Renowned for two decades among the theatrical avant garde, director/designer Julie Taymor won mainstream recognition in recent years for her productions of The Green Bird and Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass, which picked up five 1997 Tony Award nominations, including best director. The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emmy for Oedipus Rex, and many other awards, Taymor wears multiple creative hats for The Lion King: director, costume de-signer, mask/puppet co-designer, and composer of additional music and lyrics. In the following excerpt from her new book, The Lion King: Pride Rock on Broadway (written with In Theater's chief drama critic Alexis Greene), Taymor talks about the challenge of creating masks and costumes that turn actors into animals without sacrificing their humanity, working out the kinks in technical rehearsals, and the excitement of the show's first preview in Minneapolis.
During [the] developmental stage, one of my first tasks was to complete designs
of the hundreds of animals that populate the story. Having made the decision
not to hide performers within animal suits or behind masks, the challenge
was to convey the animal's essence while maintaining the presence of the
human. I was particularly inspired by the minimalist way
animals are portrayed in African art. The style meshed with my visual aesthetic, and reaffirmed that one did not have to represent the whole of an animal's body in literal detail. Sticks or swords could simulate legs; clawlike nails could represent a lion's paw. African-inspired textiles including the graphics of Kuba cloths and fine beading on elaborate corsets provided ways to depict fur, feathers, and skin. The cut of the fabrics, their decorations, tones, and patterns, would evoke an animal's contours and surfaces without sacrificing the character's human qualities. With Michael Curry providing technical expertise, we devised a totally new concept utilizing animatronics. The mask was attached to a harness and worn as a headdress above the actor's head. Via a cable control hidden in the sleeve of the costume, the mask could move forward and backward or from side to side. We reconceived both Mufasa's and Scar's original mask along the same lines. The new masks would preserve the vertical lines of the human actors when worn above their heads, and provide the horizontal shape of the animal when lunging down and forward, suggesting a lion's arching spine and neck. The horizontal form is enhanced in Mufasa by the two swords he is able to use like front legs as he strides regally about the stage. Scar, when in vertical mode, struts about with a gnarled cane, but when he assumes the horizontal animal position, his cane becomes a third leg, implying perhaps that he lost the fourth in the same fight that mangled his face.
Tech time, especially on my shows, can prove quite frustrating for the actors because the pace is tedious, the attention is to the technical matters and not the acting, and the hours are long up to 12 hours a day. Actually for the crew and the artistic team, especially the lighting designer, the day starts at 8:00 A.M. and ends at midnight. Each scene has some obstacle to overcome. Among our crises were:
The elephant is too big to enter the door into the auditorium. A stage manager will have to guide it in as the actors inside the legs bow down and walk single file down the narrow aisle. Still works as a great image for the top of the show.
The actress playing Sarabi is afraid of heights. She has to ascend Pride Rock with Mufasa. It is 15 feet high with no railings, and moves. Give her time, she will overcome it. She did.
The shadow puppet of little Simba that is supposed to appear in the tree looks terrible, is hard to light, and we couldn't hide the puppeteer. Solution? Cut it. Richard Hudson paints the image on a piece of muslin. We back light it. Simpler. Elegant. And why didn't we just do that in the first place? (A quick note about the art of cutting scenic items. I'm not big on it. It's too expensive. I believe that with good planning you can avoid the shocking truth that things might not work. On the other hand you can't always know everything in advance and one needs to take risks and try for the best. But if your best isn't working, cut it. Fast.)
