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Julie Taymor, Working without Limits

By Linda Grashoff


This article is reproduced from the December 5, 1997, issue of the Observer, Oberlin's former faculty and staff newspaper.

DECEMBER 5, 1997--What Julie Taymor '74 has been telling reporters everywhere, she also told two attentive Oberlin audiences Monday: Disney, producers of The Lion King, "put no limits" on her direction of the smash Broadway hit.

Taymor, on campus for a day, met with a group of 50 or so at 1:30 in Warner Center, where Roger Copeland, professor of theater, led a question-and-answer session with Taymor about her life and work. At 4:30 she spoke in King 306 to a line-the-walls crowd and showed videotape clips of some of her productions, including The Lion King. What the audiences saw and heard were evidence of a mind at work beyond the boundaries of conventional American theater.

Taymor, a 1991 MacArthur "genius" award winner, traces her strongest influences to the four years she spent--one as a Watson fellow--in Indonesia and Japan in the middle and late 1970s. The experience contrasted strongly with some of what she learned from former professor of the arts and director of Oberlin's one-time Inter-Arts Program Herbert Blau. Blau's work--replete with private associations--was highly intellectual and verbal, Taymor said, while she was drawn to the more visual and public aspects of theater. These she found in abundance in the east. And although she had been introduced to the power of the mask at Lecoq's mime school in Paris even before entering Oberlin, Taymor found her interest in masks reinforced in Asia, where she also became drawn to puppetry as a high art form.

Masks and puppetry may be the characteristic visual elements of Taymor's work to this day, but the infusion of her personal experience and vision into folklore and myth is what drives her theater making, she said. And Oberlin shares some of the credit: The accent on incorporating personal material is part of what she willingly absorbed from working with Blau, while myth and folklore were the topics of her independent major.

Taymor seems to be enjoying the professional success of The Lion King, but she also seems to be riding high on the experience of the play itself. She said Monday that she likes how the audience can "watch the mechanics" of the play as it is performed. And she was excited about how the play can be enjoyed on many levels, from the visual to the intellectual--even for the sounds, not only of music but also of language. The "most gratifying" aspect of Lion King, she said, has been the responses of African-American audiences.

Whenever Taymor would wonder aloud to her Disney producers about whether she should take the production in a certain direction, Taymor said, the producers encouraged her to follow her own artistic inclinations--to "do what I do." Such encouragement was a smart financial move on Disney's part. While satisfying the personal side of Taymor, The Lion King--with some of the highest advance-ticket sales in the history of Broadway--seems to have struck a universal chord with the public.





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