On the same day that Robert Mueller testified before Congress, I had the pleasure of interviewing MacArthur Fellow, Tony-nominated performer and playwright, and gift to us all, Taylor Mac.
You’re probably thinking that it’s inappropriate to gush like that in what is ostensibly a feature promoting Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged) which will be coming to The VETS on September 14 as part of an artist residency with FirstWorks and the Brown Arts Initiative at Brown University. FirstWorks is a Providence-based arts organization and Taylor Mac’s one-of-a-kind evening is going to kick off its 16th season of “building community through world class arts.”
Well, I’m going to warn you now — there’s going to be a lot of gushing in this piece.
I am an unabashed fan, and I had the privilege of speaking to Taylor Mac while the country was glued to the history that was unfolding right in front of it. It seemed like the perfect time to speak with a performer whose work is described in the following way by Kathleen Pletcher, FirstWorks Founder and executive artistic director.
“Taylor Mac champions the outsider in this performance that is both provocative and interactive. In a time when forces seem to be tearing communities apart, Mac celebrates our diversity in ways that both shock and delight.”
The abridged version of Mac’s magnum opus was first performed in its entirety at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2016. It proceeded to land on every “Best of Theater” list, and truly, “Best of Anything” list. It was instantly renowned and those of us who missed it have been kicking ourselves ever since, myself included.
So, imagine my elation at finding out that not only was Taylor Mac taking an iteration of that show on tour, but would be doing interviews about it. Originally, my editor Terry Shea was supposed to interview judy (Mac’s chosen pronoun), but after some pleading on my part, he passed along the assignment to me, and this is what transpired:
Kevin Broccoli: I was wondering what it’s like for you to revisit this monumental 24-Decade History of Popular Music in an abridged version. The unabridged version became sort of iconic — it seems so generous of you to give people like me around the country the chance to see another version of it, but it must be incredibly taxing for you.
Taylor Mac: I view it a little bit differently. It’s such a privilege to get to hang out with an audience and do something I love. I have my family up onstage with me essentially. It’s very rare in modern life to see your loved ones on a regular basis. That’s a total joy for me. The cynicism level goes down when you’re with your family. I don’t see it in any shape or form as a burden, and I really like to share it, and to share it in different places. We were just in Barcelona doing it, and I had a translator, and it was just so much fun to figure out how to perform it for that audience. I’ve never performed in Providence before, so it’s going to be a new experience, new energy, to get to meet new people — the whole thing is just kind of fun for me. It was envisioned as a piece we would do for 10 years. We started in 2010, so it’s still got life to it.
KB: What was the decision-making process like when the time came to condense the show not just musically, but as an overall piece of art?
TM: Every show is different so it’s not like we made a show, and it’s frozen or you perform the exact same show every time. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the room because so much depends on what the audience responds to and it also depends on what’s happening in the news that day. We might do songs we hadn’t planned to put in the show that night.
KB: Do you ever just decide to perform a song in the moment — right there onstage?
TM: There’s 246 songs so there are some things we can’t do, where we need to at least do one round of it. Every once in a while, we do kind of wing it. Spontaneity in the theater is thrilling for an audience. It can be very useful in terms of connecting the audience to each other.
KB: You’re scheduled to perform the full evening in Berlin. Is that in the back of your mind as you’re performing the abridged version?
TM: I gave myself until August before I start re-memorizing all of those shows. I’ve done this before, but we haven’t done the whole thing in a year so it is going to take some effort to get it back in my body.
KB: How do you physically prepare for something like that?
TM: You start at the beginning. Every day in August I will do a different decade so that’s 24 days where I’ll do a different hour of material — remembering it and working on it. When that’s done, I’ll do two hours a day and do that all the way from August 24 to the end of August, and then I’ll start doing three hours a day.
KB: I don’t want to be the hack who asks you to give me a sound-byte on the current political culture, but I did get up this morning at 8am to watch Mueller testify while I read some background on your show in DC, and I was struck by the sheer diversity of the evening — with everything from Ted Nugent (turned into a queer slow dance) to The Platters. The reviewer for that show seemed to be struck by how you marry the political to the popular, in terms of entertainment and American history, and I was reading their review wondering what it was like for you to perform that evening in the nation’s capital.
TM: I mean the more interesting thing in DC was we were at the Kennedy Center, and it was the tightness of the audience. We got them loose by the end of the show, and they were totally game and a wonderful audience, but there was a professionalism. This was my impression, and I don’t know if it was the real reason, but my impression was that people in DC are working all the time. They don’t know who else is in the room, who else is looking at them, so they have to make sure they don’t make a fool of themselves. Part of our show is engaging in foolery and getting the audience to engage in that as well, and to let go of some of their barriers to the theater. And so, I found it particularly challenging, but I imagine in Providence, it’s going to be about stretching toward the culture that has already existed.
KB: Well, Providence is the Berlin of New England, you know.
TM: That’s very good. I’ve performed in New England before but there tends to be a Puritan work ethic that’s present even in enjoying. So that’s going to be very interesting.
KB: What’s it like coming to places like Providence knowing that this big, bold project is going to be an introduction to you for some people. Is that exciting or scary?
