Taylor Mac: how a 24-hour pop odyssey redefines American history

The performer is embarking on an ambitious project a 246-song marathon performance that seeks to sum up a new, queer vision of America

A couple of weeks ago, Taylor Mac spent the evening rehearsing a number from A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at St Anns Warehouse in Brooklyn. An ecstatic and skeptical exploration of American song, Macs project is divided into eight three-hour concerts that will eventually be scrunched together into one 24-hour cathexis.

The number at hand was Tiptoe Through the Tulips and Mac was rehearsing an epic dance-off between 12 ukulele-strumming Charles Dickenses and 12 tapping Tiny Tims. As none of the strummers or hoofers had been called to rehearsal, Mac was alone onstage.

It didnt seem that way. Mac made the tinselswagged platform feel crowded, hectic, delirious. A sometimes solo artist with titanic presence, outsized glamour, and coruscatingly queer sensibilities, Mac can fill a room as awesomely as the gods of the Homeric hymns, who would cast off their human disguise and suddenly soar to the ceiling. (He can display a gods cruelty, too. Especially if youre a patron with a bourgeois air and an aisle seat.)

But offstage, bereft of eyeliner and trash-drag couture, Mac looks almost poignantly human with a bald head, sad eyes and a demure smile. Mac prefers the ambiguous gender pronoun judy, which is, Mac says, its own performance art piece and its own fun, but when dressed down he presents as male. Theres something almost childlike about Mac and you can glimpse that queer kid from the California suburbs, who first found refuge in community theater and then in the wild club scene.

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Macs oeuvre includes pieces in which Mac has imagined the apocalypse, played a sentient flower, portrayed Macs dead fathers former pen pals. Mainstream culture is not exactly judys thing, but for the past five years, Mac has heard America singing, then selected 246 songs that define the country from 1776 to the present, finally working with the pianist and arranger Matt Ray to adapt them for Macs voice (a warm and unexpectedly hardy tenor) and for an orchestra that begins with 24 musicians and shrinks to just one. The producer Mark Russell, an early champion of Macs, calls the result a magic act and a music act and a complete surprise at all times.

Mac describes the show, performed by more than 200 people, as a radical fairy realness ritual. Like Macs last piece, the more or less realistic Hir, A 24-Decade History isnt an outwardly political work. But the popular songs and the stories Mac swirls around them are designed to make American audiences face up to the nations past, especially the parts of the past that weve rejected, stifled, evaded. A 24-Decade History offers a return of the repressed. This time the repressed is wearing sequins and a hot-pink merkin.

Its about were all in this room together and we happen to have this history on our back, Mac says. How do we deal with it?

Taylor
Taylor Mac: finding the queerness in mainstream songs. Photograph: Nathan Keays
Mac isnt sure. Each decade renews the question, offering standards such as
Take Me Out to the Ballgame and Dont Fence Me In as answers of a sort. Mac conjures a theme and a narrative spin for each decade and few songs are given straightforward performance. Every single song has some kind of queer thing in it and every song doesnt, he says.

Mac has a talent for finding the queerness inherent in mainstream songs, pointing out the innuendo in Yankee Doodle Dandy, for example. When the songs resist, Mac just goes ahead and queers them, as when he stages Ted Nugents Snakeskin Cowboy as a slow dance number at a junior high queer prom.

Early inspiration for the piece lay in memories of an Aids walk that Mac attended in the pre-retroviral era. Mac, a suburban teen, watched men come together to celebrate themselves, their lovers, their family, their friends, even as so many were dying. That experience led Mac to explore, how communities build themselves because theyre being torn apart, something that America has so often faced.

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The marathon is uproarious, upsetting, and at least a little kinky. Photograph: Nooshig Varjabedian

Mac refuses to explore it alone. To enact these conflicts and convergences, he recruits audience members, sometimes individually and sometimes by the hundreds. Dressed in hand-me-down drag glamour distributed by his dandy minions, spectators play various opposition factions Americans and British, women and men, alcoholics and teetotalers.

This audience participation isnt always comfortable, which is how Mac likes it. I dont want it to feel like Oprah, Mac says, where everyone is agreeing and applauding. I want people to be a little lost. I dont want them to feel like theyre satisfied with their purchase. Unless your idea of a date is uproarious, upsetting, and at least a little kinky, It shouldnt feel like date night.

Mac enjoys making people uncomfortable and at a recent performance, Mac made joke after joke at the expense of the donors in the audience. Mac is an artist who likes to bite the hand that feeds him and then rub some glitter in the wound.

Which is not to say that there arent compensations. The songs are pure delight, the costumes extravagant bliss. Various concerts include puppets, burlesque dancers, a marching band, free root beer. As Lear deBessonet, a director who has often worked with Mac explained in an email, Mac uses fizzy drinks, a staggering stage presence and outsized glamour to disarm audiences, and in that state of being loosened up with pleasure, thats when he can pierce your heart, she wrote.

Outsized
Outsized glamour and a staggering stage presence enable Mac to pierce the audiences hearts. Photograph: Ves Pitts

This injury is designed to provoke the audience into rebelling against judy, against mainstream ideology, against American politics, but most of all against themselves. I just want people to rebel against the sense of who they are a little bit, Mac says.

A lot of that rebellion will probably take place during the 24-hour marathon, an act of endurance, for performer and for audience, that Mac has never rehearsed and will never perform again. I wouldnt want to put myself or anyone else through that on a regular basis, he says. A 24-hour show, its cruel.

Mac doesnt know if his voice or his body will sustain him. Im supposed to fall apart, the audience is supposed to fall apart, the musicians fall apart as we go forward, Mac says. The last decade will find him alone onstage with my limited musical ability, trying to carry on.

In terms of necessities, Mac will have an outhouse onstage should the need arise and moments of eating and drinking built into each hour. Initially Mac planned to surreptitiously scarf almonds and sip smoothies during trumpet solos, but what happens, Mac learned, is that when I check out the audience checks out, so I cant ever check out.

Mac also has learned that judy cant check out of America either. The show hasnt made Mac feel more patriotic (he has a costume riffing on the American flag, that costume is assless) or less angry. If hes pleased that the country has finally had the decency to acknowledge the basic human rights of queers, women, minorities, etc, hes appalled at how long it has taken. Still its helped Mac to claw back some sense of pride in the countrys pluralism.

Theres not a default of America that is bland and conservative and straight and white, he says. Im saying this is what America is too.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/sep/19/taylor-mac-24-hour-pop-odyssey-redefines-american-history

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