The professors and university mandarins having lunch at an elegant UCLA campus restaurant the other day had no idea that seated inconspicuously among them was a cultural revolutionary. Wearing a knit cap and eating a flank steak, playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac patiently fielded questions about the staggeringly ambitious production that is about to take over Los Angeles.
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance is presenting Mac’s chef-d'oeuvre, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” in a four-show series at the Theatre at Ace Hotel beginning Thursday. Broken into six-hour installments spaced out over two weeks, the hallucinatory concert extravaganza is being custom tailored, with local musicians, guest artists and glittery supernumeraries brought in for the occasion.
Mac, a galvanic performer who combines the otherworldly gender fluidity of Ziggy Stardust and the unstoppable razzle-dazzle of a post-modern Liza Minnelli, could easily stop traffic in these groves of academe with a simple change in headdress. The costumes for the 24-hour production, couture concoctions of mad brilliance by the designer known as Machine Dazzle, serve as glittery chrysalises for the astonishing transformations Mac undergoes while leading us decade by decade through American history via the reinterpretation and reframing of our music heritage.
A California native raised in Stockton who lives in New York with an architect husband, Mac examines the nation’s past (from its Revolutionary beginnings through the bloody wreckage of the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement and beyond) through a queer lens, but stresses that the work is not ultimately about identity: “Identity politics is just not interesting enough to me,” Mac said. “That doesn’t mean my identity isn’t declared or referenced. I’m queer, but the work is not about queerness. It’s always there, but it’s not the point.”
Mac, whose preferred pronoun is “judy,” is more playfully subversive than politically correct. The artist’s producing team at Pomegranate Arts requested through CAP’s press representative that gender-specific pronouns be avoided, but Mac seemed more fatigued than fazed when I asked whether there was a difference between Taylor Mac the stage creation and Taylor Mac the white, gay man tucking into a steak before me.
“There is a difference,” Mac said. “Right now, I’m wearing relative man drag. I’m trying to blend in. On stage, I have a responsibility to expose the inner workings. So I say my gender isn’t male or female. My gender is performer and my gender pronoun is ‘judy’ because I wanted a gender pronoun that is an art piece, that makes people pause and consider and laugh because everyone is so uptight about getting it right.”
With protean magic and fierce cabaret brilliance, Mac slips effortlessly in “A 24-Decade History” not just between the sexes but also between epochs and music styles, animating, appropriating and annotating the country’s patchwork story through its music. USC professor David Román, who is editing a book on Mac, shared his thoughts via email while he was in London preparing his upcoming lecture, “Taylor Mac Sings the Revolution,” at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
“It’s too easy to say that Taylor Mac queers the history of popular music,” Román said. “Mac revives the role of popular music to rally people to resist oppression by showing us how it’s been done time and time again.”
When asked about similarities between “A 24-Decade History” and “Hamilton,” an even more celebrated musical of historical reclamation, Mac explained the difference by way of analogy: “I’m not making Alexander Hamilton gay. I’m looking for the queer person hanging out with Alexander Hamilton and giving him ideas. It’s a different approach.”
That’s not the only difference. Mac praised the “polish” of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical and emphasized that this isn’t a “backhanded compliment,” because Mac’s own work, though carefully scripted, is more accommodating of mess, sprawl, chance and chaos. “Perfection” actually gets dissed in the show as the opposite of queerness.
“Content dictates form” is a guiding dictum for the author, a MacArthur grant recipient who wears the award’s “genius” distinction lightly but unmistakably. “The content of the show is about communities building themselves as a result of being torn apart and how that has happened throughout our history,” Mac explained. “And so I thought the form of the show should reflect this experience of a community building itself even as it’s being torn apart by the onslaught of time.”
