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Notes on Julie Taymor’s directing Shakespeare for Stage and Screen

By November 4, 2013 No Comments

With Julie Taymor’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream now open at Theatre For a New Audience in New York, this may be a good time to publish my notes on a dialog the director had about directing Shakespeare for stage and screen. These include very brief comments anticipating this production and her desire to film the play. While Taymor did not say very much about Dream, remarks about her career supply a context for understanding the way Taymor thinks about directing Shakespeare as this new production opens.

The eleventh annual Ashland Independent Film Festival was held 12-16 April 2012 with Taymor as the recipient of the annual Artistic Achievement Award. In addition to the award ceremony, two of Taymor’s films were screened during the festival, Across the Universe (Sony Pictures, 2007) and The Tempest (Miramax Films, 2011), and the director was publically interviewed on 13 April.

Interviewing Taymor was Bill Rauch, Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), himself a stage director. The questions came from a theatre perspective more than from a film perspective, but the discussion touched on the stage productions that proceeded Taymor’s Titus Andronicus and The Tempest films.

Rauch asked Taymor what she feels is an artist’s responsibility to the community as she tries to balance commercial pressures with making art. Her answer had two points. Never prioritize the artist over the work and do not dumb down the art. Taymor offered Shakespeare as an example of someone who finds that balance. On the first hand, his plays are not about what an important artist Shakespeare was. On the second, they are rich enough to explore great ideas while being broad enough that the groundlings liked them too. “Shakespeare made [plays] for everybody.” Artists are under constant pressure to “dumb it down,” but they must resist this pressure by following the example of Shakespeare. An aspect of this was addressed in a later question when Taymor said that she is very careful when she chooses her collabirators. She is more comfortable with people who do not pressure her to make her work accessible to mass audiences, and noted that a big company, Disney, put pressure to forgo her own vision of using puppets and instead conventionally stage The Lion King. She had a champion in then Disney head Michael Eisner, who said that there is no gain without risk and supported the way that Taymor put Disney’s animated film on stage.

Rauch noted that in film clips of Taymor working with actors, she is often on the rehearsal floor, her face just inches from theirs, while most directors seldom leave the director’s table. Is this typical of how she works?

Taymor sees directing as collaboration between herself and her actors. Her method is informed by her own performance background. She studied and performed with The Boston Children’s Theatre, Theatre Workshop of Boston, and at the Mime School in France when still in her teens. She was an actor in her early twenties. This background makes her comfortable moving to the rehearsal floor to work with actors on character and movement.

From here, the discussion moved to her stage production of Titus Andronicus at Theatre For a New Audience in 1994, and her film of that play, Titus (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1999). Rauch’s question, “What draws you to put Shakespeare on film?” was not really answered. Taymor instead revealed that this play is too bleak for her sensibilities and that she could not have made the film without inventing the character of the boy, who soon becomes part of the story as Young Lucius. That character breaks the cycle of violence by rescuing Aaron’s son at the end. Not quite related to this thought but on the subject of finding a way to transform the play into a film, Taymor said that the “blood-socked” approach of Quinton Tarantino’s films gave her a way to visualize the Titus world on-screen.

Taymor had two and a half weeks of rehearsal with twelve members of the cast prior to filming. The biggest challenge was finding a common language that Shakespeare novices such as Jessica Lange (Tamora) could use to discuss the work with experienced Shakespeareans such as Anthony Hopkins (Titus) and Harry Lennix (Aaron). This was eventually achieved to the benefit of the film.

Noting the cycle of producing Titus Andronicus and The Tempest (Classic Stage Company, 1986) on stage before directing the films, Rauch asked Taymor if she would film a Shakespeare play without first mounting it on stage. Taymor said that she would rather not, a statement she possibly contradicts below. She likes that Shakespeare minimized the sets and props in his scripts. This appeals to her as a theatre director, but does not work for film. Without explaining why, Taymor indicated that she finds working through the minimizing process on stage helpful before reimagining the story for a film as she looks for filmic ways to capture what had been barebones simplicity on stage.

An example of this is the staging of Marcus’s long speech in Titus Andronicus 2.3. Taymor wondered why Lavinia would stay until Marcus finished and not run away. At Theatre for a New Audience, Taymor put Lavinia on a pillar so that she could not flee. This needed to be less stylized for film, so Taymor exchanged the pillar into a burnt tree stump in the middle of a field of mud, a stunning image that accomplished the same thing as the pillar without seeming artificial on film. Taymor affirms that this is still a kind of theatricality, but called it “cinematic-theatricality.”

