July 09, 2012

Julie Taymor's "Double Event"

Masters, you ought to consider with yourselves: to
bring in — God shield us! — a lion among ladies, is a
most dreadful thing; for there is not a more fearful
wild-fowl than your lion living; and we ought to
look to 't.

Therefore another prologue must tell he is not a lion.

Nay, you must name his name, and half his face must
be seen through the lion's neck: and he himself
must speak through, saying thus, or to the same
defect, — 'Ladies,' — or 'Fair-ladies — I would wish
You,' — or 'I would request you,' — or 'I would
entreat you, — not to fear, not to tremble: my life
for yours. If you think I come hither as a lion, it
were pity of my life: no I am no such thing; I am a
man as other men are;' and there indeed let him name
his name, and tell them plainly he is Snug the joiner.

(Dream, III.i)

After posting "Low Tech vs. High Budget" last week, I pulled a book off the shelf that I don't think I'd cracked since I bought it a dozen years ago: Pride Rock on Broadway, a riveting blow-by-blow account of how Julie Taymor adapted Disney's animated film The Lion King to the stage.

Esquire's 2011 profile of Taymor describes the show's Big Idea, dubbed the double event:

"She was a little-known avant-garde theater director with a MacArthur genius grant — a 'nobody,' she says — when she got the call from Disney and came up with the revolutionary idea of mixing masked live actors with puppets to stage the musical.... what Taymor has called 'the double event' in theater, in which puppeteers and other technicians aren't hidden from view but rather visible to the audience. We still lose ourselves in the story and suspend disbelief, but because we understand how the magic happens, we believe in the magic that much more.... 'They said we want what you do, we want your vision,' she remembers. 'But Michael Ovitz and others from Hollywood would say, "I don't think you can do it with puppets, it won't have emotion."' But she staged a series of trial performances with and without puppets for Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and as Taymor recalls, 'He said the greatest line: "They all work, but I want to go with your first idea [involving the puppets] because it's the bigger risk, and the bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff."'"

Here's an expanded account from a 1999 interview by Richard Schechner, "Julie Taymor: From Jacques Lecoq to The Lion King", from The Drama Review:

TAYMOR: ...Well, what is animation? It's that you can really put life into inanimate objects. And that's the magic of puppetry. You know it's dead and therefore you're giving it a soul, a life....

As the director I hadn't hired the designer yet, but I had to come up with the concept. My deal with Disney had three parts, the first being conceptual. If we all agreed on the concept I'd go to the next part. That suited me just fine because the last thing I wanted was to be enmeshed in something that I couldn't stand behind. Disney felt the same way. ...

The first puppet I conceived [was] the Gazelle Wheel. The Gazelle Wheel represents the entire concept. You know what I'm talking about? The wheels with the gazelles that leap? With one person moving across the stage you get eight or nine leaping gazelles. Which is a miniature, too. So you get the long-shot and the close-up. I brought the miniature to Michael Eisner [of Disney] and I said, okay, in traditional puppet theatre, there is a black-masking or something that hides the wheels, and you see these little gazelles going like that. The puppeteer is hidden. But let's just get rid of the masking. Because when you get rid of the masking, then even though the mechanics are apparent, the whole effect is more magical. And this is where theatre has a power over film and television. This is absolutely where its magic works. It's not because it's an illusion and we don't know how it's done. It's because we know exactly how it's done. On top of that, this little Gazelle Wheel is the circle of life. So then over and over again, with the audience conscious or not, I'm reinforcing this idea of the wheel.

SCHECHNER: Did Eisner immediately go for it?

TAYMOR: Completely. He said, "Got it!" I knew then that I could do the masks on the heads. I could show the process. There are places where the mechanics are hidden, but they're not very important places. You don't see the machinery under the floor for Pride Rock, but pretty much everything else is visible.

SCHECHNER: One of the things I like very much in The Lion King is the tension between what you see, what you imagine, and what you know. I've forgotten the name of the actor, but you know, the guy who plays Zazu—

TAYMOR: Geoff Hoyle.

SCHECHNER: He's very special. When I first saw him, I said to myself, OK, I'm going to watch him and not his puppet. But that was impossible. I kept slipping into watching the puppet.