The two kids are supposed to fly during the production number for "I Just Can't Wait to be King." Scott [Irby-Ranniar, Young Simba) keeps getting snagged on the tree branch in the wings and both kids keep spinning around in circles because of the type of flying rig and the limited flying space above. The timing of the music is too fast for Scott to fly down and snatch the bird puppet out of Zazu's hands. The harnesses are pinching the less than meaty bodies of our two young actors. Is it all worth it? Do we have enough time to perfect it? Can we ever overcome the lack of control that the two young actors will have over their movements? No. No. And no. Cut the llying in this scene. Scott will stay on the floor, Kujuana [Shuford], young Nala, will remain on the back of the ostrich. Scott's a great dancer and now the scene can really focus on him. A very good cut. Except that that means the giant suspended giraffes have to go, too. We'll put them in the lobby of the New Amsterdam, when we go to New York.
Our first audience had taken their seats in high anticipation. By this time, our whole crew, including producers and performers, were a little frazzled, exhausted, and not quite surehow it all would play. We'd become injured to the beautiful pictures, the delicate nuances of performances, and the low brow jokes. Anything could happen with the functioning of thecomputer which operated the set; it seemed to have a mind of its own. So, with headset on, Michele (Steckler) sits on my left, notepad in hand, ready to take the technical notes. And Dan [Fields] sits on my right, ready to take the sound and actor notes. Butterflies. The curtain rises and Rafiki starts her chant. From the balcony Lebo and Faca, under their antelope head dresses, chant back. Clouds float upward one at a time to reveal thesun rising. Two giraffes emerge and slowly move across the stage, silhouetted by the large golden globe. The audience starts to clap and cheer. The large elephant lumbers down the aisle followed by the wildebeests and bird ladies. Heads are turning madly all around us. More applause. And again for the gazelles that leap across the stage. Another wave of applause from the balcony as they finally are able to see the elephant as he climbs up onto the deck. Rafiki starts to sing the familiar refrain of the "Circle of Life" and they cheer again. We can hardly hear the song through the racket of the audience. It is overwhelming after two years of work and anticipation. I turn to Dan and Michele. We are stunned. There were plenty of technical notes that night but we knew that the basic performance was there. Our goal over the next three weeks of previews was to make certain cuts in some dance numbers, to work on the balance of sound, to reorchestrate some of the songs in order to achieve the desired climax, to fiddle with dialogue, and to rehearse the new scene that would eventually replace the pause in Act One. There were also technical glitches during those early performances that needed to be worked out. A few examples of these one or two time stomach-churning events:
The mountain wouldn't rise (due to computer malfunction) causing Pride Rock to look like a mole hill that night.
Mufasa had to climb the canyon wall using his own strength because the fly lines which support him had gotten tangled.
The cactuses wouldn't inflate on cue.
The king curtain, which is supposed to drop from the flies, got caught halfway and a stagehand, unbeknownst to the audience, had to climb out onto the grid during the show to untangle it.
And so on. These are the normal crises that eventually work themselves out. But the hardest challenge for every one was the flow backstage. For a week or so, I declined the invitation to watch the chaos from the wings. I suspected that if I was confronted with all the misery up close it would eventually replace the pause in would be hard to keep pushing every one to achieve the desired quick costume changes or complicated set changes. I knew that eventually they would get the rhythm down. When the dust seemed settled and the look of confusion and despair had disappeared from the dressers faces, I ventured backstage to see the "other show." In an odd way I was more moved by that experience than in watching the musical form the house. It was so utterly real. So dangerous. An intensely beautiful ballet of human and mechanical interaction without an inch of space unoccupied. While the children sang their "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" song downstage, in front of the black drop, the stage hands, in time to the music, would be setting up the huge bones of the elephant graveyard. The absurd juxtaposition was startling but the incongruity had created another performance all of its own. From the audience's perspective a perfect illusion was being performed but from backstage the reality of making that illusion work was palpably raw, happening-in-the-moment, fundamentally live theater. At the conclusion of the performance, I felt I had to go to the intercom to tell the company, both crew and I performers, how moved I was by how they had surmounted the mechanics of running such an extremely difficult show. I'm sure I got quite maudlin over that intercom as I thanked them for helping to bring all our visions to fruition, but that night was one of the most profoundly moving theater experiences I have ever had.