Starting the film in the Roman Coliseum was another attempt to find a filmic stage equivalent. Though the Theatre for a New Audience stage lacked a proscenium, Taymor set the action behind a giant gold frame with a red curtain to create what she called an artificial location. I was not clear as to why Taymor considered this more artificial than the stage without the frame, or possibly Taymor did not explain it very well. As for the choice of the Coliseum, in the afterword to her published screenplay Taymor calls the building the “archetypal theatre of cruelty, where violence as entertainment reached its apex.”[1] She stated in the interview that the Coliseum was her attempt at a more cinematic location to replace the golden frame.

At this point Rauch changed the subject to Taymor’s staging of the animated film The Lion King (1997) without reference to the possible influence of Hamlet on the cartoon, and Across the Universe, a film whose story is built from selected Beatles songs. The one part of this dialog that touched on Shakespeare was Taymor’s discussion of the soundtracks created by her partner, Eliot Goldenthal. As part of a comment about his orchestrations of the Beatles songs, Taymor revealed that one of Goldenthal challenges in the Shakespeare films was to not use music when it would diminish the power of the words spoken by the actors on screen. Though Taymor did not expressly say so, this only makes sense if Goldenthal’s instinct is to compose music to play under these lines, a tendency that he must deny himself for the scene to have it full impact.

The conversation then turned to The Tempest. The stage set was a simple rake with volcanic sand. Taymor was pleased to find locations for the film that caught that feeling cinematically.

The small cast had two weeks of rehearsal before photography began. During the rehearsal, Taymor claims that Russell Brand gave an improv in character that was better than the lines that Shakespeare wrote for Trinculo. Lest that sound “sacrilegious,” she added, Trinculo’s “lines are not Shakespeare’s best work.” There was a suggestion of using these lines in the film, but Brand refused, afraid that people would claim the lines were changed because he cannot do Shakespeare.

The rehearsals included Ben Whishaw (Ariel) who was not available to go on location. His scenes were filmed after the production moved into the studio. Taymor was initially disappointed by this, but ultimately found it “liberating” because of the concentrated work she was able to do with Whishaw and Helen Mirren (Prospera). She did not comment on how this was a benefit or how it might have been different had Whishaw been on location, but Taymor did note that on stage she had a male Prospero and a female Ariel, so her film casting reversed the way that she thought about the characters and the play. Again, she did not go into detail about this, but she does in the published screenplay.[2] Taymor summarized her Shakespeare films by saying that they had low budgets and “did not make any money, but I was lucky to be able to make these films.”

Questions were taken from the audience at this point. When asked which Shakespeare play she would like to film next, Taymor answered that she would like to film Macbeth. Noting that there had been successful film versions in the past, though she only singled out Roman Polanski’s from 1971, she has an idea of to tell this story in film. Taymor said the play is “very cinematic; it is one of [Shakespeare’s] good dramatic pieces.” She did not indicate her approach to filming the play nor did she indicate that she would want to stage the play before filming it.

Taymor will open Theatre for a New Audience’s new theatre, currently under construction, with either Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She also has an idea for putting A Midsummer Night’s Dream on film.

Taymor would like to direct Timon of Athens for the stage, but not with Shakespeare’s language which does not work for her.[3] Taymor likes the ideas in the play and wants to explore them with different words.

Thus ended the program, but it is worth noting that The Oregon Shakespeare Festival was approached by a man in 2011 who offered the Festival money to rewrite and workshop Timon of Athens. There was much discussion within OSF as to whether or not they should accept this offer since one of the Festival’s philosophical stances is that audiences should be educated and brought up to Shakespeare’s level, or to put this another way, Shakespeare should not be dumbed down. It was decided to go ahead with the workshop because it was not public and there were things that might be learned from the exercise. OSF is not certain that it wants to continue with similar workshops even though the benefactor is anxious to. The point is that OSF already has a modern language script of Timon of Athens if Taymor wants to direct it on stage and if OSF is willing to present a modern rewrite of Shakespeare’s and Middleton’s play to the public.[4] Timon of Athens in some version is under consideration for the Festival’s 2015 season.

[1] Julie Taymor, Titus: The Illustrated Screenplay, Adapted From the Play by William Shakespeare, (New York: Newmarket Press, 2000), p. 178.

[2] Julie Taymor, The Tempest, (New York: Abrams), p. 14-5.

[3] Taymor did not indicate awareness that Thomas Middleton collaborated on this play.

[4] OSF is aware that by changing the language you do not experience the play that Shakespeare and Middleton wrote. Double meanings, nuance, and antiquated ideas are papered over by the new language. The man who financed this workshop either does not understand this or feels the loss is outweighed by his gain in understanding the rewritten language. My thanks to actor Jeffrey King, who acted in the workshop, and to OSF’s Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Lue Morgan Douthit, for telling me about the workshop and its background in separate conversations, and to Gwyn Hervochon, formerly OSF Processing Archivist and member of the play selection committee, for telling that Timon of Athens is being considered, possibly in the rewritten version, for the 2015 season.

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