Taylor Mac: ‘Spending 24 hours on stage is the easiest part – getting the support is hard’
Two years ago, Taylor Mac combined eight three-hour shows into a one-off event that saw the performer on stage for a full day. Now three of those shows will be seen in London. Mark Shenton finds out more
In the counterculture of queer performance art, where difference is not just a badge of creative honour but partly the point of it, Taylor Mac has stretched boundaries and pushed audiences to extremes.
The writer and performer is already a notable cultural warrior in the US and beyond: “I’ve appeared at Lincoln Center and the Public Theater in New York and the Guthrie in Minneapolis and the Curran in San Francisco – and Sydney Opera House.” Now it is London’s time to fully embrace Mac.
In what was the performer’s biggest project to date, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Mac re-created the history of the US itself, from the Declaration of Independence to the present day, with an hour of commentary, an ever-changing costume parade and music for each decade.
It was initially presented in eight three-hour shows and finally – for one time only – bolted together into one continuous 24-hour show at New York’s St Ann’s Warehouse in October 2016. Being there for that extraordinary day led me to write it was “a show that may have just changed my life”. The performer is not short on admirers for the piece, which involves belting out 246 songs. Wesley Morris, in the New York Times, said the show “gave me the greatest experience of my life”.
When we meet in a downtown New York coffee shop, I ask how tough it was to perform. “Actually, the hardest part was the duration of making it over such a long period of time and the logistics of trying to convince people you know what you are doing so they will support you,” Mac says. “The easiest part is actually doing it. I won’t say it’s always easy, but we’re giggers – that’s our life.”
The 24-hour version, however, was very much a one-off: “I’m only doing it that one time – I couldn’t do it to my collaborators. We built the audience for it over six years. It wouldn’t have been the same thing if the audience hadn’t been with us and seen multiple decades of the show before. They helped us to make it, so they were invested in it, in a way.” The show has since been reprised in two 12-hour parts as well as the regular three-hour blocks it is designed in.
Now Mac is bringing the first three of those 24 decades – from 1776 to 1806 – to London’s Barbican Theatre at the end of June for three nights. Meeting face-to-face, this modest, self-effacing person could not be more different to the performer I’d previously spent 24 hours with.
Theatre provided an early alternative home for Mac and it was a result of an early intervention there that led indirectly to this epic show. “I was in a community theatre production of Godspell in the town I grew up in, Stockton in California, and there’s always some theatre community diva in every show,” Mac says.
“She was very aware I was a little queer kid and she told me about the very first Aids walk taking place in San Francisco. I went with a dyke friend who could drive and the first time I’d ever seen an out homosexual was seeing thousands at the same time.
“That had a pretty profound effect on my young suburban mind, heart and soul. To see queer agency, history and pride en masse like that was amazing, in the midst of a community that was being torn apart by an epidemic. That dichotomy always sat in the back of my brain; unearthing something I wasn’t aware of was suddenly in front of me in such a blatant and profound way.”
Q&A: Taylor Mac
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a wedding singer as a teenager.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The San Francisco production of Beach Blanket Babylon. I dressed up like a poodle eight times a week and sang Runaround Sue.
What’s your next job?
I’m in Gone Missing at New York City Center in July and I’m doing a new show, Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce, at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco in November.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
My drag mother, Mother Flawless Sabrina, just died and she gave me the best advice of my life: it’s not worth doing unless it makes you nervous. I wished I’d known that sooner: if I feel the butterflies, I should be doing this.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Mother Flawless Sabrina. She did drag in the 1950s, she started drag pageant contests way before RuPaul. I’d never met anyone who lived such an authentic artistic life before and it’s something I am striving for. I don’t think I’ve achieved it, but it’s an aspiration.
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music duly tells the history of the gay community, “but its not just our community,” Mac says. “I never set out to make a show about community identity – it’s always a subplot. I think of our queerness as a reference for contextualisation. It’s aways present and declared, but it’s not always the point. We unearth a lot of different communities throughout the whole show. It’s actually about communities building themselves as a result of being torn apart”.
The audience for the show is conscripted into not just building a community, but into being part of the show itself. “Every performance is extremely new in major ways. Usually the script is the tangible thing for a play or theatre work and the design is tangible, but the audience’s experience is ephemeral. But we’ve flipped that: the script is always changing, the costumes are being designed while I’m on stage, the lighting design is busked and there’s room to change in the moment – but the audience’s experience is more tangible than usual.”
The entire show is an act of cultural appropriation and assimilation that shifts goalposts of what is possible in queer theatre. But then theatre has often provided gay artists over the ages with a home, which is exactly what it has done for Mac.
“It was bound to happen. The vast majority of the most amazing theatre artists in the world are queer,” the performer says. “Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Tony Kushner, Paul Vogel… it goes on and on. We didn’t have many other places to go but the theatre, so we got very good at it – and we’re leaders of it.”
There’s one key difference from the past to the present, where gay writers such as Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward were forced to write in code: “We don’t have to hide it like they did, for fear of being put into loony bins. But I think even a play like Our Town is about queerness and creating a community on stage.”
Mac is also a prolific playwright, whose play Hir was seen at the Bush Theatre in London last year. “It has had 40 productions now throughout the US. No trans actor has done it more than once, which means that 41 young trans actors have been able to play that part at their professional theatre in their town. That’s one of the things I am most proud of in my life.”
Now the theatremaker is looking forward to returning to London, after previously appearing at venues such as Hackney Empire and Soho Theatre. But this time Mac is getting the cultural validation of appearing at the Barbican. “It feels a little late in the game for a cultural validation from London, but I’ll take it. London is a hard nut to crack. Of all the places I tour, England is always the one that says they are so poor, but they actually have the most money.”
CV: Taylor Mac
Born: 1973, Laguna Beach, California
Training: American Academy of Dramatic Arts
• The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, Edinburgh Fringe (2006)
• Hir, Playwrights Horizons, New York (2015); Bush Theatre, London (2017)
• A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, New York (2016)
• MacArthur Genius Grant, 2017
• Special Citation Obie for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, 2017