Julie Taymor and Selina Cartmell

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

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.

Julie Taymor and Selina Cartmell

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 6)

An interview with Selina Cartmell early in the mentorship

How was your first meeting with Julie Taymor?
Our first meeting was in the rehearsal room ofGrendelat the Los Angeles Opera and I felt it was significant that I saw Julie in action the minute we met. Julie was juggling so many artistic roles that I felt completely immersed and inspired by such an epic project. I was greatly comforted by the first day of our meeting because I realized that the difficulties and pressures you feel as a director – pressures which you think are unique to you as an artist – are universal.

Do you and your mentor have a structure for the mentorship?
No. We both felt comfortable with a less structured and a more instinctive approach to our relationship.

Can you describe the meetings; what connects you to your mentor?
We are both inspired by the merging of form and content, and want to see how far we can push our craft in different forms.

Our meetings are always challenging, enjoyable and stimulating. Julie was over in Dublin to seeFestenat the Gate Theatre which I directed for the Dublin International Theatre Festival. After the show we discussed how far you can push the form and how to keep taking risks. I felt Julie understood the way I worked, and she had some very interesting observations about the role of the ensemble in this production.

One of the most important things Julie has given me is the strength to not be categorized and to feel free to move through a diverse range of artistic mediums in order to express my vision.

In what way have you already been influenced?
My exposure to her work onGrendelwas significant in terms of the scale of the project, and this first-hand experience has given me the confidence to pursue the development of my first opera in 2009.

Julie Taymor and Selina Cartmell

A year of mentoring

Shared uncertainty (Chapter 3 of 6)

In its 11th year, American theatre and film director Julie Taymor’s stage adaptation ofThe Lion Kingfor 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,Grendelwould 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. YetGrendelgave 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 onGrendel,” Taymor would remark towards the end of the mentoring year. “I let her see my confusion and insecurity – because I have enough security.” Concurrently withGrendel, Taymor was also editing her movieAcross 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 –Grendelwas 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.”

Julie Taymor and Selina Cartmell

A year of mentoring

Early affinities (Chapter 4 of 6)

“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.

Julie Taymor and Selina Cartmell

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

Selina Cartmell talks about her year as a Rolex protégée

Is the main thing you have in common artistically with Julie Taymor the fact that you are both interdisciplinary theatre-makers?
Yes, I think our collaboration with artists from various skills and backgrounds makes us both interdisciplinary artists. Neither of us views the work just through one filter, but from different perspectives and I think that is something that allows both of us to shift through different ways of seeing our artistic practice without feeling restricted or categorized.

How would you describe the time you spent watching Julie Taymor’s production of Grendel being put together? Was there a particular lesson you learned from that experience?
As it was my first time being inside an opera rehearsal room, it was a real eye-opener to the scale and complexity of bringing together all these extraordinary artists and elements in one room to create a new opera. I felt comforted by seeing Julie at work realizing that the problems you encounter in a rehearsal room are universal. It is a rare opportunity to see a director at work and I felt privileged and inspired to be given an insight into the creation of Grendel.

Was there one piece of advice from Julie Taymor or one experience during the mentoring year that stands out?
I think it was during a press luncheon in New York and we were sitting next to each other. A journalist asked me how I would describe the style of my work. I remember her saying that you never need to categorize your work and I think from that point on I felt liberated enough as an artist to understand what that actually means.

Has working with Julie Taymor changed the way you work?
I think working with Julie has allowed me the confidence to take on projects that I would maybe have thought I wasn’t ready yet to direct in my career. For example after seeing Julie work on Grendel I was really interested in working in opera and the following year I directed Sweeney Todd, my first musical theatre production. I am also developing my first new opera for 2008-2009 which again came from having direct contact with Julie and Grendel.

Julie Taymor and Selina Cartmell

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 6 of 6)

Interview with Julie Taymor

Why did you agree to serve as a mentor in the Rolex Arts Initiative?
The notion that you can make a difference in the world if just one artist mentors another artist and gets that artist to a place where his or her life is richer, and potentially enriches the lives of other people — this is an extraordinary concept.

Why did you choose Selina Cartmell to be your protégée?
I’m not just a theatre director, I’m also a film director and an opera director. I saw in Selina someone who would easily be moving through mediums. I thought: Here is someone I can have a dialogue with. Someone I can talk to, bounce off my ideas, and she can do it as well. It felt like she would be a colleague — not someone to be a teacher to.

You allowed Selina to observe at close hand Grendel taking shape. What was the purpose of the decision?
I was nervous about it because she had nothing to lose and I had everything to lose. She said: “I can’t believe you, after everything you’ve done, you go through the same panic I do.” And I said: “Of course I do, every single time.” That made her happy, to see that it wasn’t just her.

If you could give young directors like Selina only one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t compromise creatively.

You saw her productions of Festen and Sweeney Todd. Can you describe her style of direction?
I see a really strong sense of an idea. What’s strong are the choices. She’s able to bring a cinematic quality to the stage. She knows how to choreograph and get the subtlety of the emotions through the physicality of the performers.

In which direction do you think Selina should head now?
She has a very strong vision, and she must stick with that – theatre always filtered through your eyes as an artist.

What do you think Selina has gained from the programme?
She was a director when she began, so in a sense she didn’t need this. But to get inside experience at an early age, in a larger arena than you’ve known, this gives you a broader sense of the scope of your possibilities. And, in discussing her work with her, I think I was able to support her in her quest to satisfy the needs of a production and her own needs as an artist.