Magazine article American Theatre

Beauty and the Supercomputer: In Surprising Ways, Visionary Director Julie Taymor's Big 'Spider-Man' Gamble Brings Her Full Circle to Her Avant-Garde Roots

Magazine article American Theatre

Beauty and the Supercomputer: In Surprising Ways, Visionary Director Julie Taymor's Big 'Spider-Man' Gamble Brings Her Full Circle to Her Avant-Garde Roots

Article excerpt

1: OCT. 28, 2010

I'm tiptoeing my way into a late-night tech rehearsal, already in progress, of Broadway's newest musical/spectacle/extravaganza, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. "Dark" is the operative word: I'm fumbling about in it, trying not to trip as I cautiously grope my way toward what feels like a seat in the cavernous Foxwoods Theatre. Nothing noteworthy seems to be happening on stage at the moment. But I can see that the auditorium is dotted with row upon row of large computer screens, all glowing with vector graphics and pixilated grid patterns. Is this really a Broadway Control at the Space Center in Houston.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It quickly becomes apparent that all those luminous computer screens are part of a densely woven web whose designer, Julie Taymor, has just begun to speak: "Okay," Taymor whispers into a hand-held microphone. "Start the tornado of spiders."

Right on cue, digitized images of white spidery shapes begin to proliferate on an array of projection screens, gliding in various directions with the grace of an Olympic ice skater. As the airborne spiders spin ever more furiously, it's easy to see why Taymor refers to this moment as a "tornado."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But the web-designer-in-chief isn't happy. "It looks too much like a literal tornado," Taymor announces calmly but firmly. "I want something more abstract, more beautiful." Perhaps some-thing more like Oz, and less like the Midwestern tornado that transported Dorothy there? A few delicate mouse-clicks later and voila! We're not in Kansas anymore. The literal-looking tornado has morphed into something much less specific, much more mysterious and evocative. It's as if we've made an accelerated journey through the collection of late J.M.W. Turner canvases at the Tate: What started out as identifiable seascapes of water and rocks, clouds and sunsets have magically dematerialized into pure light and free-floating patterns.

Julie Taymor is a beauty freak. The word she'll utter most often over the course of this evening's rehearsal is "beautiful." She'll sound nappy when she sees beauty and impatient when she doesn't. Even though the color palettes on those computer screens are capable of generating hybrid hues never imagined by Mother Nature, Taymor is still searching for a very particular "bluish-black." You get the impression that she can see it quite clearly in her mind's eye; but she won't be happy until she sees it on stage. "George, it looks so beautiful on your laptop. ..." Why doesn't it look that way on stage? After a wee bit of Tinkerbell-ish tinkering, it will.

Like a compliant corps of Ariels serving their master Prospero, Taymor's digital design team conjures up its own distinctive brand of Shakespearean "rough magic." No doubt my inclination to see Taymor as a high-tech Prospero has much to do with the fact that I've arrived at this rehearsal fresh from a screening of her latest film, an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, featuring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero. In much the same way that Taymor's cinematic Tempest, takes place largely in the mind and imagination of her "Prospera," it quickly becomes evident that--despite all those computers being operated by all those designers and their assistants (and the assistants to the assistants)--the sum total of Spider-Man exists on one and only one super-computer, the very one most likely to survive a power outage or a cyber-attack: that's Julie Taymor's brain.

Not once, over the course of a long and arduous evening, will Taymor consult any sort of script, cue sheet or prompt hook. But, astonishingly, the entirety of what she hopes the audience will eventually see--every rotation of the turntables, every change in the angle of the rake of the stage floor, every reconfiguring of the LED panels, every musical cue, projection cue, light-level cue--has all been "pre-visualized" by Taymor and appears to be securely housed in her head. …

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