Sackler Center First Award Recipient Julie Taymor Talks About Women in Theatre and Staying True to Her Vision
By Carey Purcell
"I did play Cinderella," Julie Taymor said of her childhood performing in the Boston Children's Theatre program. "But I turned down Snow White."
This decision, made by Taymor when she realized she was always cast as the princess but really wanted to play "one of the juicy bad guys," was indicative of the Broadway-bound child's future. She would make her own decisions, carve out her own path and refuse to be defined by anyone else.
The path that Taymor carved out for herself has included several years of world travel and studying different forms of theatre and puppetry, which led to directing operas and Broadway plays as well as numerous feature films. The recipient of the 1991 MacArthur Genius Fellowship, Taymor made her Broadway debut with Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass, which earned five Tony nominations. Her theatre credits also include The Green Bird, Titus Andronicus, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, The Transposed Heads and Liberty's Taken. In 1997 Taymor directed the stage adaptation of Disney's animated film "The Lion King" and won the Tony Award for Best Costumes and Best Direction of a Musical — the first woman to do so.
On June 14 Taymor was honored with the Sackler Center First Award at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. The award recognizes women who are "first in their field," and was presented by Sackler in honor of Taymor's lengthy and varied career. Taymor also participated in a Q&A with feminist author and activist Gloria Steinem.
Taymor spoke with Playbill.com about the award, her career and her upcoming projects — of which there are many.
"I love it," Taymor said of the honor. "And the best part of it is having Gloria Steinem interview me. She's an icon and a phenomenal woman and presence. I've known her for a long time, but we've never done anything in-depth like this, so I'm excited."
Excitement about women in theatre was a common sentiment following the 2013 Tony Awards, where Pam MacKinnon and Diane Paulus won for Best Direction of a Play and Musical — the second time in Tony Awards history that women had taken home both honors.
"It's just ridiculous that it would take this long, and it becomes something you talk about when it should be the norm," Taymor said. "It should be much more common. Can you imagine someone saying, ‘Oh my God! Two men won the Tony Awards for directing!'? It's fun when you turn it around."
The lack of women in leadership positions — a hot topic after the release of Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In" — has been credited by some to a lack of mentorship. Taymor, who has participated as a mentor in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, said, "I get very excited when young women come up to me and I am a role model for them. I find it incredibly fulfilling that girls use me or think of me as a model for what they would like to be doing…I do think women have a hard time, and I still feel that's been a part of some of the success and difficulties I've had in the last few years. They can be attributed to that gender difference, but in general, I've put my blinders on. I just go out and do the work and work with who I feel is the right talent to work with — male or female."
A difficulty Taymor faced recently was complications resulting from the highly publicized production of Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, which she originally directed. Actors in the production suffered from injuries during rehearsal and the show delayed its official opening numerous times before Taymor left the production due to artistic disputes with the producers. She then sued the producers, saying they continued to make use of her creative contributions after her departure, and the producers filed counterclaims that stated she failed to live up to her obligations on the show. An agreement between the parties was reached in 2012.
"I worked on Spider Man for eight years… What's sad to me is the actual story we worked on never got to be seen, because everyone jumped the gun," Taymor told Steinem at the Sackler Center, including that the original plot of Spider Man was cyber-terrorism, which is not the storyline of the current production. "To think, if you can't put on a show in an allotted amount of time, and it's a mess, you're from a different planet…we were kind of punished at a vulnerable state."
Spider Man is not the only challenge Taymor has faced throughout her career, and she articulated some of the challenges she sees women facing in their careers.
"Are you too sexy? Are you too pretty? Are you wearing feminine clothes? Should you wear pants to an interview? We all go through all of that," she said. "That's why the most important thing as a director is: are you doing what you want to be doing? Are you staying true to your vision? Staying true to the vision is what you were hired for; that's what you got involved in, that is the main thing you have to do. People will use the feminine card all the time, but it's a really poor excuse, and frankly, don't work with people who do that."
Despite being a woman, and an artist, Taymor she said she would never identify herself as "a woman artist." And her upcoming projects, which include a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, two feature films and some TV projects, resist any single identification or classification. And that, Taymor said, is just how she likes it.
"I have always resisted being classified and put in a box, and that includes as a woman as well," Taymor said. "My work is almost uncategorizable. I move from one medium to another, so I don't like limitations. What I do in those mediums is a real blend and mixture of styles, so that says to them, ‘Look, you can find your own voice. You don't have to copy other people's. You have to find your own individual vision and what it is you'd like to do and how you'd like to put the stories together.'"
She then added, "The audience doesn't care if I'm a woman or a man. Just the producers."
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