Taylor Mac in act 7 of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, 2016. Photo: Teddy Wolff.
In October 2016, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, the theater artist Taylor Mac performed A 24-Decade History of Popular Music in its entirety for the first and only time. The show, which Mac had been developing since 2012, retells American history through its popular music, spending an hour on each decade, beginning in 1776 and ending in 2016. The New York Times music critic Wesley Morris wrote that the twenty-four-hour performance—which featured a glow-in-the-dark production of The Mikado, visionary costumes by Mac’s longtime collaborator Machine Dazzle, and a large penis-shaped balloon—was “one of the great experiences of my life.” In 2017, the work was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and Mac received a MacArthur Fellowship.
The University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium commissioned the 1864-to-1856 decade of A 24-Decade History, and in April 2018, Mac performed an abridged version of the work in Iowa City. Two days before the performance, I interviewed Mac at Hancher’s Strauss Hall for the Creative Matters Lecture Series. The exchange below is an edited version of that discussion, with thanks to the University of Iowa.
I want to start with a personal story. Taylor and I just met for the first time, but we have some friends in common, one of them being my best friend and really the center of my queer family for twenty years. He was at the epic twenty-four-hour performance of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music in New York in October 2016. It was an experience that changed his life.
At one point in A 24-Decade History, there’s a horrifyingly homophobic Ted Nugent song about fag bashing, which Taylor turns into a slow dance at a junior-high queer prom. Taylor asked everyone in the audience to dance with a same-sex partner they didn’t know. My friend danced with a good-looking guy sitting in his row, and he said it was the most extraordinary experience. At first, everyone was giggling, and Taylor was quite severe with them and made them stop and said, No, take it seriously. And my friend said that over the course of this dance, he felt something profound happen between him and this other man, something that felt real to him. Over the next six months, he left his partner of thirteen years, he found this man, discovered that, in fact, something profound had happened between them, and last week they moved in together.
So my first question is, Taylor, does this happen often? And, since I think the answer to that is going to be some species of yes, is it part of the design?
Well, I don’t set out to break people up. My job as a theater artist is to remind people of the things they’ve forgotten, dismissed, or buried, or that other people have buried for them. It sounds like your friend came to the show having some problems with his boyfriend and our show unearthed things in him, and then he was able to grapple with that truth about himself. If I can do that for people, that’s a real joy because I don’t believe that he’d be served staying with his former lover and not loving him. Nor do I think the former lover would be served by that. So no, it isn’t the first time. There are babies who are alive right now because of people who met at our shows.
It’s also happened with my play The Lily’s Revenge. People would hook up as a result of hanging out together. When you get people to hang out together and you create an environment where it’s much like a wedding, where people oftentimes will hook up or break up, it creates a ritual in which they are allowed to express the full range of themselves instead of just one aspect. Church and sporting events are often two dominant rituals in our culture, and both of those things ask you to root for one team. Theater can get you to express the full range of your humanity, so it’s a ritual that allows for more complexity than a sporting event or church, in my estimation.
You’ve called A 24-Decade History a “Radical Faerie Realness Ritual.” Who are the Radical Faeries, and what does a Radical Faerie Realness Ritual mean to you?
The Radical Faeries were created by a group of gay men, including Harry Hay, who got together and said, How can we define the way we live in the world based on our understanding of the world as queers? So it was about radical sex, radical communication, radical consent, radical food practices. It’s queer in the grand scheme of queer. And now it’s not just gay men. There are women and trans people involved. It’s much more expansive. They have, I think, the longest running commune in America, called Short Mountain—four hundred drag queens in the woods of rural Tennessee. I don’t want to tell you too much about it because it feels like a private thing, but they’re some of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever met. I’ve been hanging out with them for twenty-five years now in New York City, and I’ve been down to the Mountain a couple times. I call myself a Radical Faerie associate.
I was at Short Mountain when I realized what form I wanted for this particular show, and I wanted to give them credit for that and celebrate that community by calling out that we were doing this ritual.
Taylor Mac in act 1 of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, 2016. Photo: Teddy Wolff.
Among the conditions for transformation seems to me to be a tolerance for failure. You’ve talked about the ways in which you’ve developed an aesthetic practice that builds failure in. You don’t erase, for instance, so if you’re putting on your makeup and something gets smudged, that has to become part of the face. And you’ve talked about finding new ways to authentically fail onstage. How did you come to embrace failure as a legitimate aim of art?
