People who like their theatre in categories might feel less than comfortable with Julie Taymor, a New York artist whose mythical, puppet-populated works defy simple classification. Lining the walls of her large, one-room studio in lower Manhattan are the life-sized figures she’s created for her various original productions, ranging in character from detailed European working folk to the more exotic peasants and goddesses of the East. Among them are the skinny, wise little hermits of her most recent work, The Transposed Heads.
As she talks about this and other works, Taymor herself is nervously energetic, with the combative qualities of a basketball coach. She speaks rapidly and knowingly of her journeys through the often treacherous streams and shoals of contemporary theatre.
“Before I went to Indonesia,” she says, “I almost gave it up. I’d grown up in the theatre of the ’60s, worked with it, but felt that it didn’t have a broad enough base. I wanted to create for a wider audience, but at that time I didn’t know how.”
Taymor’s first exposure to “’60s theatre” was as a teenaged performer with the children’s unit of Theatre Workshop of Boston. Her interest piqued, in 1970 she went to study at Jacques LeCog’s famed Ecole du Mime in Paris. “At LeCog’s we studied puppetry as a way of learning about movement,” she comments. “You’d take a broom, look at its shape, and that shape would tell you about the kind of character you were holding in your hands. With that knowledge, you’d then make the broom move.”
Taymor believes that the LeCoq focus on puppetry deepened her sense of the nature of performance. “I learned about limitation. I learned how you begin to see the form and how you begin to fill the form.” She began to glimpse the extensive range of both puppet and performer: “The puppet can’t do what the person can do. But the puppet can also do what the person can’t—it physically transcends our limitations. And the face of the puppet changes. Puppets give you a new perspective on something familiar—they abstract an idea to make you freshly aware.”
From LeCoq in Paris, Taymor went to Oberlin College as an undergraduate, spending her work-study period in New York taking classes at H.B. Studios and working with the Open
Theatre and Bread and Puppet Theatre. When Herbert Blau joined the Oberlin faculty, Taymor became part of his experimental ensemble, Kraken. Some time later when the ensemble began to disintegrate (Blau would later reformulate it at the University of Maryland), Taymor headed for Japan on a travel fellowship. She never got past Bali. Hundreds of roasted pigs hanging from a group of frangipani trees struck her as few images had before. “I’d already been exposed to shadow puppets and had had a workshop in Japanese and Javanese puppetry and dance. Bali and its images opened my head. I was invited to watch Balinese and Javanese theatre groups, then invited to participate. finally to form a company—Teatr Loh (Loh is Javanese Sanskrit for ‘the source’).” The company, which got its initial backing from the Ford Foundation, consisted of dancers and puppeteers from Bali and Java, and for it she created a puppet-mask trilogy called Way of Snow, which is about, she says, “insanity and the struggle to survive in three different environ ments—Eskimo culture, Indonesia and New York City.” Characters included sea goddesses, dogs, peasants—even the frenzied populace of a mythical NYC. She employed dancing figures, shadow puppets, rod puppets, silhouetted paper cutouts, Easter music, Western jazz and such diverse objects as escalators, ice floes and subways.
“Naturalistic theatre is limiting,” she announces. “People keep sending me these boring, realistic scripts. I need to go way past that world, to deal with an exciting, imaginative outerness, and with real innerness.”
She mentions her interest in film. “You can be really inventive, get incredible effects. I was interested in film possibilities when I got back from Bali, but once I got here, things started to happen. I got involved in theatre design, puppetry, masks, costumes, sets. First I did a production of The Odyssey at Baltimore’s Center Stage in 1979. Then I was involved in Elizabeth Swados’ Haggadah at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1980.” At the time of Haggadah she also remounted Way of Snow for New York’s Ark Theatre and that is where her recent rendering of Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads was produced.
The piece is a fable of a young woman and her two lovers. She loves one for his intellect, his quiet sensibility, the other for his physique and sexual attributes. Their mutual jealousy and shame lead both young men to decapitate themselves in the temple of Kali. The woman then pleads with Kali and eventually the heads are restored and the men live again—but with the “wrong” heads.
In Taymor’s hands, the performers, puppets, masks, projected illuminations are all swirling; sometimes images are full-bodied, sometimes wraith-like, but always gyrating, spiraling, twirling or nervously extending themselves. They shine, then are cut off in blackness; they shimmer, then go dead; they engage us in the present, then vanish into memory—which is another kind of presentness. The human performers, in a sense, are planted beings. Their toes are arched and their heels almost peremptorily connect with the earth in that graceful way of making contact that speaks to the Oriental sense of presentation.
The puppets themselves are illusory beings. Skinny little fellows seen behind an illuminated scrim, they take on the extravagant, double-jointed posturings of creatures hardly bound by the earth. And the sounds are percussive, rhythmic, driving, pulling back, driving again.
With The Transposed Heads, Taymor’s reputation continues to grow. Her success gives her a degree of satisfaction, but also seems to make her restless. She speaks of forthcoming projects: “I spent so much time in Asia I felt I wanted to get back to American sources. So several of us [including writer David Suehsdorf and composer Elliott Goldenthal] have been working on this adaptation of an early American story which we’re calling Liberty’s Taken. It’s based on an anonymous work from 1789 called The Adventures of Jonathan Corncob, Loyal American Refugee. Jonathan is an apolitical scamp out to make his fortune and avoid serving in the Revolutionary War at all costs. The themes will be much more human-oriented than my earlier pieces. There’ll be a cast of 15 performers playing hundreds of characters, with every kind of puppet and mask that can be invented—all inspired by American folk art. For the huge battle scenes, I’m creating a puppet with 30 heads to represent the Boston Committee of Safety.”
Taymor is also working on a one-woman show with a sex theme, which she will perform herself. “It’s going to be about sex and puppets. Erotic tales, a sort of Masterpiece Theatre of sex. I like the humor of sex.” she announces. “I’ll use copulating puppets in it—it will have a traditional puppet bawdiness, like the Punch and Judy shows.”
Always eyeing new territories, Taymor seems to learn fast as she drives herself, demanding nothing but space to discover where her impulses will take her next.
Arthur Sainer is currently at work on a play, tentatively titled Cruising Angel, and a new novel. A video documentation of Taymor’s The Transposed Heads can be viewed at the Theatre Collection, Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts.
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