Around the Institute

Julie Taymor Probes the Role of Art in Society

November 7, 2012

Julie Taymor is one of the most famously creative directors in theatre and film today. Tonight’s episode of ‘The Aspen Institute Presents’ will explore how the arts make an essential difference in sectors of society as diverse as education, economics, and diplomacy. In anticipation of the episode, Aspen Institute Arts Program Project Manager Erica Sheftman remembers a conversation between Taymor and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. 

“You have to marry a great story with a Julie Taymor,” Michael Eisner said, while introducting her to the audience at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival. “And that is the job of people like me. But there are not enough Julie Taymors.”

Taymor, who is widely known for directing the musical version of The Lion King—for which she became the first woman to win the Tony Award for directing a musical—shared her vision for storytelling on stage, which involves using ancient theater forms rather than projections and other common techniques. “In a puppet theater, the magic is hidden. The idea with The Lion King was to expose the magic, the rods…The telling of the story would be as spiritually and emotionally moving as the story itself.”

Taymor recalled that Eisner, who entrusted her with The Lion King while serving as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, told her, “’The bigger the risk, the better the payoff.’ It was really a fantastic statement that has stayed with me.” Eisner, in turn, said of Taymor’s work on the musical, “That was an example of having a supreme artist working with a group of people who only wanted her success. Often when you go to Broadway, there are so many people rooting against it.”

Eisner probed Taymor on her extensive travels during her youth, which heavily inspired her groundbreaking work on The Lion King and other projects. As a thirteen-year old, Taymor traveled to Sri Lanka and India; as a sixteen-year old, she studied theater and mime in Paris; and after graduating from Oberlin College, Taymor traveled for two years in Japan and Indonesia, where she was exposed to performances of masked dance-drama and formed a company of musicians, dancers, and puppeteers from regions like Japan and Bali.

“As a child, I was given tremendous freedom, so I made my own decisions about what I wanted to do. Though I was not spoiled, it was never materialistic.

“Here, it is ‘arts and leisure,’ instead of ‘arts and religion’ or ‘arts and the fundamental way to live your life!’” Taymor said. “It wasn’t like that in Bali. I was astounded and moved by the power of theater to not only tell the stories of mythologies, which religions cover and which give us our values…but also as a socializing event…It reminded me of Shakespearean plays. Theater was not isolated in boxes.”