Her mother’s daughter: Julie Taymor brings her political passion to the screen once again

Julie Taymor. Photo: Annie Leibowitz

On this day, Julie Taymor was feeling a bit tired. She’s been working 12 hour days in post-production on the film The Glorias: A Life on the Road about the life of Gloria Steinem, the writer, activist, the co-founder of Ms. Magazine and an important figure in the feminist movement since the 1960s.

It’s also much more than a film about Steinem, Taymor said in an interview with ARTSFILE in advance of a visit to Ottawa where she will be the star of a candid conversation about her career and about making performing art in this digital age at the National Arts Centre on Nov.20. The event is being held to mark the publication of the second edition of Art and Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre by Sarah Jennings (McGill-Queens University Press).

“It’s not just about one woman; it’s about a movement and it’s about all of us. Anybody who feels that they believe in what Gloria Steinem was a part of is a Gloria, I think. That’s part of the reason for the title.” The film actually has actors playing Steinem at various stages of her life including Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson as a teenaged Gloria and Ryan Kira Armstrong as the young Steinem. The real Gloria is there too. But the film also features Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, Janelle Monnae as Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Lorraine Toussaint as Florynce Kennedy. It’s an important film and, Taymor says, the only one made about this crucial movement.

“We are almost done post-production. We are doing the final dub. The score is still being mixed. We start the DI, which is the colour correction, in about a week and a half. And all the visual effects, many of which come from Canada, are still coming in.

“It’s putting all the pieces together. We have our film. It’s just getting the final look and sound all put together.”

Taymor is known for groundbreaking and landmark projects in the theatre, in film and opera. The Lion King, of course, was a signature piece ever since it opened in 1997. The production is one of the most successful in the history of entertainment. There are still nine or 10 touring productions on the road right now, she said. The puppets she created have even been included in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum.

She said The Glorias is something new from her.

“I know it’s different from anything else I have done except for (the film) Frida about Frida Kahlo.” But unlike that film, which was brought to her, this is her project. “It started with me reading her book on a beach (four years ago).” That book called My Life on the Road certainly landed in fertile ground.

Taymor’s family, she said, “is a very political family. It has always been in the background.

“My (98 year old) mother (Elizabeth) ran for state representative. She was a delegate to a convention many times. She ran programs for women in politics all over Massachusetts. She is one of the mothers of all that.

“She wrote a book about it all called Running Against The Wind. She is a real inspiration in my life.”

The storyline in Taymor’s movie, Across the Universe, which is set during the turmoil of the Vietnam War era and the great social and political ferment of the 1960s, has a character modelled on her sister who was a radical activist as a member of the Students for a Democratic Society.

Taymor’s Steinem film will come into theatres in the midst of another very tumultuous time in American history. She knows it and embraces it. She believes it will help “half the voices of the world to be heard.” That’s what Gloria represents to Taymor.

“I haven’t talked to anyone about the movie yet. It’s interesting to talk about it now. The reason that it is called the Glorias is not just that there are five Glorias in the movie, which there are. It’s because it is really, in a way, about meetings with remarkable women.

“It’s about Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Wilma Mankiller and Bella Abzug. And it’s about all the other women too like the young black friend in the neighbourhood in Toledo, Ohio, who taught her how to tap dance.

“Gloria is a sponge. She listens. She is a receiver and a supporter. It is the opposite of the way our leader, in particular, and our male leaders generally operate. There are plenty of bad women out there too, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the idea of the grassroots, of we the people, she is absolutely that.”

Taymor then recounted a story that she feels sums up Steinem’s openness.

“Years ago, a black woman asked (Steinem), ‘What do you say to women of colour who say that the women’s movement doesn’t include them or represent them’. Her response was ‘I wouldn’t say anything. I’d listen.’

Gloria Steinem has a new book called The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!

Steinem is currently on an author’s tour with another book called The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off! Thoughts on Life, Love and Rebellion (Random House).

