For those who know Mary Zimmerman’s work and the unique way she makes it, the first question that comes to mind when one hears that this Chicago-based auteur has turned a Disney film into a stage musical, as she did this past summer with The Jungle Book, isn’t along the familiar art-vs.-commerce, or nonprofit-vs.-Broadway, lines. It’s not about about whether Zimmerman’s poetic literary-adaptation style (Metamorphoses, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci) is too esoteric for a cute Disney cartoon, or whether Disney’s entertainment machine might homogenize or dumb down her vision.
No, the question is something more like: How did Mary Zimmerman get Disney to write her a blank check? That’s essentially what the studio did when it handed over the scripts and songbook of the beloved 1967 movie, plus some enhancement cash, to an adaptor/director who begins rehearsals without a script, who writes her texts as she rehearses, and who as a rule does not do workshops, let alone turn over her work for “notes.”
The Jungle Book, accordingly, is not a Disney Theatricals production, but a coproduction of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where Zimmerman is a resident director, and the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. The show ran at the Goodman to positive if mixed reviews June 21–Aug. 18, and runs at the Huntington Sept. 7–Oct. 20. Will it one day go on to join The Lion King on Broadway? None can say.
American Theatre sat down with Mary Zimmerman a few weeks before performances began in Chicago to talk about The Jungle Book, and about the ways it’s similar to and different from her earlier work. In the weeks following this interview, a controversy erupted over Zimmerman’s allegedly dismissive remarks about the colonialist attitudes of the source material’s author, Rudyard Kipling, and over what Jamil Khoury, artistic director of the Chicago company Silk Road Rising, considered her insensitivity to issues of representation and appropriation throughout her 25-year career.
Though the two directors have apparently patched up their disagreements, the challenges of the project—logistical as well as political—were already on her mind when American Theatre spoke to her.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: You’re using both the Jungle Book film and the Kipling stories as your source material. What’s the ratio of Disney to Kipling?
MARY ZIMMERMAN: I originally thought I was going to be using Kipling much more, but its tone is so radically divergent from the film that it would have no integrity to do that version of those characters, that sort of dark and bloody and vengeful version of things, and then do the charming songs from the movie. I hope this version is enriched by the Kipling, though.
And complicated by it, I’d imagine.
His biography was very important background for me. He was born in India, in Mumbai, and he lived there for his first several years. Then his parents took him and his sister to a boardinghouse to be educated in England. They were systematically abused. At age 11, their British relatives said, “Come and get Rudyard, something’s gone wrong.” His mother did, but she left his sister, Trix, and she never really made it; Trix was eventually institutionalized.
I think that Rudyard’s incredible hypermasculinity and obsession with power may in part have come from having failed in his duty to his little sister to protect her. Also, he was in Vermont when he wrote the Mowgli stories. He had married an American, and was under three feet of snow when he started writing about the Indian jungle. So this is not just an easy colonial Orientalism, his exoticization of the jungle—it’s hard-earned. I’m not an apologist for Kipling’s politics, but he’s a very complicated figure with a big old wound in him that those books are compensating for.
There’s a beautiful sentence in the autobiography about the moment he learned to read: “I remember it came to me that ‘reading’ was not ‘the Cat lay on the mat,’ but a means to everything that would make me happy.”
All of that has fed into my approach to Jungle Book; it’s buried, you know. It’s deep in the mix, but it informs my take on it.
Can you describe your working process? I think there are misconceptions about it.
I start with no script. I cast and design it, and then every day between rehearsals I go home and write. It’s really the process of playwriting, but the time frame of it is superimposed over the process of rehearsal. It’s adaptation, so I’m really trying to puzzle out how to get this thing from the page into embodied performance it was never intended for.
I do texts because I love those texts, and above everything I consider myself a reader—that’s my strongest self-identification. I’ve been an obsessive reader since I was five years old. So my whole life in the theatre is: How do I make a book manifest so that I can be amidst it? That’s always been my impulse.
You start without a script, but there is a source text.
There is a text. It’s not such a big magic trick. I’m not getting people in a room and going, “Let’s make up a story.” The story is very known. There’s the original novel or stories or myths or whatever. One thing that’s unique about this project for me is that one version of it is already in the performance form—in dialogue. Normally I’m trying to wrestle narrative into dialogue form or visual form.
There’s also the visual text of the film; it took me and my designers a year to absorb that, and find a way to both honor the film and not be dominated by it, because we can’t recreate those moments. Animation doesn’t observe the laws of physics, and theatre is absolutely bound by the laws of physics.
How does the design process work without a script?
