Director Taymor gives a glimpse of her creative process

Julie Taymor's passion comes downstage and grabs you up. The famed theater, film and opera director by turns waxed earnest, laughed and let her hands go wild in a wide-ranging discussion of her art Friday night before a packed house at the old Ashland Armory.

"What would it take to get you back on stage?" Bill Rauch asked.

"Not much," Taymor shot back.

Cue up big laugh. Taymor was speaking with Rauch, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in an appearance the Ashland Independent Film Festival billed as "Essential Transformation." That was a nod to the subject that provided structure to Taymor's appearance, which was the Taymor's process in bringing works by Shakespeare, The Beatles and Disney to new media.

The evening was propelled in part by footage from Taymor films such as 1999's "Titus," 2002's Oscar-winning "Frida," 2007's Beatles extravaganza "Across the Universe" and the 2010 version of Shakespeare's"The Tempest" with Helen Mirren.

Responding to a question from Rauch, who himself has opened the OSF to works from outside the Western Canon, about the influence of Asian art on her work, Taymor said that when she went to Indonesia to live and work as a young theater artist 40 years ago, theater was the major art form in the country.

Clowns, as in Shakespeare, would interject quips on current affairs into classical works.

"It was very inspiring," she said.

In a long career working with budgets from a few hundred dollars to many millions, Taymor learned to tell stories within the limits of the production.

"But that doesn't mean patronize," she said. "Shakespeare didn't dumb it down. There are multiple levels."

Her early work with masks and puppets can be seen in, for example, "The Lion King." Actors wore animal masks, and stampeding wildebeast puppets were placed on rollers in a technique that's a century old but looked fresh.

"You have to surprise people," she said.

She said in adapting the animated feature to the stage there was some doubt that the Disney people would accept her masks. In the end, then-Disney head Michael Eisner went with them, saying, "The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff."

When Rauch said that sometimes the deepest comments come from an 8-year-old, Taymor replied that kids are more capable of abstraction. Adults want to dumb content down for kids, she said; but often, in terms of what's needed, "it's the opposite."

"Titus" was adapted from Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" and shot in Hawaii with Anthony Hopkins. Locations in Taymor's work — and these were spectacular — represent the characters' internal landscapes. She tacked a hint of upbeat possibilities onto the end of this early Shakespeare work, which may be his bloodiest.

When she'd done it as a play, she used a giant gold frame that served as a sort of proscenium. But the device wasn't cinematic, and she had to let it go for the movie. So she replaced it with the Coliseum, which she called "the original theater of cruelty," a reference to the French playwright-director Antonin Artaud.

Could she imagine doing a Shakespeare play as a movie without first directing it for the stage? She could but didn't want to. Could she imagine doing a story without music? Same answer.

Even dodging a question, Taymor was funny. When Rauch asked a question about the interplay between her creative life and personal life, Taymor, whose partner is the composer Elliot Goldenthal, said, "Is this the one I can say let's move on?"

Despite the enormous budgets she works with, Taymor, who is known for her stylish theatricality, sometimes goes for basics. The sunrise in "The Lion King" is done not with a lavish project but with cloth and sticks.

"That's theater magic at its origin," she said.

She said she'd begun preliminary work with Salmon Rushdie on a different Beatles project when "Across the Universe" came along. She listened to 200 songs by Lennon and McCartney, whom she called "those genius composers and lyricists," then set about making a hybrid film in which the songs were a release from the picture's reality, a free-wheeling story about the '60s.

She spoke about production details like shooting Helen Mirren on a diving board with another actor under 2 inches of water with a rear projection screen for "The Tempest," in which the character of Prospero became Prospera with Mirren in the role.

Taymor took questions, too. Has she seen much puppetry on the stage? No. Not a lot. Not enough. Is it true she's looking at making another "Across the Universe," but instead of The Beatles it would feature the music of The Grateful Dead? No. But why not?

The final Taymor event of the AIFF will be the screening of "Across the Universe" at noon Sunday, after which Taymor will take questions.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at

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