Context Notes: Taylor Mac

The Historical Taylor Mac
by Paul David Young

One thing you can say for certain about Taylor Mac: he doesn’t think small. His breakthrough marathon was the five-hour The Lily’s Revenge. His work-in-progress A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, six hours of which are being presented at New York Live Arts as part of a first-time-ever marathon show, will, when completed, traverse American history, from the Declaration of Independence to 2016 in a 24-hour extravaganza of song, history, costumes, and commentary.

For Mac, there seem to be two important aspects to the duration of his shows. He believes that the unusually lengthy performances make the audience members into stronger collaborators. “The audience is my collaborator. Everybody says that, but what the audience brings to it is what creates the show.” He cited the preparation the audience has to do in order to make it through the many hours. It becomes “more than just another piece of culture they’re consuming.” He noted that for his run at Live Arts the first show to sell out was the marathon performance. “People want that durational experience.”

The other important aspect that we discussed was the effect on him as the hours take their toll. Like the audience, he experiences deterioration. His voice cracks. He gets tired. His memory falters. The progressive failure is part of the experience for both audience and performer.

I was interested to note that he embraces the word “theater,” a term that many involved in “performance” or “art performance” and even theater run away from, as if it were Ebola. “I always liked the theater because it’s dorky. The art world so often seems to be about cool kid culture, separate form of society and elitist, and I find that disturbing.” He admits, though, that “the theater in general is really far behind everybody else on gender parity, the ideas—it’s so far behind progressive culture. I’m working at being one of the artists who are trying to get theater caught up..” He attributed part of the problem to the subscriber orientation of many producing companies which have adopted the philosophy of giving the subscribers what they want. “But of course the job of the artist is to give the public what they need, not what they want. You don’t tell the plumber how to fix the plumbing. You let them do their job, because they know what to do.”

I had watched Taylor Mac’s meteoric career with awe. He has been invited to play in any number of important venues and received torrents of adulatory press. His reviews read like hagiography. I wondered how that felt. He demurred lightly, “I’m famous below 14th Street. Maybe in the past couple of years I’ve been moving up the blocks a little bit.” He said that he had matured about seeking approval. “Praise and blame are really exhausting, rather than fulfilling, or filling that hole in your soul that can never be filled.” Having detailed the unsanitary conditions in his dressing rooms even at prestigious venues, the modest pay, the cockroaches, and the struggle, he said he also found himself skipping down the street recently when he found out his play would be published in American Theatre magazine. While sometimes he feels, “Wow! It’s amazing that I’m doing this,” at other times, he’s singing along with Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?”

The broad historical scope of the Live Arts production and the American focus made me ask whether Mac was doing a bit of flag-waving. “I was raised in a world in which we were supposed to be patriotic. I don’t understand that. I understand wanting to make things better, which doesn’t mean it’s not good. I’m interested in the joy of improvement.” He said that he wasn’t putting himself out there as an historian. “It’s my subjective historical account. I’m using the material to get to how imperfection fosters community.” He explained that he wanted to address the visibility of homosexuals in the historical records. “I went to one of the worst school districts in the nation but even in that school district we learned about civil rights, women’s rights, immigration, lots of things they often censor out of the history. But there wasn’t one single mention ever of homosexuals.” He continued, “Of course, we are all over history. There’s very little acknowledgement of that. The show is a lot about trying to find the queers in American history.”

In terms of his own place in history, Mac won the Ethyl Eichelberger award in 2005, the first time the honor was bestowed by PS122. I recalled being deeply impressed by Eichelberger’s strangely serious drag performances at PS122 and elsewhere. She sometimes accompanied herself on the accordion and, while also comic, interpreted major works of classic tragedy. She worked with Charles Ludlam, another of my theater idols, whose Ridiculous Theatre Company produced delightful send-ups of the theater canon and was graced by the talents of many now legendary downtown figures, such as Black-Eyed Susan, Lola Pashalinski, and Everett Quinton. Though Mac never saw Eichelberger perform, “What I’ve learned is that she influenced a lot of people that influenced me.” Mac noted that, like himself, Eichelberger was a playwright, performance artist, drag queen and a musician, and they even attended the same acting school. “She’s the big one for me. I feel like she was my drag mother even though I never met her.”

With the promise of Taylor Mac’s performance still two months away, I visited the Park Avenue Armory studio he shares with Machine Dazzle, who was trained as a visual artist and designs Mac’s costumes. The Park Avenue Armory is itself steeped in history and art. Its ornate, dark wood interiors designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White are dotted with paintings of military commanders, and the drill hall has been turned into a performance venue. It’s hard to imagine a grander setting in which to work or a more regal studio, though its functionality as an atelier is limited by the crepuscular lighting. Beneath its coffered ceiling and under the cheerful gaze emanating from the oil portrait of a nineteenth-century officer outfitted in a jolly decorative uniform, Machine’s costumes for Mac were taking shape out of the mounds of fabric, spangles, and eccentric objects heaped on the tables. The ancient clock in the studio had stopped, and the remnants of time expressed themselves in the periods of Machine’s costumes. It would be unfair to give away the surprises they concealed or to detail how they managed to allude to the tragedies and traumas of the American Century, while also leaving plenty of room to giggle. Seeing the dresses waiting limply on their hangers made me look forward to the moment when Taylor Mac would slip them on and let it roar.