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Behind the masks; Theater artist Julie Taymor creates art by peeling away and interpreting layers of reality.; Cover Story


NEW YORK -- The large room is surprisingly empty. There's not a disembodied head in sight. And yet this pristine space, with its generous skylights, gleaming hardwood floors and bright white walls, is Julie Taymor's studio. This is the place where her imagination runs wild, where she concocts the kind of chilling imagery seen in, "Titus," her new film adaptation of the play often described as Shakespeare's bloodiest.

"Maybe that's what draws me to Shakespeare -- that full range of imagery," Taymor says. "Because there are so many different forms of violence in 'Titus,' I felt obligated and interested in exploring how violence is presented as entertainment." The impact of violence is a theme Taymor has revisited often in her 25 years in the theater. In 1982, she designed masks and puppets for Center Stage's production of "Savages," a play by Christopher Hampton that concerns the extermination of Brazilian Indians. Two years later she directed "The Transposed Heads," using both face and body masks for an adaptation of a Thomas Mann novella about two men whose decapitated heads are restored to each other's bodies. She made her Broadway directorial debut in 1996 with "Juan Darien," in which everything from Diego Rivera-inspired banners to shadow puppets helped tell an Uruguayan short story about a jaguar transformed by love into a boy, then by hatred back into a beast.

And now, there's "Titus," Taymor's first full-length feature film, which includes such brutal acts as rape and mutilation, murder and cannibalism. ("Titus" is playing in a dozen cities nationwide; its Baltimore opening isn't yet scheduled.)

With this list of credits, you might expect her studio to be overflowing with strange and striking artifacts. But a few months ago, Ohio State University virtually stripped bare her studio and apartment to furnish a Taymor retrospective.

There are some tell-tale signs of Taymor's work in the studio, but they're pretty tame. A couple of framed "Titus" posters are suspended from the ceiling. Two prototype masks from her 1998 Broadway production of "The Lion King" stare benignly from one corner. And stacked neatly at one end of a long table is a small pile of resumes and head shots from actors she is considering for her forthcoming Broadway revival of the 18th century commedia dell'arte play, "The Green Bird."

Taymor is talking animatedly on the phone. When she hangs up, she strides across the room with a smile and ready handshake. In publicity photos, the 47-year-old director strikes dramatic poses, surrounded by anguished masks from "Juan Darien," or perched, elegantly coiffed, beneath the metallic tiger's head that tops the emperor's throne in "Titus." In her studio, however, Taymor dresses simply, in jeans and a long-sleeved white T-shirt, her dark hair loose and uncombed.

On this rainy January afternoon, she discusses subjects ranging from her international theater background to her approach to Shakespeare to what projects attract her.

"I'm interested in the multi-layers of reality," Taymor says. "That's what art is all about. It's not there to be a direct reflection. It's there to give the audience a new perspective on the old thing, on something that might be very familiar."

Consider her two most recent adaptations: She turned Disney's wildly popular animated film, "The Lion King," into a totally reconceived stage play, then adapted Shakespeare's earliest and least-known tragedy, "Titus Andronicus," into a film.

At first glance, "The Lion King" and "Titus" might not appear to have much in common, but Taymor says, "I think there's mythic storytelling in both of them, the sort of thing that goes back to archetypal coming-of-age stories."

That mythic level, she explains, "is why people cry at 'The Lion King' in the first five minutes and they don't understand it, but it has a lot to do with archetypal imagery, with the concept of animation. I don't mean animation as in movies, I mean that we, as human beings, create art out of animating the inanimate and giving it soul, the anima. ... You see the artifice and the artifice gives life, and that's the origin of theater."

Welcome to her nightmares

Taymor first directed "Titus Andronicus" off-Broadway in 1994. The movie retains one of her most notable innovations. She punctuates the action with dream or fantasy sequences she calls "Penny Arcade Nightmares." In one nightmare, for example, two of the Queen's sons turn into tigers; in another, the head of Titus' son Mutius, whom he murdered, is grafted onto the body of a sacrificial lamb.

