaffolding, the ropes, the wires—you’re going to see through these things. And we’re really using the height and the depth of the new theater. The mechanics of the theater are part of the magic.
ALISA SOLOMON is a teacher, writer and dramaturg living in New York City. She directs the Arts and Culture concentration in the MA program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her criticism, essays, and political reporting have appeared in a wide range of magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Nation, Forward, Theater, and Village Voice (where she was on the staff for 21 years). Her book, Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender (Routledge, 1997) won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. She is the co-editor (with Tony Kushner) of the anthology Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Grove, 2003). Her new book, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, is just out from Metropolitan Books (Holt).