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From Oberlin to Disney: A Mythic Journey

Julie Taymor, the celebrated designer and director of the Broadway smash, The Lion King, returned to Oberlin in December-her first visit since she graduated in 1974-for a day of presentations about her work. She put a standing-room-only auditorium crowd at ease with her conversational manner, tracing the development of her work from her childhood influences, to Oberlin, Indonesia and, ultimately, to Broadway. Taymor augmented her talk with slides and video of the work that's garnered her five Tony-award nominations, a MacArthur Foundation genius award and a Guggenheim fellowship.

Earlier in the day she talked with Professor of Theater Roger Copeland and theater students, faculty, and staff in a more intimate studio space. Proclaiming Taymor "the only living American whose work deserves a place in that international pantheon of theater directors that includes Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Stein, and Georgio Strehler," Copeland described her as "first and foremost a person of the theater, giving us experiences that are uniquely theatrical, that can be had in no other medium."

Copeland began his question-and-answer session, which he later opened to audience questions and comments, by noting that criticism of Disney, especially from artists, particularly those in the avant garde, has grown during the past several years.

Copeland: How did your collaboration with Disney come about? As someone who probably never imagined yourself working for or with Disney, what went through your head when you got the first call?

Taymor: I grew up, like a lot of people, watching Disney films; Pinocchio is probably one of the strongest images in my head, and it's not a negative one. But in the past 20 years or so, I've never liked Disney, although people have been telling me, "you ought to be working with Disney" because we tread in the same waters of myth, of folklore, of stories that are cross cultural. Our stories come from the same origins, it's just that I have a completely different take on them.

So, I thought, "It's not going to kill me to have a conversation." The Lion King is an essential tale that I could get behind. Tom Schumacher, who was then Disney's feature animation vice president, knew my work and knew I could create an epic landscape on stage. They really wanted what I do. I kept getting the signals that I had freedom.

Roger: Disney could have simply repeated the worldwide success they had with Beauty and the Beast, a very literal transference of the image from screen to stage.

Taymor: I was encouraged to do what I do. Tom kept saying, "do one of your things."

The idea of having [the Disney] audience was so enticing and so exciting. I love the people who come to see my theater, but how many people can? If you're lucky you can catch the three-and-half-week or six-week run. We don't close because we're failures. We close because its not-for-profit theater. Its a limited run. You can't keep those pieces going.

Copeland: Let's talk a little bit more about this desire to reach a larger audience.

Taymor: My interest in theater that crosses many levels of society, many ages, has always been fundamental to what I believe in. It's why I love Shakespeare, the Mahabharata in India or Indonesia. There are many different levels at which you can hook in. The Lion King has that as well.

The kids may not care about the abstraction, might not know it's happening, but I like the fact that an entire group of children, who may never have seen theater at all, will have their first experience be abstract-theater as a poetic medium. And a whole other thing happens for people who know exactly how hard it is to create certain images or where motifs in the show come from.

Copeland : Let's talk more about the motifs in The Lion King.

Taymor: The style is a blend of the individual artist with the inspiration from Africa. Except for one, there are no African masks in the show, but all of them are inspired by African masks. Choreographer Garth Fagan combined African influences with his own style. Set designer Richard Hudson's designs are an ode to African fabric design. I didn't want us dabbling. The Lion King is placed in Africa, but it's not nearly as outrageous and interesting as an African folk tale. It's a very American, Disney, story.

Audience comment: I took my daughters to see the show, and one of the things that moved me was the presence of the Africans in the cast and that they were costumed traditionally.

Taymor : What I love about The Lion King is that it's a show that has a predominantly nonwhite cast that isn't about race. On the other hand, it's all about race, because it is about very powerful traditions from a certain race, and that should be acknowledged.

Audience comment: The mainstream press has either ignored the race issues associated with the film version or enthused over how multiethnic the stage version is; how it transcends race on some level. But for the black person watching, it is rooted in Africa, and I appreciate that.

Taymor: In the movie, Disney was very conscious of race, except in one major thing, Matthew Broderick playing the teenage Simba. Not having a black actor play the future king is to many people, not just black people, racist.

In the best of all possible worlds it shouldn't matter, but in a world like America it does matter. It's especially important on stage because there is a person representing the king on that mountain. Some people have told me that this is the first time their child has seen a black person representing a king on stage. That position of power at the top of the mountain, a father nicely talking to his son about what it means to be king, is something that white people take for granted.