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Mark Shenton: I’ve just survived Taylor Mac’s 24-hour show

Taylor Mac at St Ann's Warehouse, New York. Photo: Mark Shenton
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Did that really happen? Did I actually get through that?

Last Saturday I sat down in a downtown theatre in New York – St Ann’s Warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront by Manhattan Bridge – with 650 other men and women at noon, and I didn’t emerge until noon the following day. I went to see Taylor Mac, a one-of-a-kind performance artist and activist performing A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. By the time it ended, the previous 24 hours seemed a happy, hazy blur: like the jet lag you experience after a flight to Australia that takes almost as long, but with much more stimulation – and good music – along the way.

Mac prefers to be known by the gender pronoun ‘judy’, not he or she, which I will now honour since judy honoured us so profoundly with a show that may have just changed my life. Adam Spreadbury-Maher, artistic director of London’s King’s Head Theatre who was also in town and was persuaded by me to buy a ticket to see it, too, texted me after it to say, “What do we do now, Mark? How do we go back into a theatre again?” It’s a good question to ask. When a performance has gone to, and taken you to, such extremes, everything else might just start feeling diminished.

Across those 24 (mostly) sleepless hours, I heard Mac offer a provocative, personal and unique history, not just of music across the years between 1776 and 2016, but also of the American nation itself – and of both Mac’s own and all of our places in it. More than any theatrical experience I’ve ever had, this was a true work of community theatremaking and theatre building, and we were all in it together. As we are in life.

The night before I saw this show – or rather experienced it (‘seeing’ does not do it justice) – I also saw Simon McBurney offer his similarly kaleidoscopic drop-in to another culture in his amazing solo show The Encounter, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival, has been seen since at the Barbican Centre in, and is now on Broadway (as Mac also deserves to be). But while that show runs for just two intermission-less hours – and McBurney also has the help of a teleprompter running on a screen at the front of the circle – Mac’s feat is much bigger; not just in terms of memory and stamina, but also in the sense of building a shared community.

Across the day, night and the following day, we heard some 246 songs (no teleprompter): Oh Shenandoah, Beautiful Dreamer, Irving Berlin’s All Alone, Danny Boy, The Trolley Song, Singin’ in the Rain, Carousel’s Soliloquy, Secret Love, Nina Simone’s Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Gloria, Born to Run, Purple Rain… I could go on. There was also a fashion parade of even more outre costumes than you’ll ever see this side of a Leigh Bowery exhibition; not just the ones worn by Mac, designed by a person who rejoices in the name Machine Dazzle. Some of the audience has also come dressed for the part, others are giving out various fancy dress (and even fancier dresses).

McBurney’s show makes a nice contrast, since it is specifically designed to be isolating: each member of the audience is given a personal pair of headphones, from which all the sound you hear in the show is produced, so although you’re sitting in a full theatre, you feel alone inside it.

The whole point of Mac’s show, on the other hand, is that it’s about sharing – sometimes in this case, oversharing – stories, songs and experiences that bring us together. Not least because the audience is actively conscripted in the making of it. The audience doesn’t just sing along at times – we became active participants, whether staging a enactment of the American Civil War (with ping pong balls for bullets), or getting touchy-feely, literally, as we were all asked to play a form of blindfolded musical chairs.

There were times for quieter reflection: at one point the hall became a giant slumber party, with mattresses and pillows distributed across the floor, but while some choose to zone out and grab a few winks, the show relentlessly drove on, and I amazed myself by staying with it for the entire 24 hours. The event is an endurance test for Mac, to be sure (by 11am on Sunday, judy’s voice was run ragged, barely a rasp, though it soldiered on), but also, to an extent, a challenge and provocation to the audience, too: can you last the course? I was indescribably proud that I did.

There were surreal moments – some intentional, such as a break-out performance of an extract from The Mikado, as if performed by Martians, and some unintended, such as a random floating balloon that temporarily phased the performer. As Wesley Morris beautifully described it in a New York Times piece:

After all of this — the delirium, the mania, the possibly simulated sex — it might have been the balloon that broke us. It was around 9.30am on Sunday. Most of us hadn’t slept since the show had begun Saturday at noon. With the finish line in sight, the balloon stopped by. It was pink and at least partly full of helium. But it did that thing balloons sometimes do: It gained consciousness. Making its way around the audience and inevitably on to the stage inside the vast St Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn, the balloon slowed down and took in Mr Mac. As it regarded him, we laughed. Maybe, by this point, we were delirious because we watched the balloon for what felt like a very long time. The technicians even adjusted the lighting to capture it. On the one hand, it was a balloon. On the other, it had become something oracular. Anyway, Mr Mac, who had given us almost everything he had and was trying to give us the rest, had had enough. “Stop putting the light on it,” he requested, his demeanour somewhere between joking weariness and the real thing. The whole interlude had gone on longer than he thought it should. But I, at least, sensed a spot of admiration, a cosmic grace note. It was the sublime saying ‘good morning’ to the sublime.

And yes, it was sublime. No, not all of it – by the final hour, when Mac was alone on the stage and performing self-penned songs with just a guitar or ukelele – I was checking out, I have to admit. But there were many other weirder but more wonderful times when no one wanted it to end.

This feast of fabulousness had plenty of serious moments, too: a funeral procession for Judy Garland, the event that may have triggered the Stonewall riots, set to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, was hauntingly beautiful, as was a prom dance when we were invited to slow-dance with a fellow audience member. I cried, as I did when the oldest man in the room – in his 80s – showed off his dance moves on stage to a girl not yet in her 20s, and she replicated them.

“You don’t have to settle for what you’re given,” Mac reminded us at one moment. And this life-changing show proved just how. Surely, judy will be the next queer superstar. If Bette Midler’s career famously began in the gay bath houses of New York, Taylor Mac defiantly celebrates its back-rooms and brings it roaring into the mainstream. It’s not every day you hear someone admit that their first wet dream involved Maggie Smith riding a pegasaurus, but then this thrilling show was full of strange and sensational juxtapositions.

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