Quintessential Taymor.

"The idea of the Penny Arcades," she explains, "is to visualize the unspeakable, the unfathomable. It's not to show the violence. ... I only showed it when [Shakespeare] showed it. But the fact is that it's still living in the brain and the memory of the characters."

Though Taymor respected Shakespeare's convention of keeping most of the violent acts offstage, her stylized approach leaves no doubt about the consequences of these acts. For instance, right after her rape, Titus' daughter is shown standing in a swamp, her severed hands replaced with bare twigs.

The image epitomizes Taymor's efforts to, as she puts it, have audiences "respond to [violence] on a visceral level, but also on an intellectual level."

Taymor shot "Titus" in more than 100 locations in Italy and Croatia. Filming in Croatia, so close to modern-day atrocities, added a chilling layer of realism to the theme of violence.

"The irony weighed heavy," she says. "As soon as we crossed the border into the Balkan countries, you saw limbless people, right on the border. We used the Zagreb Police Academy for our Roman soldiers, and the discipline was phenomenal because you know that these people know what it is to be ready to fight."

Audiences familiar with Taymor's work only through "The Lion King," with its extraordinary use of puppets and masks, might be surprised by the look as well as the subject matter of "Titus." Like her stage productions of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (1986) and "The Taming of the Shrew" (1988), the focus of the film is on actors.

That Taymor deliberately took on a project devoid of puppets is not surprising for an artist whose career and stylistic range defy categorization. In 1992 she incorporated Japanese iconography into her staging of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex." She gave Caliban a mask inspired by the Mud Men of New Guinea in "The Tempest." And her "Lion King" mixes influences from Asia, Africa and Disney.

"The most striking thing about Julie and her work is that there is no impossibility, that she goes to an intellectual and conceptual core of a piece or an idea and quickly comes up with a multitude of approaches," says G.W. Mercier, a set designer who has worked with her on more than a half-dozen shows.

The combination of her imagination and artistry has led director Harold Prince to say Taymor possesses a "rare visionary gift." Composer Stephen Sondheim has described "Juan Darien" as "one of the best theater pieces I've ever seen." And opera singer Jessye Norman, who sang the role of Jocasta in Taymor's "Oedipus Rex," has called her "a true original, a great communicator."

Yet Taymor insists, "It's not about originality. I always said that about 'Lion King.' It's how it's told ... the twists and turns that the artist makes."

Early experimentation

Few theater artists today have made as many twists and turns. Taymor grew up in the conventional setting of the Boston suburbs, the third child of a gynecologist father and political activist mother, a Baltimore native. (Her parents met when they were undergraduates at Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College, respectively.)

From staging backyard theatricals, Taymor progressed to performances with the Boston Children's Theater. During high school, she spent a summer in India and Sri Lanka under the auspices of the Experiment in International Living.

Back home, she got her first taste of experimental theater as a member of the Theater Workshop of Boston. After high school, she traveled to Paris to study at L'Ecole de Mime Jacques LeCoq, where she learned to work with masks. She then enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio and earned work-study credits apprenticing with such off-off-Broadway companies as Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater and Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater.

At Oberlin, she joined an experimental theater troupe directed by Herbert Blau. "The work was intensely cerebral and gymnastic at the same time," recalls Blau, currently a professor of English and modern studies at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. "Whether one liked it or not, it was quite clear the people who did it had to be accomplished in doing it. They could literally act standing on their heads, and Julie took to it very well."

In one piece, "The Donner Party," about the 1846 California pioneers who resorted to cannibalism, Taymor came up with the idea of using a square dance as the overall format for the work. "It became a really quite compelling master image for the entire piece," Blau says. "Though I didn't recognize it at first, she demonstrated powerful visual gifts."