The audience, in other words, is integral to the act. The exhaustion of this performance journey, more extreme than a Jerry Lewis telethon, isn’t the price one pays for the artistic experience but an inseparable part of a work that is constructed as a communal ritual. Mac has performed the piece in various configurations, including a straight-through 24-hour marathon at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. But whether it’s a three-hour sneak-peek, as was offered at Royce Hall in 2016, or programs of assorted lengths, those in attendance are actively incorporated into the theatrical proceedings. We all become the show.
“Performance work can be ephemeral in the sense that it doesn’t fully exist as a text or as a recording,” Kristy Edmunds, who leads UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, reflected earlier this year when talking about her upcoming season. “But performance has the power to create communal memory, which is a living archive of the experience.” For Edmunds, Mac’s “24-Decade History” realizes the radical potential of this unique bonding experience.
Mac, who comes off as a sincere ironist in conversation, rejects the grant-speak claims about most interactive performance. “People in the theater world like to say it’s all about “the community of the audience, blah blah, blah,” Mac said. “But we all know it’s a temporary community that usually lasts 90 minutes. It’s different when you can point to tangible changes in the world. People at our shows have hooked up, started relationships and businesses. There are babies that wouldn’t have been born had we not made the show.”
Mac’s entry into the theater came via acting, but playwriting quickly asserted itself. “After acting school in New York, I’d get these regional theater jobs, and once the show opened, I’d have all this time, so I started writing. I had a lot to say that went beyond what actors are empowered to do. I needed to make my own work.”
Unclassifiable performance pieces showcasing the artist in outrageous drag established Mac’s singular reputation, but plays written for others, such as the off-Broadway hit “Hir,” have followed. Mac has three new plays in the works but groans in frustration at the bureaucratic grind: “I just hate the American theater. I really do. It’s the slowest process known to man."
Broadway keeps offering acting jobs, but Mac would rather perform in Sondheim or Shakespeare than do watered-down versions of the gender-blurring act that some would like to commercially exploit. Logistics, however, are the bigger issue right now. Mac is touring a show that requires superhuman vocal, mental and spiritual strength.
The gargantuan “24-Decade History” was created in close collaboration with Matt Ray, the music director and arranger, who shared with Mac the $100,000 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History last year. Niegel Smith, another key collaborator, co-directs with Mac, who occupies the center of the performance swirl, which includes a troupe of “dandy minions” (“candy stripers for the audience,” charged with performing “random acts of fabulousness”).
Mac honed an array of audience participation techniques through years of drag performance. “I went to the clubs because I didn’t have the improv skills and learned by watching all the great drag queen performers and emcees grapple with tons of calamity in the room — people drunk and having sex while they’re putting on a show. I learned how to incorporate the chaos into the theater. Audience participation isn’t just something you do. It doesn’t work if you don’t put in the 10,000 hours.”
Hostile eruptions have occurred, including a little frat-boy fracas in the South. Mac has developed a strategy for dealing with the occasional belligerent homophobe who has somehow stumbled into the theater: “If something is threatening to take the story away from the storyteller, incorporate that threatening thing into the story at all costs. So if there’s an antagonist in the audience, I position them as an antagonist within the hero’s journey. Suddenly I’m the hero involving the audience in how we’re going to keep the story moving forward.”
Mac prefers when the audience reflects the heterogeneity of the nation.
“We may not have that many conservative people at the show in L.A., but we have definitely performed for Trump voters,” Mac said. “When there’s variety, actual diversity, audience members teach each other how to listen. If it’s an entirely queer audience, like say at an LGBT festival where I usually have half the number of people in the audience because I don’t lip-sync or do vagina jokes, they’ll laugh at something that might be a little serious. With straight people in the audience, they teach queers how to listen to something differently and vice versa. The show is really trying to get the audience to express the full range of what America has been and can be.”
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‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’
Where: Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S Broadway, L.A.
When: 6 p.m. Thursday (Chapter 1), Saturday (Chapter 2), March 22 (Chapter 3) and March 24 (Chapter 4)
Tickets: $45-$250 per performance
Information: (310) 825-2101, cap.ucla.edu