Julie Taymor & Selina CartmellShared uncertainty

Published in 2007clockTime to read: 4m45s
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One of the world’s most accomplished directors across an extraordinary range of theatre, encompassing serious drama, musicals, opera and Shakespeare on film, Julie Taymor had no inhibitions about sharing with young British director Selina Cartmell the mechanics and the headaches behind creating a new opera, Grendel. Cartmell’s own rich theatrical vision, crossing disciplines and taking inspiration from today’s most daring directors, Taymor included, meant that these two theatre-makers had a wealth of ideas and experience to share with each other.

by Matthew Gurewitsch 2007
  • Julie Taymor
    The Mentor
  • Selina Cartmell
    The Protégé

In its 11th year, American theatre and film director Julie Taymor’s stage adaptation of The Lion King for Disney remains an international sensation. “I am a storyteller,” she likes to say. Stories may be told in many media, and Taymor has proved herself the master of many, from puppet theatre, a form in which she excelled early in her career, to grand opera to the movies. She mixes techniques freely. Her skills in spectacle are unsurpassed, and she is a dazzling entertainer.

As the third cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative began, she was facing the final ascent up a daunting mountain. Grendel, a new opera co-created with composer Elliot Goldenthal, was a cherished project, decades in the planning. Thanks to a joint commission by the Los Angeles Opera and the Lincoln Center Festival, in New York, the score had at last been completed. Conceived on a Wagnerian scale, shot through with epic battles and sea voyages, Grendel would challenge Taymor’s skills of theatrical invention to the utmost.

Taymor is not easily daunted. Essentially self-taught, she has confidently expanded her portfolio from the most intimate to the most elaborate forms of entertainment. Yet Grendel gave her qualms. “It could be a disaster,” Taymor warned, even as she invited her protégée Selina Cartmell to watch the show take shape, warts and all.

Cartmell alone observed the entire backstage drama as it unfolded over many weeks. “Selina was surprised watching me struggle on Grendel,” Taymor would remark towards the end of the mentoring year. “I let her see my confusion and insecurity – because I have enough security.” Concurrently with Grendel, Taymor was also editing her movie Across the Universe, built around songs of the Beatles; Cartmell witnessed that process, too.

Watching Taymor in her various spheres proved a revelation. “It’s lonely to be a director,” Cartmell said, looking back. “Directors know more about other directors’ private lives than they do about how they work. Even if you’ve been an assistant director, you don’t know. You’re too busy making and helping. That’s not the same thing as purely observing. Julie was working at a different scale than I do – Grendel was an expensive, gigantic project – but the uncertainties she faced were the same uncertainties I have to live with. And it’s very comforting for me to know, right now, that somewhere out there, Julie’s going through the same things I’m dealing with here.”

Early affinities

“I’ve worked in worlds that Selina hasn’t worked in yet,” Taymor said long after Grendel had come and gone. “And I could explain something of the trials and tribulations, the joys and the sorrows, of bringing a gigantic work to light.” Seeing Taymor at work on Across the Universe was equally crucial. “Selina will work in film some day,” Taymor predicted.

It’s happening already. Cartmell has joined forces with Christopher Doyle, collaborating on a short of Cartmell’s Here Lies. A new opera is in an early stage of development. Meanwhile, however, there was Sweeney Todd, a work frequently appropriated by opera companies, even as it continues to be performed as musical theatre.

The affinities between mentor and protégée are far-reaching, yet at the same time, each has her quite distinctive profile. “I’ve been trying to pick up similarities,” Cartmell said as the year was coming to a close. “Julie and I are very different, it’s true. But I think we’re trying to say similar things about what the world is, coming from different ways.” Like Taymor, she sees joy and sorrow as waves in the same ocean.

Their meeting through the Rolex programme seems almost providential. Both Taymor and Cartmell are experimentalists at heart. And both, significantly, were drawn at an early age to the inspirational well of the East. Barely out of college, Taymor began absorbing ancient traditions of ritual, epic and puppet theatre in Indonesia and Japan. Cartmell’s epiphany came in a cramped rented room in Hong Kong, when a friend showed her dances she had learned in Bali.

“I knew right away that here was something I needed to learn,” Cartmell remembers. “I asked my friend how to make contact with the teacher. She said just to go to his village in Bali and dance for him. ‘If he thinks he can teach you,’ she said, ‘he’ll let you stay’.” Unannounced, Cartmell went and danced and was taken in as one of the family, remaining for three life-changing months.

And when she returned to Dublin for study at Trinity College, she walked into a bookstore where Playing with Fire was waiting for her: Taymor’s show-by-show survey of her work, richly illustrated.

“I can still remember the shelf the book was on, the way they displayed it,” says Cartmell. “And when I picked it up, I saw right away this was someone whose work would mean a lot to me. It’s not about making do. It’s about going the extra mile, never giving in. It said that you can do what you want to do. You don’t need pigeonholes. You can straddle worlds.”

Extracted from an article written by Matthew Gurewitsch for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2006/2007 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

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