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Photo: Annie Leibovitz

Review: In Conversation with Julie Taymor at the National Arts Centre

By Samara Caplan and Laura Gauthier on November 25, 2019

Laura and Samara spend their days as non-profit unicorns and fill every spare minute exploring the world of musical theatre as BFFs (that’s Broadway Friends Forever).


The National Arts Centre continues to celebrate its 50th anniversary introducing special programming throughout the year. To speak about the importance of storytelling they brought in the multi-award-winning theatre, opera and film artist, Julie Taymor, on November 20, 2019.

Craig Offman, Arts Editor at The Globe and Mail, held a one-on-one conversation with Taymor in the Babs Asper Theatre at the NAC for an audience of a few hundred. The director, writer and costume designer—probably most well-known for directing The Lion King on Broadway, the award-winning film Frida, and The Beatles jukebox-musical film, Across the Universe—shared her thoughts and experiences on a variety of topics over the hour and a half-long event, taking audience questions as well.

Taymor has worked on more than 20 stage productions, seven films, six operas and countless other endeavours. From this body of work, she has been nominated for eight Drama Desk Awards, winning three, five Tony awards, winning two, one Academy Award nomination and is the winner of one Emmy Award.

Speaking of the visceral nature of theatre, which allows the audience to see themselves from a new perspective, Taymor explained how experiencing something together as a collective changes how you experience it.

Offman kept his questions brief and let Taymor do the talking. Always moving, leaning forward in her chair, expressing with her hands and arms—and even reaching over and down to ‘knock on wood’ on the stage floor—Taymor gave insights into the creative process and the impact of art. She touched on shows from a range of her work, but focused especially on The Lion King. Speaking of the visceral nature of theatre, which allows the audience to see themselves from a new perspective, she explained how experiencing something together as a collective changes how you experience it, rather than, say, if you were watching the same production at home on television by yourself. By hearing and seeing other people’s reactions, you experience it differently.

“We had something and it didn’t get realized.”

She did speak briefly about the “notorious failure” in her catalogue of work—the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, famously the most-expensive Broadway show ever, which closed early after a series of set issues, cast injuries and an inability to capture audiences. Not going into much detail, she explained that when you’re in a bad place, in bad company, and when a team is not on the same page, doubt quickly turns to fear and then the creative process falls apart. She noted, “we had something and it didn’t get realized.” The complete opposite of that experience, with The Lion King, Taymor talked of how there was always total support even when there were doubts.

Often known for her “low-tech” approach to projects (use of masks, fabric, lighting and dance instead of projections or computer-generated visuals), Taymor spoke of how she follows the infamous theory of Marshall McLuhan: “the medium is the message.” There’s a message for audiences in the technology and how the story is told. She doesn’t always go the low-tech route though, she spoke briefly of her play Grounded, starring Anne Hathaway as a drone pilot, which had very simple staging that was indeed made complex by using projections and computer-generated images extensively.

Speaking to the grand success of The Lion King on Broadway, Taymor felt the audiences it has been able to reach (100 million people by Taymor’s count) was a higher measure of success then it’s financial growth. The show has grossed more than $8 billion. Noting that “a good box office” has given her the freedom of choice, in terms of future projects, Taymor emphasized that a huge part of why the story does so well is because The Lion King is a universal story that transcends cultures and languages. She did note, however, that often humour doesn’t translate and is localized for productions.

Taymor spoke extensively throughout the evening on multiple themes and gave thorough answers to audience questions, but the evening can probably be summarized best by her ethos of storytelling which came up in nearly everything she discussed. Her goal is always to create a sense of awe in audiences and to take them out of the banal—take them to places they didn’t know they wanted to go.


Visit www.nac-cna.ca or follow @CanadasNAC on social media for updates and future event listings.