You can’t really be an artist and not embrace failure. Maybe someone can—I don’t see how I could. I once heard Brian Dennehy say that you have eight shows a week, and one’s going to be your best and one’s going to be your worst. I think of that in terms of a life commitment to the arts but also a life commitment to being present with people. You know one of your days is going to be the worst, one is going to be your best. If you think of it that way, it stops being a goal of only achieving good. What I’ve learned by touring and performing and living a life as a performing artist is that when something bad happens, it’s also an opportunity for something incredible to happen. Sometimes it happens in the next moment, and other times it happens in the next week, in the next performance. I call it incorporating calamity, and it’s about transforming it—when something horrible happens, you turn it into something useful. That’s what the entire show is about—how communities are torn apart but because they’re torn apart, they’re also rebuilt. That has happened in the United States over and over again. It comes from the AIDS activism I saw, where an entire queer community is devastated by the epidemic and by the government’s response to it and by their families’ response to them. But meanwhile, they’re building themselves because they’re all gathered to fight this thing together and to take care of each other.
My favorite artists are people who are willing to be human and have flaws in their performances—from Maria Callas to Nina Simone. They’re willing to risk something that’s off pitch or that’s kind of wrong in order to make something more communal and, I would argue, real. But that’s not to say that reaching for the hem of God, reaching for perfection, reaching for virtuosity isn’t also gorgeous. I like to combine the two so that you see the virtuosity next to the thing that’s completely flawed.
One aspect of your virtuosity that I particularly admire and am sensitive to is your singing. My first education in the arts was as an opera singer, and I’ve listened obsessively to the album of The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac.
That’s so, so neurotic. I’m so embarrassed by it.
No, it’s fantastic! It seems to me a kind of taxonomy of vocal technique—at one moment one’s in the world of Woody Guthrie and the next in the world of Nina Simone and then an English choirboy and then Joan Sutherland and so on. It’s an incredible range of styles. How did you start singing? It doesn’t seem like the most obvious thing for a boy in Stockton, California, to do.
Credit my mom. She wasn’t a professional singer and had no desire to be one, but she always sang around the house. The radio was always on, it was always that loud FM—James Taylor, Carole King—and we sang nonstop. Also, my grandmother lived in Southern California, and we lived in Central California, and my mom was a single mom, so there was a lot of driving back and forth and singing in the car. We were pretty poor, and there was never food in the refrigerator, but she still figured out a way to get me voice lessons. I had a mom who saw that I had something and had a desire for performance, and she encouraged it. So I took voice lessons from the age of thirteen to seventeen, and then I went to acting conservatory and learned stage voice technique. And then I just worked and worked and worked.
Taylor Mac in act 2 of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, 2016. Photo: Teddy Wolff.
At the end of the twenty-four hours, your voice must have been in a state it had never been in before. What was it like to make art with a totally unfamiliar instrument?
I’m a storyteller—I don’t even really think of myself as a singer. I’m up there telling stories, and I hope that I have a really good voice and I can hit the note and it can be very clear and it can have what they would call legit sound. But sometimes I don’t want to have that sound because that will not tell the story I’m trying to tell. So it’s about juggling that difference, and we crafted the show so that we do many different kinds of singing throughout. But I knew I was going to get to the end at a certain point. I didn’t even have an octave range, and so then how do I tell the story? But that’s part of the art—it’s about deterioration. I think of it as a metaphor for how to deal with Donald Trump, honestly.
What do you mean?
Everything’s falling apart. How do you deal with the calamity? You’ve got to turn it into something, and you’ve got to use what you’ve got. He’s the president—we can’t deny it! One of the things I learned from performing in the clubs was that if something is threatening to take the story away from the storyteller, then you have to incorporate that threatening thing into the story, at all costs. If people were talking or screaming or heckling me or making out or having sex while I was performing, I’d have to incorporate them into the performance. If everyone were watching the people having sex, then I’d go over there and perform by them. And then the audience would think, Oh, look at that fabulous performer incorporate that thing! Oh, let me watch that performer some more. And then I could come back over here, and they’d follow me. So that’s how I feel about Donald Trump—he doesn’t get to be the lead in the story. He’s trying to steal the American story from the American people. He’s the grandest narcissist we have, and he’s trying to make it only his story. We have to incorporate him but not let him take it over.
Among all the virtuosity and failure in the art of Taylor Mac, there’s also a profound sort of moral thinking or moral questioning happening. And one of the ways that happens, to stick with the voice for a moment, is the way in which you use voice to communicate emotion. Drag is a capacious art form, but there are some kinds of drag that restrict themselves to a narrow band of affect or of emotion, as is often the case on something like RuPaul’s Drag Race, for instance. But the way you use affect seems to me essential to the moral questioning that your work is engaged in. Your song “The Palace of the End,” from The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac, is an example. It begins with an astonishing set of facts, one of which is that Lynne Cheney wrote a lesbian romance novel, and also that Saddam Hussein wrote a romance novel.
