Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
On being an outsider, the nature of authenticity, and the depths of pop-culture.
When I first moved to New York, a friend insisted I accompany him to see somebody named “Judy.” Judy was a drag queen, he told me, and so much more. Intrigued, I ended up in the Dixon Place lounge on the Lower East Side on a Wednesday with a bunch of people of different ages, races, and creeds gathered around a piano. There sat a person with extremely long eyelashes and a stage presence like I had never before encountered. Judy was, of course, Taylor Mac—the performance artist and playwright who has been living and working in New York City for two decades, but who only recently has gotten some of the recognition Judy truly deserves.
Watching Mac that night, I was struck by the quickness and ease with which I moved between emotional states. Just as I thought I might wallow in my loneliness forever listening to Mac sing, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” I’d find myself laughing at jokes about “sexual innuendo gay waiters,” who make everything you say into an opportunity for lascivious fun. Mac moves at the speed of sound, and as an audience member, your heart and mind must keep up.
Over the next two years, Mac will continue working on a twenty-four hour history of popular music, a project that will culminate in a daylong concert featuring Mac, a twenty-four piece orchestra, dancing beauties, and special guests. What I saw that night at Dixon Place was an open rehearsal like the ones Mac has been holding for the last few years. When we sat down together, I was struck by Mac’s straightforward demeanor. As we discussed political leanings, early aesthetic influence, and current economic crises, he struck me as a true radical in the sense that he gets to the root of things. This impulse towards radicalism gave our conversation great depth and breadth, much like a root system itself.
Katherine Cooper I’m always curious to hear about artists’ early lives. What were the textures, feelings, and experiences of your young world? Where did you live before you lived here?
Taylor Mac I was raised in Stockton, California. But this is home—I’ve been here twenty years. California was very suburban. Everything was brown and grey—cement, tarmac, and that faux leather that’s on the chairs in fast food restaurants. People were pretty conservative. It was the murder capital of America (per capita), so there were a lot of violence and class issues. And there was bussing. I would ride the bus for an hour to school and about an hour back. I feel like my childhood was spent on a bus in many ways—on the green fake leather seats with gum sticking to the back. There was a lot of racism and homophobia. Maybe I was just aware of it because I knew I was queer, but it seemed like everyone was anti-gay-people. This was right around when AIDS started to kick off, and so people were very vocal—they thought that gay people would give you AIDS if you talked to them. It wasn’t a pleasant place. There wasn’t a lot of culture. We had a community theater though, and I would work there whenever they would need a kid. There was this guy, Mark McLelland, who ran the children’s theater program for two years and he did Liz Swados’s Private Ways. Years later I got to work with Liz and she became a mentor. So he was trying to do some different things. That was the first play where I realized, Oh, plays aren’t just about entertainment. Plays can actually be about ideas, and social justice, and much more than just trying to make people happy. I wouldn’t say I had a healthy childhood, but it was productive for me because it turned me into an artist and a thinker. I was an outsider in that world. Because I was part of mainstream American culture—what Sarah Palin would call “real America”—and because I was rejected from it (and also rejected myself from it), I can see both sides of the table. As a result, I think I’ve made art that is more inclusive and yet does not accept the horrendous attributes of mainstream America. I’m thankful for my childhood even though it was horrible at times.
KC You describe this feeling of being an outsider—was there a moment later when you felt an acceptance or an insiderness? Not necessarily in that milieu, but down the line?
TM Well I found these great friends in Stockton. We all ended up being queer and coming out to each other years later. We had a very tight knit camaraderie and family in a way. I’ve always felt I had this blessing. My outsiderness gave me a way inside to something else. I think that’s a lot of what my work is about—community and how it both fails us and supports us. What is community doing to us and how do we build it and foster it?
KC I’m interested in this idea of queerness and queer community in New York right now. When is it important to be exclusive and when is it important to share outwardly? I was very taken with the way you reference radical fairy culture in your performances and I wanted to hear you riff on that a little bit—both how to expand this idea of queerness and also when and how to keep it closed.
TM I wouldn’t want everyone to go down to the radical fairy retreat. While it could be amazing, it would also also ruin it. I go back and forth calling myself a Radical Fairy. I’m not really. In order to identify as something you need to make a certain amount of commitment to it, and I don’t really commit to that community in a major way unless you count my art as something that’s giving them fodder. I’ve been down there once to Tennessee. I’ve been around them more or less for twenty years. I’ve done the drag march and been to the parties and salons. I feel a kinship with them, and at the same time, I’m slightly removed. They’re incredible. Some of the new age aspects of it drive me a little insane—the horoscopes and fermented foods curing your diseases, the numerology and the incense and essential oils. It’s all incredible in its own way, but when you combine all those aspects together it makes me roll my eyes a little bit. And I can joke with them about it. That’s the great thing about most queers: they have a sense of humor about themselves. Ultimately though, I don’t like to spend too much time with one group of people. I usually dislike performing at “gay” festivals because it’s only the gays that come. Put it in the LGBT community center and only the gays come. And gay people don’t usually flock to my work. Usually I have the fewest number of people in my audience when I’m at a gay festival.