TAYMOR: It's because he puts his energy into the puppet.

SCHECHNER: It was like the bunraku master puppeteer who is so good he doesn't have to wear a black cloth over his face. A double magic: you see the puppet and the puppeteer together. In that universe, God is visible.

TAYMOR: I've been calling that the "double event" of The Lion King. It's not just the story that's being told. It's how it's being told.

SCHECHNER: But you did that earlier, didn't you?

TAYMOR: I first did it in The Green Bird where, even though the actor was all in black, I didn't put a mask on his face. I didn't want to hide his facial expression because of the story — a prince transformed into a bird. So he wore black, but his costume was the costume of a prince. And he is the shadow of the bird. So the personality, the yearning to be a prince again, was always there. I explored the dialectic between the puppet and the human character. So finally the bird flies away and the prince comes down; it's the same silhouette, only now he's got his human face and his green coat.

In Juan Darién there's no speaking. There's no speaking in bunraku either, the speaking all comes from the side. The Green Bird is the first time where I had the puppeteer both visible and speaking, rather than the neutral puppeteer.

SCHECHNER: The tension in The Lion King for me was in the danger that the performance might fail, that the dialectic would not hold. What makes it thrilling for a grown-up, is to see if they can all pull it off.

TAYMOR: Right. Michael Eisner and the other producers, Tom Schumacher and Peter Schneider, were very concerned in 1996 when I did my first prototypes with four characters. Michael Ovitz and the whole shebang of Disney people were there. Things weren't working like they were supposed to work. The main problem was we were working in daylight, we were ten feet away. The actors weren't secure enough to not upstage the puppets. Some of the actors were so nervous in front of this crowd that the puppets were dead. Dead. So everybody said, "Uh, you can't do it for the principal characters." And I said, "But you saw the Hyena and Pumbaa work." "Well we're frightened about it because you don't know where to look. The actor is more interesting than the puppet." So I said, "Well I agree with you. This didn't work." I knew that.

But I also knew why it didn't work and I knew where it could go. See, a good thing about Disney is that they have money to do the next workshop. So I said, "Look, I hate puppets. I'm sick of them. I'm happy to do this with actors, with makeup, Peking opera-style, kabuki. I don't give a shit. I've got nothing to prove. If that's the best way to tell the story, let's do it that way. But I don't think that's why you wanted to work with me." And they answered, "Well, you can do it for the chorus animals, but not the principals." So I said, "All right, what I'm gonna do--and this is as much for me as you, because this is the first opportunity I've had to spend the amount of money it takes to do this experiment--I'm gonna do two or three versions of each character. I'll do full makeup and wig for Scar. And for Geoff Hoyle--we'd hired Geoff by then--I'll do it first with the bird and then without the bird. But we have to do it in the New Amsterdam, in a black environment, with all the lights, all the makeup, and full costumes. And you have to be 30 feet away."

And that's what I did. A true experiment. And it worked. Michael Eisner said, "Let's do all the puppet stuff. Because it is definitely more risky, but the payoff is bigger." So that was it. And there were no more worries about it.

Disney's YouTube channel features a series of 17 videos, The Lion King: Behind the Scenes, of which the first two, "From Screen to Stage" and "Behind the Story" are especially relevant here:

And of course the official trailer is pretty rockin', too:

In closing, an anecdote from a Vegas.com feature, "The Power of Puppetry":

"Michael Curry has designed puppetry and props not only for 'Lion King,' but also 'KÀ,' 'LOVE,' 'Believe' and 'Le Rêve' in Las Vegas.... Curry, who worked with Director Julie Taymor in creating 'The Lion King's' puppets, likes to tell the story of the audience member who came up to him and commented about the show, saying: 'I love it when the eyebrows move on the puppets.'

Only one problem – the eyebrows are painted on.

'That was the actors’ eyebrows moving,' says Curry. 'This is what is so great. We’re so expert in reading the human face that when the actor does that, it transposes to the puppet … they fill in the lost lines.'"

Posted by Alison Humphrey at July 9, 2012 12:32 PM