Curtain Speech: Julie Taymor

Julie Taymor is widely known for her success in theatre and film with triumphs like The Lion King, Frita, Across the Universe, and The Magic Flute. She was the first woman to win the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical in 1998 for The Lion King. She has garnered a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Obie awards, numerous lifetime achievement awards and a second Tony for costume design for The Lion King. Her theatre work is some of the most innovative work that has been done in the last twenty years. Her use of puppetry and abstraction has helped ‘non-theatre’ people become comfortable with avant-garde conventions in storytelling and taught directors and creators alike that often less is more.

“I use cinematic things in a theatrical way on stage, and in film I use theatrical techniques in a cinematic way.” (x)

Julie Taymor’s true genius comes from her masterful understanding of how to utilize the means of whatever medium she works in to better tell the story at hand. In theatre, she is fearless when it comes to taking advantage of theatrical space and an audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. This acknowledgment that the audience will suspend disbelief and engage their imagination if asked is the catalyst for one of the tools Ms. Taymor uses most: the Ideograph.

What is an ideograph and what is it for? An Ideograph (or Ideogram) is:

A written character symbolizing the idea of a thing without indicating the sounds used to say it. Example: Chinese Characters. (via

Using an ideogram is one way of engaging audience imagination through abstraction. Ideograms work like any other symbol. In the same way you can see a red hexagon, even without words, and know to stop, we can see a red handkerchief pulled from someone in a barber’s chair to know their throat has been cut. Julie Taymor states, “It’s all about how much you can say with one brush stroke.” How simple and detailed can we make something so an audience will be able to apply their own personal experience and imagination to it? The answer to this question changes on a production-to-production basis. But for one of the best known examples, let us consider The Lion King…

“When I was thinking about The Lion King, I said, we have to do what theater does best. What theater does best is to be abstract and not to do literal reality.” (x)

The Lion King (dir. Julie Taymor) in Las Vegas. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The Lion King (dir. Julie Taymor) in Las Vegas.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Finding the use of ideograms and abstraction in The Lion King is like finding the imagery in Shakespeare; it’s EVERYWHERE. From the top of the show we believe that actors operating puppets are elephants and various other animals, the round yellow screen upstage is the sun, dancers turn into packs of gazelles, and a headdress marks two actors as lions at the christening of their son. Those are only a few examples and this is just the first number. Even the set design is simplified by having actors come out with savannah headpieces that provide a second stage for storytelling opportunity. My personal favorite is when we see a drought occur because a piece of fabric on the floor gets sucked through a small hole in the stage floor. This use of puppetry and abstracted theatrical events allows Taymor to take an otherwise unwieldy story and characters and translate them to a Broadway stage in a way that not only makes audiences imagine what’s happening without feeling talked down to, but also provides beautiful moments of spectacle that enrich the original story in a way only theatrical adaptation can.

“Theatre is beautiful because it is ephemeral; it’s there and it’s gone and it’s horrible too.” (x)

It’s true that most theatre vanishes into the ether and exists mostly in memory once the actual event is passed; however, innovative conventions and things like ideograms are used time and time again, regardless of the production. In the latest Live from Lincoln Center production of Sweeney Todd, a red handprint means another Londoner has fallen victim to Sweeney. The upcoming revival of Into the Woods at Roundabout Theatre uses a mounted wolf’s head held by an actor to create the character of the wolf. In the same production, two men standing behind curtains on a rod drawn to look like ball gowns portray the stepsisters. Countless other productions have used conventions like this: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, any revival where characters play their instruments, Next To Normal, Fly By Night, any well-done concert version of anything ever, The Fantasticks, and many many many more.

Ideograms, symbols and thinking in terms of abstraction allow us to enrich the imaginative experience of theatre and venture into material in a universal way that other mediums cannot. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of making everything real all the time; great theatre is simple, clear, and asks its audience to meet it halfway.

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