The build happens on the same schedule as everything else. It is confining in a way, but it guides the script. One of the great joys and advantages of the way I work is that the set is challenging me to use it up. I have traps; what am I going to do with the traps? My sets are what I call open fields of play. I don’t use a lot of levels, and I want to have inherent possibilities. In the case of things that are drawn from enormous texts—Journey to the West, Remembrance of Things Past—I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I know the territory.
The Lion King comparison comes up a lot, I’m sure, since like Julie Taymor you’re a female director, a MacArthur genius, adapting a Disney animated film. But I’m interested in another parallel: This show’s characters are almost all talking animals. How are you portraying them?
They’re very much human, as they are in the novel; Kipling calls them the “peoples of the jungle” and “the jungle folk.” So they’re upright; they have indications of their animal-ness, but they’re not surrounded in masking fur. They’re not obscured.
One reason you seem like an inspired choice for The Jungle Book is that you’ve worked so much with stories from different cultures, particularly Middle Eastern and Asian traditions. Has that ever felt like tricky territory for you?
It doesn’t feel so tricky to me. I love to stage stories that tend to have been around for a long time before they were written down. And fantastical texts, made-up worlds. I’ve always been in that territory and not been too worried about it. I’m not sure what you’re asking; could you rephrase that?
I guess the bluntest way to put it is: Who are you to tell these stories?
A human being. These are masterpieces of world literature. We are all their inheritors. To say that some literature is so precious and so different from me that I don’t dare touch it is a form of racism to me. We’re more alike than not, and when you go further down in the human psyche you hit the commonality. I believe in the collective unconscious, and I believe that music particularly, but arts and literature and storytelling, too, are things that cross borders and cross boundaries.
With The White Snake [based on a Chinese legend], people asked: Are you going to do it in the style of Peking Opera? I said: We’re not even going to try; those people have done it since the age of seven, and for us to take a six-week workshop and claim some authority? It’s like, no, it’s a made-up world, it’s a fantasy in which animals sing and dance.
Believe me, I’m in a department at Northwestern University called performance studies whose entire purpose is the deconstruction of power and of cultural perceptions. So it’s not as if I haven’t read all those texts and been in those debates. I don’t believe we live in a post-racist or post-colonial world at all; I don’t take these ideas lightly at all, but I’ve been swimming in this territory my whole life, and if I had been intimidated by the precious otherness of the texts I was doing, I never would have done anything. And then all we would ever be doing is walking in our own little circles.
How did you get started making theatre?
At Northwestern I was in the department of interpretation, and the focus was the staging of non-dramatic texts. We were performing poetry and adapting short stories. Frank Galati taught a class on presentational aesthetics—on how to stage the world of a book when you have a napkin and a glass of water. Then I took a performance art class and I found my home. I loved telling things without language. One assignment was to stage a myth in a single image using only light. Then to stage a fairy tale in three disconnected images using only sound and your body. I loved it.
So is Jungle Book headed for Broadway?
That’s the elephant in the room, but we never talk about it. We want to make a really good show, and obviously Disney’s really invested. But its future is absolutely unknown.
I knew from the beginning that I was probably going to do this in just the way I wanted, and in a way that would not be satisfactory to many people, and it may not go on to world domination or any future life at all. And I think Disney knows that about me, too. I’m just going to do this to please myself, which I think is where you have to start. Don’t get me wrong, I want to please the audience, but my only way into that is to please myself. I think it’s very cynical to think, “Well, I don’t like this, but audiences will.” You never can be that way. People are asking me, “Who’s this for?” I think they mean, “Is it for adults or children?” But I say, “It’s for myself.”
I consider my practice a private practice. That’s absurd, because making theatre is more public even than making a film, because you’re sort of there with the audience. But it feels like its ends are private for me. And they have to do with me trying to figure out certain puzzles that are both personal but also aesthetic and structural. That’s what keeps me interested. I’ve never been drunk in my life, but a kind of inhibition switch goes off in me when I’m in the room. I have always felt, and musicians talk this way all the time, that it’s something coming through me, and that I’m trying to get out of its way. And part of the reason I work the way I do is that there’s such pressure on the situation that you can’t second-guess, and you break open in a certain way so that the unconscious is sort of in charge.
That sounds like the way actors and musicians describe performing.
They talk that way all the time—that their instrument is just picking up the sound. That’s how I feel, that I’m listening for how it’s supposed to be.
I haven’t written original scripts. It’s the power of these great texts that are sort of coming through. One reason I’ve been not intimidated about, like, doing The Odyssey, is that I know that The Odyssey is so much vaster than me, that it doesn’t matter, my little thing—it’s like a giant chorus that’s been singing for 3,000 years. My voice joins it and then it goes away. I don’t have a big head about it. It’s so much vaster than me. It carries me.