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Taymor Talks 'Lion King,' Power of Arts at Kennedy School Event

Julie Taymor
Julie Taymor (left), a renowned theater, opera, and film director, discussed her career path in the arts with Deborah Borda during “The Creative Class: A Conversation with Julie Taymor,” which took place at the Charles Hotel last Friday afternoon.
“Arts are not leisure. Arts are fundamental to who we are as human beings,” director Julie Taymor said at an Oct. 30 event presented by the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. In a conversation with Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Hauser Leader-in-Residence at the Kennedy School, Taymor spoke about her own work in theater and film, the political power of the arts, and the challenges facing women in arts leadership.

“Julie defines, for me, the complete artist creator, somebody whose work spans such a stunning spectrum,” Borda said in her introduction. Taymor is best known for large-scale Broadway productions like “The Lion King” and “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” but she is also renowned for her opera direction and her off-Broadway and film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Her work is distinguished by the use of elaborate puppets and striking set design.

Dozens of students and fans filled the Charles Hotel’s Kennedy Room to see Taymor. “‘The Lion King’ was one of the first professional shows I saw when I was really young, and I’ve seen it a couple times since then. It’s one of those shows that really drew me to theater,” Matthew H. Munroe ’17 says. “I had never seen anything like it before, and I haven’t seen anything like it since. It completely changed what I think is possible in theater.”

While speaking on the importance of arts in civil society, Taymor drew on her experiences studying puppetry in Indonesia to discuss what Borda termed “the marginalization of the arts,” especially relating to cutting arts budgets in public schools. She contrasted America’s increasing tendency to consider the arts secondary to the sciences with the role of the arts in Indonesian communities. “There’s no word for ‘artist’ in Bali,” she said. “It’s what you do, whether you’re a tailor, or a teacher, or a farmer…. It is part of life.”

Taymor also discussed the processes behind some of her best-known works, including her 2010 movie adaptation of “The Tempest,” her Beatles-inspired film “Across the Universe,” and “The Lion King,” which she adapted from Disney’s animated feature into an epic musical famed for its intricate puppetry. She described how she transformed not only the aesthetic of “The Lion King” story but also elements of its plot. “It really is a short animated film, maybe 70 minutes. And it was a prodigal son story, but the prodigal son story did not really develop,” she said. “For this Simba child to earn his kingship back, he needed to go into a much darker journey.”

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When asked by Borda about the risks involved in adapting the film for the stage, Taymor recalled the different expectations for Broadway musicals in 1997, when the musical debuted. “The game-changer was the kind of theater it was,” she said. “No one had ever seen puppetry and mask work used in this very sophisticated manner.” She also attested to the challenges of bringing this level of sophistication to a children’s story. “I very strongly do not like children’s theater, but there’s a difference between not liking children’s theater and believing that theater can be performed at any age…. It’s making mass theater into an elevator that could have 20 floors. You say to your audience, ‘We can go to the top, but we can get off at any floor.’”

Following an hour of discussion with Borda, Taymor fielded questions on topics ranging from managing conflicting artistic visions to the role of the arts in revolutionary change. She reflected on her career as a woman in a leadership position, where her assertiveness was often received more negatively than that of her male counterparts. “For women, there is no ‘enfant terrible.’ There’s just ‘bitch,’” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

As the event drew to a close, Taymor defended the unique value of theater as shared experience when a student asked about the future of storytelling, particularly relating to virtual reality platforms like Oculus. “You mustn’t forget that the communal experience is half of the experience. It’s not that I’m against Oculus…but will it replace theater? No, of course not,” she said. “I think theater will never die.”

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