Julie Taymor wanted to do more than create masks, design costumes and choreograph. After all, she had created and run her own theatre company during her four years in Indonesia. Still, she had to take on some work for hire to get by, so she agreed to do some masks for a fledgling group called Theatre for a New Audience.
Taymor said she thought the show was awful but was impressed by TFANA's founder, Jeffrey Horowitz, so she agreed to work with him again on an abridged A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Now it was Horowitz's turn to be impressed. So he cajoled Taymor into trying her hand at directing Shakespeare. In 1986, Taymor tackled The Tempest. The production, which featured bunraku puppetry and music by Taymor's partner Elliot Goldenthal, earned rave reviews, jump-starting both TFANA and Taymor's career.
Nearly three decades later, Taymor is world famous, most notably for The Lion King and her troubled tenure on Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. She has also directed operas to acclaim as well films like "Titus," Frida," "Across the Universe" and, most recently, "The Tempest."
Consumed by such major projects, Taymor has not directed Shakespeare for the stage in nearly 20 years. But her love of his writing and her affection for Horowitz and TFANA are finally bringing her back to the Bard this fall — she is coming full circle in a sense, directing A Midsummer Night's Dream as the inaugural production for TFANA's first permanent home in Brooklyn's BAM cultural district. It's also a returning to roots for Taymor because Midsummer is the first play she remembers seeing, and she even played Hermia in Midsummer in camp at around age seven; the child who played Puck "was a bully who tortured me," she recalled.) "She is such an adventurous artist, she always finds new ways to tell stories," said Horowitz, adding that he also wanted to honor Taymor by having her open the new house because she and Goldenthal lent invaluable assistance in the fundraising campaign; Goldenthal is writing the music for Midsummer.
That adventurous spirit has been intersecting with Taymor's theatrical vision since childhood. At the age of nine, Taymor was riding on her own from the suburbs into Boston for rehearsals with the Boston Children's Theatre.
"That journey got into my blood," she said. Her parents encouraged that sensibility, so by the time she entered college she had already spent time in Sri Lanka and India and had studied mime in Paris. "I learned how to physicalize language there. It was good training," she said. She also participated in political theatre in Boston, which taught her about creating plays with a company instead of from a script.
At Oberlin Univeristy, she didn't study theatre, however. "I majored in folklore and mythology, so instead of texts or scripts, I was studying about shamanism and the origins of theatre," she said, though she did work with theatre legends Joseph Chaikin and Herbert Blau.
A fellowship took her to Japan and Indonesia to study experimental puppetry and visual theatre. "I was supposed to stay three months but I stayed four years," she said. "I didn't have a grand plan, I just was suddenly creating plays with Indonesians who didn't speak English and we were touring throughout the country. I had my own theatre company with actors ranging in age from 18 to 60... we created everything from scratch."
Although she got tired of "always being a foreigner" and now lives in New York with Goldenthal, she never lost her desire to journey to new horizons. She directed opera both because it offered something new and because the work would take her to Japan and then Russia and Italy. "I loved exploring the different cultures and different countries," she said, pointing to the difficulty of persuading Italian performers to sing The Magic Flute in German as the kind of challenge she relishes.
"I love challenging myself," she said, pointing out that when Hollywood came calling with family fare after her blockbuster Broadway success with The Lion King, she instead chose to make a movie of one of Shakespeare's least famous and bloodiest plays with "Titus." "Sometimes I do it more than I need to, but it just happens that way."
She doesn't really want to discuss what proved to be her greatest challenge, Spider-Man, saying she's extremely proud of the work she did as director of the show, but that she has put the entire experience behind her.
Speaking on the day that the New York Times wrote up a new tell-all book about the show by her former collaborator, Glen Berger, Taymor emphatically said, "Yawn. We're all kind of yawning about this. I'm not going to read it. That's all I have to say."
While she doesn't like rehashing what went wrong, there were seemingly oblique references in her commentary on other shows, such as when she fondly recalled her experience with the producers on Lion King — "They were so supportive. They wanted me to break the rules. That's why they hired me" — as well as how important it was then that "it was a very closed process with no one from the outside watching and talking." She also spoke passionately and in great detail about the decisions and discoveries in her creation of shows like The Lion King and the operas of Oedipus Rex and Grendel.
Horowitz has always been wildly supportive, too. He knew she was interested in directing Macbeth and told her he'd welcome her take on that. "'You don't open a new theatre with Macbeth," she said of the dark, bloody, and supposedly cursed play. They did readings of five plays last year including The Comedy of Errors and Timon of Athens before settling on Midsumer.
"Midsummer is a blessing on this new house, a marriage of the audience and the show, of the community and the theatre," Taymor said. She is adding several unique elements besides Goldenthal's score, including a visual motif of sheets and silks to create a world of shadows and dreams and a group of 16 children as "rude elementals" to replace the fairies. "They have that wildness, that unfiltered essence of nature."
While she carved out time in her schedule for this play, she may not be able to fit much more Shakespeare on her calendar — her focus these days is more on movies (she has several planned, including one of her musical Transposed Heads and one of The Flying Dutchman, which she has directed as an opera), TV (she has a series in the works) and another musical. "It feels like my life is all planned out for the next few years," she said.