The first time I saw the stage version of The Lion King－I was among the lucky few who, in 1997, did not book eight months in advance but waited in front of New York's New Amsterdam Theater and met someone who happened to have an extra ticket－I was struck by how Asian its aesthetics were. As anyone who saw the film knows, the story is set on an African safari. So, the cast members for the stage production were mainly black and there was no surface element that would yell "Asian". But the way the story was presented onstage seemed to be rooted in Asian traditions, or so I thought.
Specifically, it was the small touches that would suggest the wilderness and richness of the environment. For example, a row of actresses wearing headpieces with grasses on top conjured up a vast expanse of grassland.
After the show, I read the background material. I found that Julie Taymor, the director, had studied puppetry in Japan and Indonesia. As a teenager, she spent time in India, Sri Lanka and France, where she was exposed to various art forms including mime.
Since I was not an expert on traditions of performing arts of all these and other countries, I thought it would be premature to conclude that her way had a definite Asian origin.
Questions that had bothered me for 18 years were answered when I got a chance to be part of a forum with Taymor as the guest at the latest Wuzhen Theater Festival, which I moderated, and a subsequent interview with her.
She frankly acknowledged the Asian influence, adding: "I feel I was born as an artist in Asia."
Taymor cited the backdrop of the rising sun in the show. Instead of projecting a film clip that would look naturalistic, she opted for small sticks and silk strips that formed a circle. They look crude on close examination, but when lit from the back, they come off as an atmospheric representation because the sun seems to shimmer in the air.
When discussing the absorption of international elements, Taymor cautioned me not to think of her way as the artistic equivalent of "the melting pot".
She considers the simple lifting of other cultures as "cultural colonialism" and would prefer to "retain cultural individuality". But she agrees with me that whatever sources of inspiration ultimately it has to be the artist's own feeling that comes out naturally in the work.
Even though The Lion King is a commercial juggernaut that has since become the top-earning title in box-office history for both stage productions and films, with over $6 billion in grosses and dozens of productions worldwide, she sees it as very "personal".
I challenged her with the scenario of an Asian artist doing The Lion King in the US. Would the use of indigenous cultural elements be viewed as peddling exotica to the West or promoting the artist's own culture?
She responds, "It's all about quality－whether it's moving and intellectually stimulating. The rest is just semantics. If I were Chinese and I had made The Lion King, it would be no different. My inspiration comes from what I see from African imagery, animals, the music and from my life experience. It wouldn't be The Lion King done by a different artist. That's the personal part of it."
Taymor is aware that some renowned Asian artists, such as Akira Kurosawa and Zhang Yimou, were criticised by their own countrymen for pandering to Western tastes.
"Films like Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou are beautiful films," she says. "A great work of art can touch any culture, anybody."
As for the depth of understanding, she cites an analogy she credits to Czech animators the Brothers Quay and now considers her own motto: "When I create, it's like taking an elevator from the ground floor to the 15th floor. The audience can get off on any level. If we see a great Chinese film and we think it's great, yet we do not understand all its political nuance, the philosophy or the depth of history, we get off on level 6. Maybe the friends of the filmmaker and other Chinese get off on another level－a deeper level.
"Shakespeare did the same: You could be the masses, the groundlings, who went in for the humour, the love story, the vengeance and violence; but then another person would get the poetry. I think you can create different kinds of art that operate on different levels."
I grilled Taymor about other "sensitive" scenarios: "Would you ever cast a non-black for Simba in a US production?" (The 16-year-running Japanese production and the upcoming Chinese production, for obvious reasons, cannot be used as points of reference here.) She says she does not want to do it. The original film uses Matthew Broderick, a white actor, for the voice of the role, she explains. "I want African or African-American actors for the three main roles."
"For artistic reasons or because minority actors in the States are not getting a fair share of opportunities?" I asked.
"Both," she said. But she added that vocally they sound right. "I like that sound."
In her equally acclaimed but much smaller A Midsummer Night's Dream, Taymor cast actors of different races not because the characters were written that way, but because they were the best actors for the parts.
"In the theatre it's more like that. We in America, it's much more blended."
In a South African production, she recounts, Timon the meerkat was played by a black actor and Punbaa the wart hog a white actor, which added political overtones. They were the outcasts who have been outside apartheid. They were in the jungle and missed their best friends. But the casting did not intend to convey that layer of meaning, but rather, these particular actors happened to be the best for the roles, she explained.
"But in a country with no apartheid or racism, that interpretation would all disappear."
Taymor distinguishes between using a black face and putting on darker makeup for a role. She sees the former as racist and the latter an artistic choice.
When she is questioned about the authenticity of Chinese actors for the Chinese Lion King, which will debut in Shanghai early next year, she says: "The parts are supposed to be animals, not African people."