“She is full of wisdom and humour and wit and beauty and there are very few female heroes that we’ve written or made films about.”

There are lots of films about male leaders such as LBJ and Winston Churchill.

“Come on, let’s spend some time with an incredible woman leader. It is untold history that is still very prominent right now.

“We thought, when we started making this movie, that the president would be Hillary Clinton. We shot election night. I have tons of footage. We went to the women’s march in Washington.

“Now our movie is in the thick of things because all of these issues are still on the chopping block.”

The political is a through line in Taymor’s career.

“I think if you look at all my movies,” it’s there. “Look at Titus (Andronicus); Shakespeare was political. Titus was to me the greatest dissertation on violence ever written. I love doing Shakespeare.

“I like an entertaining good tale, but I also believe that there is always something in a good tale that will be socially critical or redemptive. And you can interchange the words social and political.”

Even The Lion King offers teachable moments.

“The Lion King is all over the world. What does that mean? It means there is some story in the world that every single man woman and child understands that it’s their story.

“It’s still going strong. There is a profound message in The Lion King. Yes, it’s entertaining and pretty and colourful but if you get down to what it’s about — it’s about responsibility. It’s about taking care of your family. It’s about coming of age and about healing people. There is a huge amount what all Disney films in the old days presented. It’s about going through dark times. It’s a very shamanistic piece of theatre.

“Even the most entertaining commercial things I have made are the same. The Glorias is more direct because it is about a political person.”

Taymor does go deep when she makes up her mind about something. As a young person, encouraged by her family, she started exploring the world. She went to Sri Lanka and India and Indonesia, also Japan and Eastern Europe and Paris.

This curiosity about and interest in the wider world is certainly at the root of the fellowship for young theatre directors she created that gives them a chance to experience some of what she found so enlightening.

All her journeys matter, she said, but her trip to Java and Bali in her early 20s has become seminal. It put her in direct contact with shadow puppetry and masks and the cultural stream that exists in Indonesia. She also draws on Japanese Bunraku puppetry. You can see these influences in The Lion King.

“That (trip) was the firestarter.”

Her unease about returning to Indonesia now stems from the fact that she was there before the commercialization of these places.

“People didn’t have TVs there then. Their main form of entertainment was their sacred ceremonies and performances.

“Today, from what I have heard, the commercialization is overwhelming, but friends say you can still find the pockets of the original culture.”

Still, “I feel I need to go to feel the music and the dance and the puppetry and the friends that I have there. I want Elliot to see where I feel that I grew up.”

This will be Taymor’s first visit to Ottawa where she will be involved in an Question and Answer session at the National Arts Centre with Globe and Mail Arts Editor Craig Offman. The topic of the event is arts in the digital age.

It’s an interesting question to put to Taymor. She acknowledges that the tools available to the theatre today, for example, allow a director to produce a story as big as any film.

“That’s why people were so shocked by The Lion King. How can you put a stampede on stage and do it with theatrical means?”

But, she says, artists have been employing technology ever since the first stick hit a drum. Technology needs to serve the story and that applies to computers as much as it applies to a puppet or a mask.

It is easy, after all, to create a sunrise on a giant video screen, but, she asks, is that any more impressive or relevant than using lights and coloured cloth?

For the next little while her focus is on the launch of The Glorias. Production will wrap in December and then the finished film will be taken to distributors for release in the spring or early summer.

“We have a tremendous plan. We want the film to be used for inspiration, for activism and for getting out the vote and talking about these issues that are still so critical. It will not just be about being in movie theatres or on TV but also as a tool to generate excitement, hopefully.”

Next spring and summer is when Americans will start to really focus on the presidential election and the future of their country.

And Julie Taymor, truly her mother’s daughter, is in on the fight against “whatever it is that is taking over the world.”

In Conversation with Julie Taymor
Where: Babs Asper Theatre, NAC
When: Nov. 20 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.