Taymor, in turn, says, "I became a verbal person with Herb [Blau]. I had been more physical, and I'd done mime in Paris, and I'd painted and designed. ... Play-making is what I got out of working with Herb, how to create a play as a director, designer, performer, writer."

Taymor graduated from Oberlin in 1974, the year Blau moved his troupe, by then known as KRAKEN, to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he served as dean of arts and humanities until 1976. Taymor did not accompany the troupe. Instead, she traveled to Eastern Europe, Japan and Indonesia on a fellowship. Expecting to spend three months in Indonesia, she wound up staying four years and founding her own company, Theatr Loh.

In Indonesia, she began pursuing another of her major themes, that of the outsider, or in her words, "stepping outside and seeing something with a different perspective." Her first original work, "Way of Snow" (1974-1975), which used puppets and masks to tell a layered story of survival, introduced yet another frequent theme -- madness.

"People always think madness is out of touch with reality, and I don't think that's true at all," she says. "It's a liberation of how to perceive reality. It's a different kind of reality."

Returning to the United States, her first job was at Center Stage. Director Jackson Phippin, a former KRAKEN member, hired her to design costumes, sets, puppets and masks for a 1979 Young People's Theater production of "The Odyssey."

Three years later, when he was directing "Savages" as part of Center Stage's main season, Phippin hired Taymor again. Center Stage rented her a loft in New York's Greenwich Village, where she created the largest puppets she'd made up until that time.

"There is a certain ghostliness and mythic scale to her work that appeals beyond naturalism to people," says Phippin, now director of the graduate acting program at Catholic University of America in Washington. "She was able to really capture souls in her masks and in her people. That's why it was so good."

Disney was no beast

In the years that followed, Taymor worked at other regional and off-Broadway theaters, and on the occasional opera, building a reputation for ingenuity and iconoclastic vision. In 1991 she won a MacArthur "genius" grant.

When Disney unexpectedly tapped her to direct "The Lion King," as well as design costumes and co-design puppets and masks, some in the theater world predicted that combinating the avant-garde theater artist and the commercial monolith would be a case of beauty and the beast.

Taymor, however, says she found Disney "incredibly supportive," and she welcomed the freedom to experiment on a large scale, with a large budget.

Because of "The Lion King," she became the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing a Broadway musical (she also won for costume desing). Despite these accolades, she has not been flooded with subsequent offers from producers. "I think the doors open, but I have to walk through those doors." There's no question, however, that the public is now more familiar with and interested in her work. That increased interest led to her decision to remount "The Green Bird," which played a brief, limited off-Broadway run in 1996. A 1765 fable by Carlo Gozzi about a pair of abandoned twins, the show features original music by composer Elliot Goldenthal, her longtime personal and professional collaborator.

It didn't have a life. It had three weeks in New York, sold out, great reviews. And it's a shame. You put that work into something, you love it, you want it to have a longer life," she says. "And I think people are turned on now to the form, where they didn't really know the form before--the puppetry, the masks. I think there's a new audience." "The Green Bird" will open on Broadway in April.

As a further testament to audience interest, that retrospective exhibit at Ohio State has been breaking attendance records and been extended into March. It travels later this year to Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts (Nov. 16-Feb. 4, 2001) and next year to Chicago's Field Museum (Sept. 1, 2001-Feb. 2, 2002).

On this particular day, news of the exhibit's extension in Columbus is one of several phone calls that have Taymor beaming. Another is word that "Titus" is moving into more movie theaters.

In the end, perhaps Taymor isn't that different from Rafiki, the shaman-like character who summons all the animals at the start of "The Lion King." At heart, she is a storyteller, someone who knows a host of stories and manages to tell them in a way unlike anyone else.

"Something can be just a damn good story and be compelling and new and fresh and move you in the heart and the intellect. But it has to move me both ways," she says. "I have to be touched, and then I have to be taken some place I have never been before. And I like danger."

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