KC Why don’t you think gay people flock to your work?
TM I think, at this point, gay people are more concerned by and large with becoming mainstream than with ideas. They want their drag queens to perpetuate escapism and not necessarily be connectors to ideas. I think that we’ve decided, in a lot of ways, to identify gayness with the ability to shop.
KC The gay pride parade is sponsored by Pepsi—
TM Right. The more we’ve tried to assimilate the more we’ve embraced the things about American culture that I’m not so excited about. When I perform at the gay festivals, it seems like people are surprised that they like it. People aren’t drawn to it right from the get-go. “What’s he doing a show on? The War on Terror? I don’t want to see that; I want to see a drag queen sing Beyonce songs. Or lip synch. Or do vagina jokes.” It can be a little tiring. The great thing about an audience where everybody’s mixed up is that people teach each other how to listen. A homogenized audience doesn’t listen as well. I have this one very explicit song about my sex life. If it is an all-straight audience, they will get concerned for me. If it is an all queer audience, they will just laugh through the entire thing. When it’s a mixture, the straights teach the queers how to listen with some brevity (I’m so sad to say that), and the queers teach the straights how to let go of some of their social dictates and embrace a little bit of the irony and humor of the situation, embrace the idea that it’s not devastating or tragic to have a sex life. Because if you just laughed all the way through, you’re not really hearing the song and if you just get worried for the artist, you’re not hearing the song either. It’s so much better when it’s mixed up.
KC Earlier you mentioned this idea that the joy and anxiety of community are part of your life’s work. If I asked you today to describe your community, what would you say?
TM I can’t just call it one community. I’d say I have a community that is very intimate to me—my friends I knew in Stockton, my lover, people I’ve known for a very long time whom I feel very close to and connected with. And then I have a performance community—people I see when I’m doing variety shows or when I’ve created parts for them in my plays, whom I also love deeply but spend less time with outside of work. Then I have the audience as a community and that’s something I’m really building with the twenty-four decades show. Every time I do one of those shows there are repeat members. I call them the “Guild of Lilies.” I’m sure you know somebody who’s really good at throwing dinner parties. They throw dinner parties all the time and you get a chance to talk to everybody and see your friends. That’s what it feels like—that I’m hosting these parties all the time. They just have art attached to them so people talk about the art and ideas in the art and then expand that to what’s going on in their own lives. And they start to get to know each other and become friends. People like to make fun of people who say with their theater, “We’re building a community!” But it’s actually true. I see that people are stronger as a result of my doing the work, not necessarily because of the work but because of the invitation to come. The practice. The consistency. If I stopped then it might all fall apart. I feel a responsibility towards that. It’s why I want to work more in New York City, even though it’s a lot harder to work here. You have to go outside of town to make a living.
KC Why do you think that is?
TM New York City is one of the richest cities in the world and they do not pay their artists shit. You go to any other city and they will pay you more than they do here, because everybody thinks that everybody wants to be here so they don’t have to pay. It’s a nasty way of fucking artists over. I’ve found that if I perform at a regional theater in America I will get paid more than if I get paid at The Public Theater. And yet my rent is more expensive here than it would ever be in North Carolina. I don’t know how that happened. Maybe it’s just that there are so many artists that want to work here. If I want to make a living I have to tour. So this run of The Good Person of Szechwan that I just did at the Public Theater with the Foundry—the Foundry finds the money to pay us a little more than the Public Theater would normally pay for their contracts, but I still ended up paying, ultimately, about $500 from my savings in order to do the show, because they just didn’t pay me enough to pay my bills. And I live really low to the ground. So that’s what we’re talking about. Where are our priorities?
KC If I said, “Ok Taylor, you’re in charge—
KC —and you can re-structure it any way you want.” What would you do?
TM First, I would try to get a lot of people smarter than I am to work with me. I would try to cultivate a system where we rely on the citizens to do the job for us as opposed to the oligarchy. Right now what most people are doing is looking for funding from the billionaires and what I would do is say, “No. We need the people to support what’s being done.” I don’t think it should have taken me twenty years to get a job at The Public Theater. I didn’t just suddenly become talented at this theater thing. I’m not good at a whole slew of things, but I am good at my job and I was good twenty years ago! I was always supposed to be doing what I’m doing, but the gatekeeping was so intense that I couldn’t find my way in. And I’m aware that there are probably hundreds of kids who are also like that, and who haven’t been as lucky as I’ve been to push forward. I want us to work to give them access. I want to see their work but they need access. I don’t like to be down on it, but I do like to acknowledge that there’s stuff that needs work.
