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Julie Taymor

Julie Taymor

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: December 15, 1952 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Newton, Massachusetts, USA Profession: director, librettist, puppeteer, costume designer, puppet designer, songwriter

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

One of the most cerebral and experimental of theatrical directors and designers, whose fusion of folklore, puppetry and intellectually demanding themes made her a favorite of those with a taste for the cutting edge, Julie Taymor worked almost exclusively in the world of the not-for-profit theater before bringing her downtown sensibility uptown as director of "The Lion King" (1997), Disney's remarkable marriage of art and commerce at Broadway's New Amsterdam Theater. The media giant's deep pockets enabled her to experiment with new kinds of puppetry - to sculpt, to build and to test - resulting in what The New York Times called "the most memorable, moving and original theatrical extravaganza in years." Disney did not compromise Taymor's distinctive Indonesian-influenced minimalist style of mixing live actors, puppets, shadows and masks, which earned her two Tony Awards (for directing and costumes) and her first exposure to mainstream audiences, drawing comparisons to such legends as Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Harold Prince.Taymor's theatrical roots ran deep. Born on Dec. 15, 1952 in Newton, MA, she gave performances for family and friends at age seven, leading to her playing Cinderella - among...

One of the most cerebral and experimental of theatrical directors and designers, whose fusion of folklore, puppetry and intellectually demanding themes made her a favorite of those with a taste for the cutting edge, Julie Taymor worked almost exclusively in the world of the not-for-profit theater before bringing her downtown sensibility uptown as director of "The Lion King" (1997), Disney's remarkable marriage of art and commerce at Broadway's New Amsterdam Theater. The media giant's deep pockets enabled her to experiment with new kinds of puppetry - to sculpt, to build and to test - resulting in what The New York Times called "the most memorable, moving and original theatrical extravaganza in years." Disney did not compromise Taymor's distinctive Indonesian-influenced minimalist style of mixing live actors, puppets, shadows and masks, which earned her two Tony Awards (for directing and costumes) and her first exposure to mainstream audiences, drawing comparisons to such legends as Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Harold Prince.

Taymor's theatrical roots ran deep. Born on Dec. 15, 1952 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.

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

2.
4.
  Frida (2002) Director
5.
  Titus (1999) Director
6.
  Oedipus Rex (1993) Director; Stage Director
7.
  Fool's Fire (1992) Director

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Kurosawa's Way (2011)
3.
4.
 Broadway '97: Launching the Tonys (1997) Interviewee
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Performed as a child with the Boston Children's Theatre
:
Acted with several theater companies in NYC including the Open Theatre and Bread and Puppet Theater
:
Joined Herbert Blau's experimental theater company Kraken at Oberlin
1974:
Received a Watson Traveling Fellowship to study in Asia
1976:
First interdisciplinary stage production, "Way of Snow"; combined elements of Eskimo, Indonesian and American culture
1979:
Designed first US stage production, "The Odyssey"
1980:
Received acclaim in NYC for her designs for "The Haggadah"
1984:
Provided visual concept and designed puppets for the American Repertory Theatre's staging of "The King Stag"
1985:
Directed and co-wrote (with Eliot Goldenthal) "Liberty's Taken," an irreverent look at the American Revolution
1986:
Staged production of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," with the character of Ariel represented by a Japanese bunraku puppet; recreated staging in 1987 and 1992
1986:
Directed "The Transposed Heads," a collaboration with Goldenthal at the American Musical Theater Festival
1988:
Designed, directed and co-created (with Goldenthal) the off-Broadway show, "Juan Darien, A Carnival Mass"
1992:
Made TV debut as director, producer and writer with the PBS production, "Fool's Fire," an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's "Hopfrog"
1992:
Directed Stravinsky's opera "Oedipus Rex" in Japan; production recreated for PBS in 1993
1993:
Staged Mozart's "The Magic Flute" in Florence, Italy
1994:
Directed Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" at the Theatre for a New Audience
1995:
Had off-Broadway success with "The Green Bird"; created in collaboration with Goldenthal
1996:
Directed the Broadway production of "Juan Darien"; was also the co-writer, co-scenic designer and co-costume designer; earned Tony nominations for Best Musical, Best Director and Best Scenic Designer
1997:
Designed and staged the Broadway version of Disney's "The Lion King"; also contributed to the book and score; show received 11 Tony nominations including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score and Best Director
1999:
Made feature directorial debut with "Titus," an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus"
2002:
Directed second feature, "Frida," a biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek
2005:
Directed a production of "The Magic Flute" for the Metropolitan Opera
2006:
Directed the opera "Grendel" for the Los Angeles Opera
2007:
Directed third feature, "Across the Universe," a 1960s love story set to the music of the Beatles
2010:
Directed a film version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest"
2011:
Directed the musical adaptation of Spider-Man for Broadway, titled "Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark"; also wrote the book with Glen Berger; stepped down as director after several weeks of previews and numerous problems
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Education

Julia Portman's Theatre Workshop: Boston , Massachusetts -
L'Ecole Mimet Theatre: -
HB Studio: New York , New York -
Newton High School: Newton , Massachusetts - 1969
Oberlin College: Oberlin , Ohio - 1974

Notes

Taymor received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1990 and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1991.

Her production of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" won 1992's International Classical Music Award for best opera prodution.

Received an honorary degree from Columbia University in 1999

"We have a ways to go in understanding the power of puppetry, Our problem is for too long we have thought of puppets as being for children," --Julie Taymor in THE NEW YORK TIMES, July 2, 1991

"Julie is uncategorizable as an artist." --Stephen Sondheim in THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, March 22, 1992

To those who would say a mainstreaming of her talent can only mean dilution: "You don't have to sell out. It's easier for me to work with Disney now than 15 years ago. I have enough history now. I have a track record. This is what I do, and if you don't want what I do, get somebody else.

"I studied folklore and mythology in college, and that's the same territory Disney has been traipsing in." --Julie Taymor to USA TODAY, July 28, 1997

About her creations for "The Lion King": "I want the people to be aware of both the puppet and the actor. I don't want to upstage the puppet, but I also want people to see the actor, too. That way they can watch it on different levels. They can focus on the puppet or they can focus on the actor or they can focus on the way both of them are working together." --Taymor in THE NEW YORK TIMES, October 14, 1997

With masks, "you have to abstract the essence of the character in one fell swoop. One face has to cover all the expressions--tenderness, sorrow, fear and anger." --Julie Taymor quoted by USA TODAY, November 14, 1997

Recalling a meeting with Michael Eisner of Disney: "I said, 'Now, Michael, if you hide the wheels, what you'll have is traditional puppet theater. But the audience knows that's pretend, so why not let them in on how it's done? The magic is showing how one actor can make seven gazelles leap through the air.'" --Taymor in DAILY NEWS. November 11, 1997

Companions close complete companion listing

companion:
Elliot Goldenthal. Composer. First met c. 1980; have worked together on a number of productions; born c 1954; nominated for Academy Awards for his scoring of "Interview with a Vampire" and "Michael Collins".

Family close complete family listing

father:
Melvin Taymor. Gynecologist.
mother:
Betty Taymor. Political activist (Democrat). Worked at Boston College.
brother:
Michael Taymor. Pediatrician. Born c. 1945.
sister:
Laurie Taymor. Civil servant. Worked as program director at Massachusetts Dept. of Social Services; born c. 1947.
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Bibliography close complete biography

"Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire: Theater, Opera, Film" Harry N. Abrams Inc.

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