It’s called Zabibah and the King.
That weird historical convergence becomes an occasion for laughter, and as the song goes on, it draws a correlation or equivalence between the Cheney family of war criminals and the Hussein family of war criminals. That’s a moral ground that feels pretty familiar—I won’t say comfortable—to liberal thinking. But in fact, the song makes us experience, with a kind of radical swiftness I don’t think I’ve experienced before, not just humor and outrage and shock but also empathy and a recognition of a moral community and a refusal of comfort that comes from just exiling people from the human race. This happens so vertiginously that finally I feel like the floor falls out from beneath me and I’m hanging over a moral abyss. Another great queer artist from the Central Valley of California, the poet Frank Bidart, has a poem about how to begin a work of art. He says, First, set up a situation, then reveal an abyss. Your art does that again and again, and it’s essential not just to the aesthetic but to the moral work it wants to do.
It’s a hero’s journey. We’re in the normal world and suddenly—here’s the outside world! It’s very AABA, which is pop-culture songwriting 101. You set up the world, and then you get a little bored with the world, so you go on an adventure—this is called the bridge. You go on a little bridge, and you cross into the outside world from your home, and you have an adventure, and then usually, Oh, something dangerous happens! There’s a minor key! You go back home, and maybe it’s a little different, and aren’t we so happy that we’re back home and we’re safe? This is the structure of most of our storytelling, right? And most of our art reaffirms that home is the right place to be and the unknown is horrible. I’m trying to make work that takes us from home to the bridge and then keeps going. And it’s not that home is gone—we have home with us everywhere we go.
That’s a long way to say that yes, I want to break open into that abyss, and the unknown is worthy of our attention.
In the show, you find that abyss in history—and in American history in particular. Part of your project is to pierce the sentimentality and nostalgia that usually structure our received narratives of America. You said that your job as a performance artist is to remind people of what they’ve dismissed, forgotten, or buried, and you’ve talked about A 24-Decade History as being an attempt to recover, unearth, or reconstruct queer history. In your play Hir, a transgender teenager says, “The past got stolen and I want to steal it back.” But one of the painful things about the practice and discipline of queer history is how much empty space there is, how much has been lost, how many voices weren’t preserved or were actively destroyed. How do you approach the research of constructing this history, and what do you do when you hit those walls of silence?
The history I’m telling is subjective. What has been frustrating about the way historians talk about queerness has been that because there wasn’t language for it, it didn’t exist. So again and again and again, I read these biographies of Lincoln, and they’ll say, Yes, Lincoln cuddled with a man in bed, and there were letters about how he cuddled with another man in bed, but that doesn’t mean he was gay—that was just a way people behaved back then. Then Steven Spielberg comes out with a movie, and the only scene that is a little queer is when Lincoln is touching some young intern’s thigh, and the intern says, Do you want company? And he says, No, not tonight. Most straight people watch that scene and don’t even know that anything happened. And all the queer people are like, That’s all we got?
Why not just show him cuddling with another man and being romantic and kissing him on the neck—just show that and let people decide. There’s a real emphasis on trying to prove things, but we don’t have to prove things, because we’re here, because you and I are queer, which means we didn’t invent it.
Sometimes it feels like we need to prove it.
We know about Plato, and we know about Socrates. We know that it started a long time ago and that it didn’t just disappear. But of course, you’ve got to go hunting for it. And I didn’t want to do a Hamilton thing where you take all the straight people and make them gay. That’s a valid approach, but that’s not the way I wanted to do it. I’m not really interested in making the past queer. I’m interested in making the room right here queer. It’s an invitation for you to consider something about yourself.
I once called this man up onstage—he was maybe eighty, and we were in Florida, a red state, in Gainesville, a very red county. We’re doing our thing together, and I say, You’re going to be gay now. And he says, Oh no no no, and starts to walk off the stage. And I’m like, Queen, get back here! We had to spend more time together, and it was ultimately fine and really fun. But his impulse was, No, that’s not me! My job is to say, But maybe it is, for, like, an hour of your life. If you don’t want it to be, why don’t you want it to be? And why aren’t you willing even to consider it? And what does that say about homophobia, and what does that say about history and the way we’re raised? Not about sexual preference—what does that say about socialization? That’s what I’m interested in. I can’t do anything about the past, but I challenge historians to dig a little deeper and to open up their considerations.
Taylor Mac in act 3 of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, 2016. Photo: Teddy Wolff.
