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Julie Taymor
Julie Taymor
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Julie Taymor Interview (page: 3 / 6)

Theater, Opera and Film Director

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  Julie Taymor

You've described this amazing ceremony in Bali where religion and art came together and was kind of a transformative experience for you. Could you tell us about that?

Julie Taymor: After I had received the Watson Fellowship and had been two years in Indonesia on this traveling fellowship, I stayed to start my own theater company. And in this hiatus, while I was pulling together the performers, I traveled to an incredible ceremony on the rim of a lake, a crater lake, a living volcano. I've got the scars to prove it; it carved out my leg. This little village called Trunyan was having an initiation ceremony where all these various villages would come to initiate the young men into their manhood, 13 or 14-year-olds -- like many ceremonies. I was there with another performer, and we split up and...

I came into this village square, this temple square in the dark. I was tired. Sat under this banyan tree with its roots hanging into the Earth under a full moon. No electricity in this village, of course. And I watched as, out of the darkness, with no audience around -- and they couldn't see me, I was in the shadows -- 20 or 30 old men in full warrior costume with all the little mirrors and the spears, came out and danced this incredible dance in the darkness. And I was squinting my eyes, and seeing the light bounce off these mirrors. And as these voices rose out of these old men and they stood up straight -- these bent old men stood up straight for this eternity, which was a half an hour or so, and these sounds came out of their mouths -- I watched in complete wonder, wondering, "Who were they dancing for?" My God, in my culture, if there's not an audience -- and a paying audience -- you don't do it. If there's nobody to see it, why would you do it? And yet they were performing, singing, dancing for this time for what I would say is what really is God, and that is for a principle other than themselves, for something that is larger. Whether it's to pay back nature or just to say, "I'm doing this because I have to do it, because it's part of me." They probably do it because they don't know why, ultimately. They do it out of tradition. But where these traditions come from, and the fact that it was done so perfectly, without the critic being there, without the applause, was really moving to me at age 22.

And right after they danced, they bent over again and walked out of the arena, and then...

A young man with a propane lamp came on and set up a couple of propane lanterns to light up the space. A curtain was put up. And it filled with an audience of all-aged people for the next nine hours to see a human drama, an opera. And those people needed the light because these performers were performing for human beings. But something else there didn't need the artificial light. It needed a light that came from inside. And it's something that is probably the most important moment of my life, to go back and understand. Especially when I'm having trouble, like I've had all week with this bloody set. Why am I doing this? I don't have to do this opera. I can make movies. I can make money in Broadway theater. I'm doing it because I love the art form. And, therefore, at some point you put those blinders on and you say, "Okay. It's not working now, but I knew I had a vision there. Let's just keep on that track."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

And somehow, miraculously, last night, it went smoothly for the first time, and we had a standing ovation. We were utterly shocked, because we thought it was a piece of shit! We thought we hadn't pulled this thing off. All those musicians recognize what Elliot (Goldenthal), the composer, has written. When you say, "I am doing this for the love of it, for the art itself," it pulls people into a place, just like bad things can pull them into a place where they will crash into the World Trade Center or anything. If you can tap into that in a human being, you can really transform.

Julie Taymor Interview Photo
Let's talk a little bit about this opera, Grendel, that is having its world premiere this very week. We're very honored to have you here during such a busy week, talking to us. This opera is ostensibly about a bad guy, a monster.

Julie Taymor: The outcast.

But this monster seems an awful lot like a human being in a lot of ways. There are different things tearing at him, conscience and pain and struggle.

Julie Taymor: Well, he is us. He is the monster that we are as well. What John Gardner wrote in his 1970 novel was the Beowulf legend from the monster's point of view. I am, to be quite honest, sick of hero stories. I feel that they are a bit full of crap. I won't mention names, but we have them in big blockbusters happening all the time. When Elliot -- the composer who is my main collaborator -- and I read Gardner's novel in the '70s, we were both taken with the perspective of the outcast, of the other.

We loved it, and we started this 20 years ago. We took Beowulf, the epic poem in Old English, and put it right together with John Gardner's contemporary retelling. If you bring it into today, we really feel that it has something very fresh to say now. Even if you just look at something like the immigration issue. "Oh, they're coming from the outside! The outsiders are going to come and take what is ours!" And then you say, "Wait a second. Didn't you do that to somebody else? Weren't you ever the outsider?" It's this thing, again, of having the ability to step outside of yourself to see who you are. And...

Gardner, in his novel Grendel -- and hopefully in our opera -- you look at human beings from a different vantage point. You look from the dark side, from the condemned side. Grendel is a monster because he is the seed of Cain. Well, he didn't intend to be. He was born that way, just as you are born a black, a homosexual -- maybe or maybe not -- a Jew, a Muslim -- you are born that way. And if you are, then, the enemy or the terrorist or the outsider, you don't necessarily have any say in that. And so you have a different world view. When you look back at the party that you're not invited to, you see it with fresh eyes.

That's what we do for our audience. We say, okay, you're used to the big, bad wolf story, and you hate him because he's the big, bad wolf, and you are compassionate with Little Red Riding Hood. But here...

The subtitle of our opera is Transcendence of the Great, Big, Bad -- and that was kind of a play on that notion of, "Oh, the great, big, bad this! Oh, big evil, the axis of evil. Oh, look at this bad, bad, bad!" But you have to say, "Aren't they saying the same thing about us? Aren't we the big bad?" We are, if you look at what we've been doing lately. Are we not the terrorists who come in, who start a war, who ignite things without anybody asking us? Are we not the trespassers?

In Gardner's Grendel and in our opera, he, the monster, he's "the world rim roamer, walker of the world's weird wall." He watches men as they build roads. And he said, "Huge bears fled at the click of a harness, wolves cowered at the sound of man. They hid. They cringed. They ran." This monster gets angry at human beings and becomes who he is to destroy them. On the other hand, you watch human beings creating this incredible terror of nature. Even back then, from that time of Beowulf, the king builds roads and chops all the trees down. And the lights, the monster sees all the mead hall lights, and the lights blot out the stars. Well, if that's not familiar! We don't see any stars in the big cities anymore. We feel that Grendel is very, very potent as to where we are today, which may not be any different than where we were in the 10th Century.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 16:31 EST
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