Colbert and Taymor: Hakuna Matata

Even before the conversation between Julie Taymore and Stephen Colbert at MKA Sunday afternoon had begun, the nagging question in more than one audience-member’s mind had been addressed: would the interviewee be overshadowed by the interviewer? MFF Artistic Director Thom Powers made light of the situation, deadpanning of Colbert’s necessary qualifications: When it’s one of the board members husbands, you have to say yes.

The question was not without validity. Julie Taymor is an artist of the old school, a person who sees past the idea of check-a-box forms of writer or filmmaker or painter or sculptor to the human inspiration behind all disciplines, a self-described anthropologist who spent four years on the ground in 1970’s Indonesian in order to study an obscure form of shadow theatre. “So you missed out on a lot of Eagles hits?” Colbert quipped, wielding the deft instrument of dual purpose that serves him so well in his current employment as a nationally recognized entertainment brand, something Taymor is not.

The message: I can be sufficiently deferential while still underlining how foreign this is to so many, even in our cultured, little provincial Montclair.

You wonder that Taymor must have realized she was the guest team going up against the hometown hero. So she came out swinging, setting up her bonafides by describing the beginning of her journey as an artist at the tender age of 8, producing plays in the garage of her suburban Boston home. She graduated to a local youth company “creating theatre from scratch” on the floors of local churches and getting her first real taste of process.

This in turn led to an opportunity to study abroad in Paris at the age of 16, a time when most parents are leery of sending their kid around the block in the family car. My roommate and benefactor was a wizened 21, she laughed.

A montage of some of Taymor’s most stunning moments in film and on stage played before the talk. It’s interesting to reflect that Taymor’s greatest strength is not in writing original book or scoring new opera or necessarily being in the conversation with any number of cinematic heavyweights, but because her name has become synonymous with sumptuous visuals. Colbert at one point pantomimed the opening to the Lion King to great laughter:

It might not come to you at first, but like any buried hit, once you hear the first 8 bars you could easily sing along, a rising vocal sequence in a foreign tongue – but his

point was not every moving moment has to be explicated. “You nailed the sunrise” in Africa, he said by way of congratulation, and it was in the manner of recounting that you really saw Taymor’s genius, her otherworldly quality to capture some specific moment of human experience and render it to a gripping image. To wit: “Theatre is a religious experience.”

At the end, Taymor addressed some softball stuff by way of the Q+A, a flag-planting of earnest reverence by the audience; her favorite musical is West Side Story, etc. But the most interesting vein was mined by way of a Colbert question on collaboration.

Taymor talked about veteran actors not wanting to work on certain projects for fear of “going down bullshit roads” that all begin when an artist has lost sight of what it is they really meant. Know what you want to say then say it, she demanded, a none-too-unique battlecry heard in any number of 100 level artist workshops. And yet it’s a question that belies one of the more essential queries: What’s it all about?

Whatever the answer, the road is lit by the people around you. Get good collaborators, she said, and this struck me not the least because it was the same

thing screenwriter / producer Warren Leight had said in a completely different context at the beginning of the festival. When the process had become too muddled and as a result the work compromised, Light’s first collaborator, a formerly well-know Italian director then in the autumn of his career, had intoned: What were we thinking when we first wrote the material? What was the point when we started? Get back there and you too shall be saved.

“At the 9th hour it will not be working 100% and you need good people around you to keep on the right path. Otherwise you will lose your way.” I imagine it was an empathetic Colbert – as a man not short in his own experience of depending on the people around him – who stood then and, joined by the rest of the Montclair faithful, applauded the great artist’s gifts.

Click here for great photos of this event!

Post written by Kevin Walter