Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Julie Taymor and Spiderman

The New York Times carried an article about the lawsuit between Julie Taymor, the one time director of the Broadway musical, “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark,” and her collaborators and producers. For readers who do not know the backstory, Taymor directed a play which was 9 years in the making, cost $65 million to produce before it opened, opened far after the original opening date, and was panned by critics. Taymor was replaced as director, and the musical was rewritten substantially. The story, once conceived as a mythical enactment of a person with frailties who faces the possibility of greatness, was simplified greatly. It became closer to the cartoon story of Spiderman, with the added thrill of seeing Spiderman fly through the theater on a harness.  It went from the mythical and magical to the spectacle. As a spectacle it is doing very well, particularly attracting first time theatergoers who visit New York. The investors may yet earn their return and then some.

This story sheds some light on the psychology of work and creativity. There is no doubting Taylor’s genius. Indeed, she won the Macarthur Genius award in 1991. Rooted in the tradition of using puppets in theater, she developed a style that integrated fact and fantasy, not unlike the way in which Cirque du Soleil presents its dancers and acrobats. Her Broadway musical, the Lion King, her movies, such a Frida, and Titus, her delightful production of The Magic Flute, which served well to introduce children to opera, are all without a doubt artistic achievements. So how and why did she fail?

I think one possible answer may lie in the ideas of "subordination" and "projection." To create theater on a mythical scale Taymor developed a flying apparatus to be used during some two-dozen flying episodes in the play. At rehearsal, two performers were injured during separate demonstrations of a slingshot technique meant to propel them across the stage. Christopher Tierney, who played Peter Parker/Spiderman, was seriously hurt when he lost his footing and toppled off a platform.

One question is why Taymor persisted in using these dangerous methods. How could a musical, which is after all a product designed and produced to make money, be so important? Of course, one answer is that it was a piece of art.  But while we accept that artists should sacrifice themselves for their art, we are less sanguine when they sacrifice others, particularly when the injuries are physical rather than psychological.  

A different answer may be that Taymor saw here own efforts as mythical. Talking at a TED conference during the period of her travails with the production, she told the audience about her risky and frightening experience hiking on volcano in Hawaii. Likening it to her journey through the production of Spiderman she said, “I am in the crucible right now. It is my trial by fire. It's my company's trial by fire. We have survived because our theme song (in the musical) is 'Rise Above.’'' This quote suggests that she linked her experience of her struggle with the musical to the theme of struggle and achievement in the musical. She, like Spiderman was a person with frailties aiming for out of the ordinary achievement.  This suggests in turn that she may have grown uncomfortably close psychologically to her own creation.

What is wrong with that? One conception of work and creativity is that as producers and artists we must at some point subordinate to the work itself. While we create the work of art, its own logic soon drives its evolution. This is not unlike the way in which good novelists find that their characters speak through them rather than they speak for their characters.  One theory holds that this quality of subordination gives rise to the experience of flow. In a state of flow one is without ego, and a person becomes an extension of the work itself.  Perhaps Taymor could not subordinate to the production process, and the musical remained too much an extension of her own ambitions. Indeed, some observers believe that the Greek chorus she introduced to comment on the play as it unfolded, represented her own voice. Because the production was too much about her, she may have experienced lapses of judgment, for example trying to transform a cartoon into a myth.

There is one more issue to consider. Taymor had her roots in puppeteering and in the use of masks, a technique she used to great effect in The Lion King.  Puppets and masks work through the principle of projection. By definition, they do not look like anything real, but it is their very unreality that releases the viewer's fantasy. They provide a space for the viewer’s active participation. But in Spiderman, Taymor sought verisimilitude, to make it look like Spiderman was actually flying, rather than to help viewers see Spiderman as if he were flying. By forgoing the powers of projection, she reduced her reliance upon her viewer’s creative powers. Instead, she inserted the Greek Chorus --eliminated in the revised production-- to tell the viewers what they should be seeing.   

Perhaps if the musical was not mythical, the story of Taymor’s failure is mythical. Could it be the story of “hubris,” the fatal flaw that punishes us for over-reaching?  In addition, it may also be a story about collaboration, not in the sense that Taymor and her partners separated with acrimony, but in the sense that products, whether in the arts or in commerce, depend for their success on the collaboration between producer and user. 

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