TM: When you’re on tour, and you’re not super famous, people will come for the “event” and not for the show. And so, they’re always surprised by the work even when they think they know what it’s about. It’s surprising work. It’s unlike most concerts, and it’s certainly unlike any theater I’ve ever seen. Sometimes we’ve had people storm out during the first song just because I’m dressed up in drag, and they didn’t know they were coming to a drag show. Then we’ve had people who didn’t know they were coming to a drag show and they loved it.
KB: Something you said in Interview magazine that I love has to do with safe spaces. You said “I believe in reasonable space. You might get an STI at one of my shows. It’s not safe.” Reading about the evening in DC, it seemed like it was a big love-fest, but it also seemed like parts of the evening are constructed to provoke. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
TM: Not provocation for shock value. I never want to shut people down. I am trying to inspire a deeper consideration and not my considerations but your considerations. I’m inspiring you to go deeper into your considerations. I use different techniques in order to do that. I do it by pointing out things that people aren’t noticing. I do it a lot by unearthing things that have already been forgotten, dismissed or buried — or that other people have buried for you. It’s so much about this current moment in relation to all the history we have. I wouldn’t call that provocation; I would call it a responsibility towards awareness.
KB: I was reading your interview in the Paris Review and I found it very moving that you talked about taking back American history from people like the president — not denying who he is or his position, but using that time-honored tradition that drag queens and comedians use on hecklers — to take back the story by making those antagonists part of the story and reclaiming the narrative WITH them in it, but it feels so difficult to do when many of our political characters are now performers themselves. How do you deal with that as an artist, not just in what you’re working on now, but in the future as well?
TM: When somebody’s heckling, it’s because they want to be part of the show, and they’re not part of the show. Even though it’s rude, and even though you can have your judgments about the heckler — what’s happening is that they feel like they need to defend themselves because they’re not invited to the story they’re used to being in, and suddenly they’re not there at all. So, what they’ve done in that moment is taken over the story, because everyone is paying attention to them. The Heckler-in-Chief sends one tweet out and the entire circus becomes about that tweet. So, it was about children in detention centers and now it’s about whatever insult he gave to everybody in order to not make it about children in detention centers. So, you have to incorporate him into the detention center conversation. That’s the trick with any audience and with any kind of subject and narrative. It’s that everyone is invited to the party but not everyone is in charge of the party.
KB: So many people are talking about camp now — it feels like this thing that’s been in the zeitgeist forever but now all of a sudden the straight people have taken an interest. What do you make of that?
TM: I feel many different things about it. I feel protective over my culture and the appropriation of my culture, but also I’m happy if anyone wants to find a way to break into the Puritan dominance over expression, which is so strong in our lives and in our culture. The definition of morality has been controlled by a lack of expression for a long time. So, the idea that subtlety is authentic and expression is inauthentic or some kind of lie, or that camp would be putting something on instead of revealing something — that always feels like it comes from the Puritans and carries with it this sense of prejudice against minorities, because people who have less power in the world have got to get louder in the world and more expressive in order to survive in the world. So, then our art becomes more expressive and the way we communicate becomes more expressive and more communicative. I’m happy to see people engaging in it, and at the same time, I’m aware that it’s a fad — that it’s just this year’s thing because of the Met Gala.
It’s just trying to get people to stretch. It’s about let us consider you for a while, and what it would be like in our bodies, to be you, but the stretch is its own noble thing, and has its own integrity and authenticity to it. So that’s how I try to invite the audience to stretch toward camp, stretch toward queerness, and people of color, and stretch toward each other, and that’s how I sort of view it, and I don’t see anything wrong with it.
KB: Lastly — I’ve never spoken to the recipient of a Genius grant. What’s it like being considered an official genius?
TM: Oh, I’m at this reception and I’m talking to this volcanologist who studies volcanoes. Now, she’s studying something that could potentially destroy all human life on the planet. Then I’m talking to someone else who invented something that saved thousands of women’s lives. Then they ask me what I do, and I say I have hairy legs and I wear high heeled shoes at the same time (Laughs.) But I feel that what I do is important, because what’s the point in surviving if we don’t have the arts? Creation is the greatest thing ever.
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged), September 14, 8pm, The VETS, 1 Avenue of the Arts. Tickets for this one-night event are available for purchase now at first-works.org or by calling The VETS Box Office at 401-421-ARTS (2787). The main box office is located in the Providence Performing Arts Center at 220 Weybosset St. Student discount pricing is available; please call FirstWorks at 401-421-4278. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is produced by Pomegranate Arts (executive producer, Linda Brumbach; associate producer, Alisa Regas) and Mac’s company, Nature’s Darlings.
Residency events also include a keynote lecture delivered by Mac on September 12, and a panel discussion featuring Mac along with theater arts and performance scholars Sean F. Edgecomb, Kareem Khubchandani and David Román on September 15. Both the keynote and panel discussion take place at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University. The lecture and panel discussion are free and open to the public but require advance registration at arts.brown.edu.
NOTE: Audience participation occurs during the performance. Additionally, performance and residency events may include mature content and are intended for adult audiences.