Taylor Mac: Incorporating Calamity
Taylor Mac believes that theater is sacred. But that doesn’t mean it must be sacrosanct.
Taylor Mac is an award-winning playwright and theater performer. Mac was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for the work A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
Born Taylor Mac Bowyer in 1973 in Laguna Beach, CA, Mac studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and worked as an actor after graduation. Mac has written sixteen full-length plays including The Hot Month (1999), The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac (2006), Hir (2015), and The Lily’s Revenge (2009), which won an Obie Award in 2010. These performance pieces draw from a range of theatrical forms, from classical Greek drama to drag shows and musical theater. They are often lengthy, “durational” works, as in the celebrated A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a 24-hour show exploring the history of the United States through 246 songs.
Mac’s Broadway debut, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, a black comedy set in the aftermath of William Shakespeare’s bloody drama, received seven Tony Award nominations in 2019, including Best Play.
In the early hours of a January morning in 2013, the award-winning playwright, classically trained actor, and soon to be MacArthur Fellow, Taylor Mac was awake in Brooklyn writing a manifesto on the state of contemporary theater. More than five years later, the words still resonate.
Taylor Mac: I believe that truth, in the theater, is often confused with a clearing away of theatricality. I believe the clearing away of theatricality is as much of a glorious lie as the theatrical. I believe, as a theater artist, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m a reminder. I’m not a teacher. I’m just trying to remind you of the things you’ve dismissed, forgotten, or buried.
In the fall of 2016, Taylor Mac premiered a wildly ambitious 24-hour-long production six years in the making. Though on the face of it, the 24-Decade History of Popular Music might suggest a retelling of American history through song. In reality, it’s a document of how communities rebuild after being torn apart. The Trail of Tears, the Civil War, the AIDS crisis, and many other examples are explored, says Mac, from a distinct perspective.
Mac: Everything I make is queer because I’m a big old queer. The history that is told is not so much about queer history, but you experience history from the lens of a queer, which is maybe the first time for some people, because usually history is experienced from a more kind of status quo presentation.
The Lord hath promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures
Identity politics are always inherently present in Mac’s endeavors, but they’re never the whole point of any project. Taylor Mac is an innovator, yet insists that many of his performance techniques are actually grounded in antiquity.
Mac: I feel like this work is very traditional in the sense that it’s more like the very early theater. It was hybrid in the sense that there was storytelling going on, there’s singing, there’s dancing. It’s a lot of things all squished together, and that is very Egyptian, but that’s also very Greek, and it’s even Elizabethan. So it’s until when we get into the 19th and 20th century that things started to get very categorized in the theater world, and so I feel very traditional, rather than that I’m inventing my own genre. But I will say that not many people in the theater world are doing what we’re doing.
So that you might smile and answer
Mac estimates that the 24-Decade show is about 20 percent improvised every time. As a result, audience participation is essential.
(Taylor Mac speaking on stage)
“Does anybody have a good puke story? Is there anybody who has a really good puke story? Raise your hand if you do, raise it.”
Mac: The goal is to try to get the audience to rebel against an obstinate sense of self. So they come into the theater thinking I’m this kind of person. This is what I like. This is what I do and this is what I believe. And our job is to kind of chisel away at that and give them other options and see how they might be a little bit more expansive than they think they are.
AJC: And what about this idea of the echo chamber. I just wonder if kind of people who are going to show up at a Taylor Mac show are the kind of people who are going to show up at a Taylor Mac show.
Mac: I would not say that people know what they’re getting into. I’m not the kind of person that I’m famous enough that people know who I am when I come to their town in Iowa. So a few people will know, people that are aware of theater and stuff, but most people that are coming to the theater are just coming because it’s what’s on that night, and so we do have conservative people that come. I mean, we just finished touring the red states. Everyone says you’re preaching to the converted and all the time, I think, are you on tour with me? Have you had the people stand up and scream at me from the audience? Have people throw things and people stand up and leave because they’re offended. It always happens in the first five minutes. They’re usually offended by the drag and by one thing that I say and then that gives them the reason to not have to engage in the experience, but a vast majority of the people hang out, and if you hang out for more than a half an hour, you want to stay until the end of 12 hours.
(“Promised Land” by Chuck Berry, 1964)
Tell the folks back home
It’s the promised land calling
And the poor boy is on the line
Though performed straight through just once, Mac’s 24-hour show is typically divided into three or four hour chunks. But in Philadelphia in the summer of 2018, it was presented in two 12-hour displays of theatrical endurance. It was clear going in that seeking perfection would be a fool’s errand. Mac was undaunted.
Mac: If I have to sacrifice my humanity in order to touch the hem of God, I’m not interested. So I’m going to keep that humanity, that vulnerability, the flaw, the imperfection, and I’m going to use that as a way to reach the people, and that is a lot of what we’re doing with 24-Decade with the popular songs, is we take these songs that are flawed, that their goal was to reach people, though, to rally people to a cause, to get them all to celebrate together or to mourn together, and we use them and we use the imperfection that’s in them and our imperfection in performing, especially durational because my body breaks down, my voice breaks down. We miss a note here. I’ll forget a lyric here. We use all of those things as the show progresses to actually rally the audience towards something, and to take the history that’s on our backs and to figure out what we’re going to do with it in this moment. I just love a flaw. I love a little danger. I love something bad that happens. I don’t believe in safe space. Our shows are not safe space. People always define them as safe space. It was such a safe space. We all felt so safe. I’m like, no. It’s not safe space. Somebody’s going to have an idea that is dangerous to you or that is offensive or that hurts you. Somebody unintentionally is going to hurt you. Somebody intentionally is going to hurt you. So, I don’t feel like to define spaces as this is where we go to retreat and to heal ourselves. I’m trying to create something different.
(“Move On Up”)
Move on up
Move on up
Move on up
Mac: I guess the thing that drag has really taught me is that it’s all pretend. You’re wearing drag, I’m wearing drag right now. It’s the story you want to tell the world. So if you walked out naked, you’re still wearing drag, because you want to tell the world that you’re naked, right? In that, there’s an element of pretend because there’s a decision that’s been made. I don’t think that a stockbroker sitting in the room and talking, talking, talking, talking, and they kind of do this with their faces and their bodies, and the ‘muh, muh, muh, muh, muh,’ is that not pretend? That’s pretend. They weren’t born doing that as babies, like you know what I mean? But people will say, well, that’s real life. And I go, no, they just don’t understand that their boardroom is a stage. Or they do understand it, but they’re trying to fool you. The difference is I’m honest about it.