Questions of identity are at the core of your work, not just in terms of subject matter but also in terms of aesthetic. It’s a gloriously queer aesthetic. You even say at one point in The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac that you’re writing for gay people.
There’s a lot of pressure for minority artists and for women artists to make “universal” work, which means make work for straight white men. Or it’s code for making work that the status quo will enjoy and can understand and relate to. But you don’t go to the theater to experience what you already know. You go to experience something new or to be reminded about something you didn’t know existed in yourself. And that doesn’t mean you’re going to go suck a dick.
It might! It also might mean that if you’re a man who’s eighty years old, you’ve never slow danced with another man in your life because you think of yourself as straight, and you are straight, but when you slow dance with another man for the first time in your life, doesn’t that open something up in you? It doesn’t mean you have to leave your wife and go be with a man for the rest of your life, but maybe now you have a better understanding of how the world works and a better understanding of how you work. Those are good things, and that’s what the theater is for.
At the same time that the show is exploring identity, you’ve also said how bored you are with identity politics.
Ugh! Bleh! Ah! Ugh!
Having lived in the show for so long, what do you now think about the dangers and possibilities of identity?
I think if you decide, you can’t change your mind. It’s really great when people change their minds. I don’t want to be like my mom, like, You’re not going to be gay your whole life—it’s just a phase. What I mean is, if you spend a lot of time defining who you are, you’re not spending that time paying attention. That’s how I feel—it doesn’t have to be how everybody feels. I get why identity politics is a big deal right now. I champion it. I cheer people on to figure shit out. I just feel like my work is not about identity actually. Identity is always a theme, so it’s always present, it’s always declared, it’s always a reference for contextualization. In the show, I talk about the Civil War, and I’m a queer person who’s a little male leaning and maybe a little not, you know. So we’re going to talk about the Civil War from that context. But that doesn’t mean that the show is about me being queer. The show is about communities building themselves as a result of falling apart. Identity is always present, but if you make it the main theme, it’s less interesting.
In some of the reading I’ve been doing over the last few days, thinking about this conversation, someone said—was it Charles Ludlam? I can’t even remember—that identity is like rocks in a stream and queerness is the water. This grand notion of queerness you’re talking about imagines identity not as fixed or monolithic but as performative, as something that’s mobile and wears away.
Right. I say that I’m not male or female. My gender is performer—because I feel that way! I feel like I perform gender all the time. So right now I’m performing male leaning. And when I’m onstage, I’m performing some other thing that’s not quite female, not quite male, you know? And other times in my life, I’ve performed more female, whatever that means—more feminine, more masculine. But I understand why people want to define it for themselves, and that has to do with their upbringing and the way they’ve had to manage being in the world and how they feel at their core. I’m not trying to define anybody else.
I know there’s a lot of celebration and play and joy in A 24-Decade History, but the affective subject matter is often guilt, shame, rage, and maybe, especially, mourning. Some of the big topics are slavery, the Trail of Tears, internment camps, tenements, the Civil War, AIDS. Much of the history that you tell, as we’ve talked about, is history that has been repressed in favor of sentimental or nostalgic myths of America. Piercing those myths has been the project of much leftist and radical thinking in the United States for a long time, and now maybe people on the Left are facing the consequence of that project, which is, after having done the work of deconstructing myths America tells about itself, is there anything left to invest in? Is there a way to recuperate or reimagine the dream of America, let’s say maybe Whitman’s dream, or the dream that is necessary to any communal or national project? Which is also a way of asking you, What’s next?
One of the things I feel strongly about 24-Decade and in working on my new play is that they don’t just make a wish for the way the world could be but that they are actual manifestations of the way you want the world to be. I wanted to make a world where people consider things, where people hang out and spend time, where people make music together, where we use our bodies to understand history. So we made a show that does all those things, where we build ourselves because of the adversity. I also wanted to show that that is diversity. I couldn’t just make a show about diversity and talk about diversity. The show had to be diverse. There are two hundred people in the show, and all different kinds of people made the show. So it’s about just wishing for it—it’s here. You can point to it. And it’s right here in this room. That doesn’t mean it’s the only thing in the world, but it is here. Political theater tends to call out what it wants the world to be, instead of making the world that it wants. I keep that in mind at the beginning of making a work. What kind of world do I want to live in? And that incorporates mourning—I don’t want a world that is Utopian. I want a world that says, This horrible thing happened, and what can we do? How can we build from that? So that when something horrible happens again, maybe it’s less horrible because we have some techniques and we’ve learned some things. That’s my dream.
Garth Greenwell is the author of the novel What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Vice.
Last / Next Article