American director, mask maker, designer, puppeteer. Julie Taymor is a creator of bold visual theatre who has earned international honours for her puppet-infused work in theatre, opera, and film. Theatre legend, Stephen Sondheim called her work, Juan Darien, “one of the best theatre pieces I’ve ever seen”.
By the age of ten Julie Taymor had a serious interest in theatre. After high school she studied in Paris at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. While at Oberlin College she worked with noted experimental theatre artists Herbert Blau and Bill Irwin. In 1973, she began working with puppets. After graduating in 1974, she studied theatre in Japan and Indonesia. Puppetry of Asia, films of Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, the theatre of Jerzy Growtowski and Joseph Chaiken, Bread and Puppet Theater, all influenced Julie Taymor’s later work.
In Bali, puppets, masks and ritual inspired Julie Taymor to begin Teatr Loh to produce Way of Snow (1976), revived in 1980 for performances in New York and the UNIMA 13th World Puppetry Festival in Washington, DC. In New York, she designed puppets, costumes and masks. Her work quickly earned the support of leading experimental theatres. There were collaborations on Haggadah (1980) with composer Elizabeth Swados, and on Carlo Gozzi’s The King Stag (1984) with director Andrei Serban. Working on The King Stag, composer Elliot Goldenthal and Julie Taymor began a continuing creative collaboration. Transposed Heads (after Thomas Mann, 1984), directed by Taymor, used masks and puppets.
Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass (1988) won glowing reviews and multiple awards. The New York Times critic Mel Gussow wrote, “The play draws its power from the symbiosis of design, movement, and music, melding diverse performance art forms…. In her previous theatrical work, Ms Taymor has dealt with the theme of transformation but never with the artistic assurance and breathtaking intensity of Juan Darien.” In the spectacle, Juan Darien is played by a jaguar puppet, a bunraku-style puppet of a boy, and a real boy. All the other characters are glove puppets, shadow puppets, masks, and expressive sculptures. Julie Taymor received the MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious “genius grant” and the production toured to Scotland, Israel, and Japan.
The next project of Julie Taymor was a film for public television based on the dark, disturbing Edgar Allan Poe story “Hop-Frog”, called Fool’s Fire (1992). To create large-scale puppets for the production, Julie Taymor began her collaboration with designer, Michael Curry. Curry is expert at using the most current technologies of materials to design large lightweight puppet and parade characters. A live opera and filmed performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1992) directed by Julie Taymor was produced in Japan with Seiji Ozawa conducting and opera diva, Jessye Norman, performing. For the following few years, Julie Taymor directed opera and theatre. Based on a story by Carlo Gozzi, The Green Bird (1996, revived on Broadway in 2000) used puppets and masks and won several awards. The opera Grendel (2006) by Eliott Goldenthal, directed by Julie Taymor, premiered in Los Angeles.
With the hit Broadway musical, The Lion King (1997), based on The Walt Disney Company animation, Julie Taymor’s career reached unprecedented heights. Julie Taymor became the first female and the first puppet designer to win the prestigious Tony Award for directing. Still playing after fifteen years, The Lion King has been produced in many cities. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, initially directed by Julie Taymor, began previews on Broadway in 2010.
Julie Taymor directed the films, Titus (1999), Frida (2002) and Across the Universe (2007), all of which have some use of puppets. Frida won six Oscar nominations. In 2004, the Metropolitan Opera in New York opened its season with a gala performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, directed by Julie Taymor.
Julie Taymor dislikes the term, “puppeteer”, but her innovative, spectacular work places puppetry in the mainstream of American theatre. In the opening sequence of The Lion King, the audience sees leaping antelopes, fluttering birds, lumbering elephants made from foam rubber and fabric and all animated with clever and sometimes newly invented puppetry controls. The assembly of animals is a thrilling celebration of the act of creation.
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- Blumenthal, Eileen, and Julie Taymor. Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.