October 2017

Arts & Letters

Break it down

By Laura Parker

Taylor Mac takes on ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’

The unofficial motto of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a sprawling 24-hour performance split into six-hour chapters, is “perfection is for assholes”. This doesn’t just apply to Mac himself, who embraces calamity in all its forms. It’s really more of an instruction for Mac’s audience, particularly those who are unfamiliar with his work. Mac may perform in a theatre, but his ultimate goal is to shake the stuffiness and politeness out of the place – to make you feel uncomfortable so you can start feeling comfortable.

See Mac perform in a city like San Francisco and you start to understand what this feels like. There are 12-year-olds in princess costumes sitting next to 80-year-olds in tuxedos. One 15-year-old girl, accompanied by her father, has the letters T and M written in glitter on her cheeks. I spy one guy in a wife-beater and thongs – not out of disrespect, mind you; this is just what’s expected at a Taylor Mac show. When Mac first comes out on stage, he makes everyone stand up and speak in tongues while his helpers distribute sparkly drag – gypsy skirts, pearl necklaces, feather boas, colourful hats. It’s as if to say, yes, this is a theatre, and yes, you’re watching a performance, but really we’re all in it together. It really is the kind of show where you could sit around smoking a bong and it wouldn’t just be OK, it would be encouraged.

Mac, 44, a Californian now living in New York, is bringing his festive fantasia to the Melbourne Festival this month. The show was originally conceived as a subjective retelling of 24 decades of American history (each decade taking one hour), from the American Revolution to the sexual revolution – 1776 to today.

All up, there are 246 songs, from The Mikado to Led Zeppelin to Sleater-Kinney. While the lyrics of the songs have not been changed, Mac has reframed each musical moment to serve a greater purpose: underscoring the different communities throughout American history who have managed to rebuild themselves after being torn apart by economic greed, racism, homophobia and white supremacy. His subjects include Jewish immigrants living in tenements in New York’s East Village, and the queer community struggling through the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s. Sometimes the song choices are metaphorical; other times, they are literal. Mac chose the Cole Porter classic ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ to highlight the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two following the attack on Pearl Harbor. “It’s a nice country song, sure, but what if we used it to talk about literal fences?” Mac tells me.

Mac has been flirting with the idea of a show like this since 1987. He’d come to San Francisco as a 14-year-old to see the AIDS march. “I grew up in a very homophobic town – Stockton, California – so seeing gay pride was a big deal for me,” he says. Years later, as his performance career took off, he came back to that moment, deciding to make a metaphorical representation of his experience. But instead of looking inward, Mac wanted to go the opposite way. Had other people had similar experiences in California? What about the rest of America? And not just in the ’80s, what about in the ’60s or the ’20s?

It was at this point Mac realised he didn’t actually know a lot about American history. “I had shitty education,” he says. “I was being attacked as a queer so I couldn’t focus, and as a result I didn’t really learn history.” As a theatre artist, his goal was clear: “If you want to know more about something, you make a show about it.”

The final version of 24-Decade was built over six years of performance in New York. Mac performed variations of it more than 200 times, constantly incorporating feedback. He eventually settled on a mix of scripted material and improvisation. “A living text” is how he describes it.

The much talked about 24-hour performance was done more as an exclamation mark – and, in some ways, a thank you to the New York audiences who had supported Mac from the beginning. Most of the people who turned up to see that show, on 8 October last year at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, had seen dozens of incarnations. By all accounts, it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Even after factoring in sleep deprivation, the New York Times critic Wesley Morris called it one of the great experiences of his life. “I’d say around 4 am, 5 am, everyone just became emotionally deranged,” Mac recalls. “Their defences just fell. Something in the show which is only slightly funny became hysterical. Things dragged on because I’d get a response that would last five, six minutes.”

There were food and bathroom breaks (for artist and audience), and a napping room where sleeping bags were distributed to the weak and weary. But, as Morris described it, most of the audience managed to stay awake for the entire thing. The show was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

To re-create the same experience night after night would be impossible. Splitting the show into six-hour fragments keeps some of the endurance aspect, but it’s short enough that you at least have time to go home and appreciate it. As Mac says, “It’s more civilised this way.”

Ultimately, for all its spectacle – and there is spectacle, from the rotating roster of costumes to the dancers, acrobats and band members that join Mac’s frivolously camp romp – the show’s aim is to unearth those things in our past that we’d rather keep buried. There are moments designed to make the audience feel ashamed for the Western world’s collective sins, and to come face to face with dormant prejudices. “I think it’s less about teaching lessons and more about reminding people where we came from and how we got here,” Mac says.

For most people, this hits home during Mac’s reinterpretation of Ted Nugent’s 1975 song ‘Snakeskin Cowboys’. (Nugent is an old-school American hard rocker and a conservative who advocates for gun rights and endorsed Donald Trump for president.) According to Mac the song is about “fag bashing”, and for the performance he slows it right down so it sounds like a cheesy ballad you’d hear at a high-school prom. Not just any high-school prom, though – a gay one. (Even though queerness isn’t the point of 24-Decade, it’s certainly the main subplot.) When the song comes on, Mac asks everyone in the audience to slow dance with someone of the same gender – a partner, friend or stranger. “There are millions of great moments in the show, but this is the one that’s most personal to me,” Mac says.

What happens next varies wildly according to a number of factors: the city, the type of crowd, the political climate, what happened in the news that month, week or day. Typically, the first reaction is nervousness. People laugh a little, look around sheepishly, Is this OK? “This moment isn’t really about having a good time,” Mac explains. “It’s more about interrogating your feelings. If you’re nervous, why? Is it homophobia? What is that discomfort about?”

When Mac performed in Charleston, South Carolina (a conservative state), in 2015, he wasn’t surprised that the audience’s first reaction to ‘Snakeskin Cowboys’ was laughter. “They just couldn’t take it seriously. It was homophobic in a way, of course – like, ‘Oh, you’re not going to make us gay!’” Despite the unease, Mac didn’t end the segment and move on. He pushed his audience until, in the end, they gave in.

And then there was Toronto, a largely liberal city. Mac performed to a crowd of well-heeled socialites at a benefit. When it came to the slow dance, they didn’t want any part of it. “They just wouldn’t do it. I guess they were too concerned about looking ridiculous?” It’s the only time in the history of the show that Mac hasn’t been able to convince his audience to participate in the slow dance. “And so at that point the ‘art in the room’ becomes the fact that they didn’t do it.”

Which is still OK. “The art is always much more interesting than the intention I’m trying to get at,” Mac says. “I have a hope and when that hope isn’t realised, it’s an opportunity. But it’s good for those people to realise that they don’t have this in them. In a way, they learned something about themselves that night.”

Because each city is different, Mac likes to incorporate elements that are specific to where he’s performing. He’ll do some research before he arrives – read local newspapers, that kind of thing – and then, when he’s there, he’ll talk to people. He’ll ask about their politics and concerns. Sometimes, he’ll unearth local scandals and reference them in his show. Or he’ll riff off a local experience. Once, while performing in Ireland, Mac met a busload of lesbians going on a tour of the country’s Wiccan sites – an account too delicious to pass up.

Ahead of Mac’s Melbourne shows, the issues that seem unavoidable are immigration and marriage equality. But Mac doesn’t want to give away too much. He says the focus, at least for now, should be on the fun. “It’s a lowbrow romp, really,” Mac says. “In this show, I am the metaphor for America. And the fact that some crazy queer can be that is really useful for all cultures.”

Laura Parker

Laura Parker is a contributing writer for the New York Times. She lives in New York.

© Kevin Yatarola

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