Taylor Mac in act 7 of The 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 his 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 Foundation “Genius” grant.
The University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium commissioned the 1864 to 1856 decade of the 24-Decade History, and in April of 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 The 24-Decade History of Popular Music in New York in October 2016. It was an experience that changed his life.
At one point in The 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. Read More