And yet, despite all her indie and avant-garde bona fides, her embrace of mainstream efforts has been utterly without the irony and condescension that often accompany artists when they move from subsidized to commercial entertainment. (On the first day of rehearsal, she told the Spider-Man company she wanted to “do a piece that will translate not just to 13-year-old boys, which I think this will,” but also to “snooty-nosed” types and “I couldn’t be bothered with Broadway” geeks.) Nor, at almost 58, is she retrenching on any front. Spider-Man, had it not been delayed, was to be part of her big rollout December; her $20 million movie of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren (in a gender switch) as Prospera, opens on December 10, and her production of The Magic Flute returns to the repertory at the Metropolitan Opera on December 21. The idea of treating such works, or the person who makes them, as if they were subject to cost-benefit analysis is completely bizarre to her. Art is not a product whose manufacture can be rationalized. Art is what you can’t even see until you make it.
With her kind of art in particular—visual, physical, as dense as dance—that can take a very long time. When, in early September, she leads a “stumble through” of the first act of Spider-Man in a bare rehearsal room, she has to narrate the action to make any sense of it for visitors. “And here is where he flies,” she says, as an actor poses like a kid in pajamas with his arms outstretched. “And here comes the Brooklyn Bridge with Mary Jane dangling from it”—the company, including Jennifer Damiano, who plays Mary Jane, stares at empty space. This clearly makes Taymor anxious; she flings her arms to indicate scenery flying away, and mouths every lyric faster than the actors can sing it. But it was she, after all, along with the playwright Glen Berger, who wrote the script that so nonchalantly calls for the most impossible things. “Decimated buildings on fire.” “He bounces off the walls and ceiling.” Did she know she could make such things happen when she wrote them? “Of course not,” she says. “What would be the fun of doing it if you already knew how?”
She uses the word fun a lot, which is jarring under the circumstances but makes sense if you take a step back. Who else gets to do what she does? And anyway, as she tells me one day in her loft on lower Broadway, over a cup of tea she forgets to drink, she’s been through much worse for her art.
“When she was 3, she told me she didn’t like the wallpaper in her room,” her mother, Betty, now 89, says. “And if you know Julie, you’d know it was typical.” The youngest of the three children of a gynecologist father and a Democratic Party committeewoman in Newton, Massachusetts, Taymor was precocious as an artist (her first-grade stick figures had nostrils) and as a believer in the priority of her own unusual tastes. She’d look through the newspaper to find things to do and then do them. Often they involved masks and performance. At the Boston Children’s Theatre when she was 8 or so, she was cast as Cinderella but called home saying she’d rather have been one of the stepsisters. In junior high, she made a statue of her boyfriend by wrapping him in papier-mâché. It could not, therefore, have come as a surprise to her parents that, when she was 15, she insisted on traveling to Sri Lanka—then Ceylon—and that at 16 she was off to Paris for a year on her own to study mime with Jacques Lecoq. “Other mothers would say to me, ‘Well, Betty, how can you let her go?’ ” her mother recalls. “But Julie’s not the kind of person you ‘let.’ ”
When making Frida, Taymor commented that most films on artists’ lives “drown in angst, grotesque behavior, and impossible suppositions on how and why the artist creates.” Nevertheless, when I ask her to look at her youth anthropologically, as a way of understanding how she became herself, she quickly sketches a thorough portrait of her environment if not her feelings. “I was a 12-year-old in the sixties,” she says. “I’m the little girl watching her parents take the older siblings through all the tumult of the time. My sister was a radical, my brother did the sixties thing. I was the observer. I called my parents by their first names. Traveled by myself into the city very young. Had a lot of freedom. I was treated as an adult.”
There is little affect to her voice; she might be describing someone else. But the story builds momentum without that. “Starting when I was 21,” she continues, “I spent four years in Indonesia and started my own Javanese-Balinese-Sundanese theater company called Teatr Loh; I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. We created our own material. It was a different time. There was no fear. I sometimes say you have to put blinders on. If you have a vision and allow all of this peripheral stuff to get in the way, how will you get to the end of the bridge you’re building? But saying there was no fear doesn’t mean I was confident. I doubted myself every day! I cried more there than any time in my life. What am I doing in someone else’s culture? Creating a theater company, all of us living together, and I’m responsible, this Western kid? That was my trial by fire.”