KC I think it’s important to critically examine it and try to understand how it’s working or not working.
TM We’ve told people that avant-garde theater is not for everybody. We could do more of what the fashion industry does—they make avant-garde fashion something you want to see. You may not want to wear it, but you want to see it and experience it. So if theater could figure out a way to convince people that unconventional forms are exciting. “Oh you might get bored by this? That’s exciting!” The idea that the play or the performance is supposed to solve everything for you in the moment is insidious. No, it’s supposed to offer you a conversation—after. To me, performance is about inspiring people to do things. The time that you’re sitting in the theater is about giving you context for what you’re going to do after—it’s not the thing. I think that’s all theater artists really do. It’s a beautiful thing that we do, but we’re just Bob Hopes in some ways. We’re here to support the troops, to inspire them to go and hopefully not start wars but—
KC Catalysts for action.
TM Yes. That’s what I think. I don’t think we change the world by somebody coming to see our play and saying, “My world is changed!” We change the world by whether or not we actually inspire them to do something afterwards.
KC In your manifesto you talk about the importance of authentic success and authentic failure. How would you define success?
TM It’s different for every circumstance. It could just be saying hello to somebody on the elevator and they say “hi” back. That could be success. But it could also be hitting the high B flat. Hitting that note and soaring. You work hard at it, you train your voice, you use your craft and everybody in the audience goes, “Ohhhhh!” They get all excited about the heights that the human being can go to. But you have to combine that with authentic failure in order to be a real artist, to show your humanity and your failure onstage—your real failure. If you are truly allowing yourself to fail and look ugly and be a human being in all of its complexity—I mean human beings are disgusting—so if you’re really allowing yourself to show your disgusting side, that is glorious. I did a show at Splash Bar, before your time here, it’s a tacky bar, people would judgingly call it the “bridge and tunnel gay bar.” All the guys would go there and everybody would smell like cologne. They’ve all got their shirts off and they’re all polished and plucked. It was a bar of its time. It probably wouldn’t succeed now (which is a rather glorious realization). All the drag queens would be your pretty basic female impersonation drag queens. They would have this competition, and I went one time because I desperately needed a hundred dollars to pay my rent or groceries or something. So I go there and one of my favorite performers, burlesque star Julie Atlas Muz, is there as well. I do my number. I was singing great, hitting all the really high notes, really using my craft. And the audience went, “Okay. That’s nice.” And then Julie Atlas Muz gets up and she’s doing everything great, even better than I had. She’s getting all of her timing down and she’s hysterical. And the audience is like, “Oh, that’s nice.” And then this other drag queen gets up there, lip synchs badly to that song “My Pussy and My Crack,” and then takes out her fake teeth. She had maybe three teeth in the front, and she smiles, and the whole crowd goes insane. She wins the hundred dollars. And Julie and I were both screaming for her as well, “Yes! Work queen!” That was an example of how authentic failure is better than authentic success sometimes. She was willing to be vulnerable and in that circumstance it worked. Sometimes polish and craft aren’t as powerful in the moment. And you have to figure out what the moment is. What do we need in the culture right now? You have to listen to your audience and be aware of what’s happening in the world at any given time. If everyone’s screaming about Miley Cyrus then maybe it’s time to add a little bit more intellectualism and craft in the world. But if it’s a time when everybody’s hailing Philip Glass for something in the city then you might just want to take your teeth out. That to me is the joy—balancing the two of those things. Like the twenty-four hour concert—I cannot possibly sing for twenty-four hours and still sound good. At the same time, I’m going to memorize all those songs. I’ll know my stories. I’ll know how to interpret them with great detail. So I’m giving people the craft. I’m giving them ideas and intellectualism, and I’m also giving them popular songs and a voice that is falling apart.
KC It might be your most successful failure yet.
KC We’ve been talking around this idea of the popular and popular culture. It seems like you really have your finger on the pulse of that—the idea of popularity.
TM I think I have a problem with popular culture so that’s why I’m interested in it. We’re not actually listening to the depths of it because of its popular veneer.
KC What’s an example of that?
TM This song by Ke$ha, “Blah Blah Blah.” It’s all about this guy who is talking too much and she just wants to fuck. It basically says, “I don’t want to hear you talk, I just want to fuck. If you can’t fuck me, then screw you.” And that’s deep, and disturbing, and powerful and so many other things if you really examine it, but on the surface it’s just, “Aren’t I cool? I’m sassy. I’m the new woman.” It’s all attitude. I do a version of that song where I sing it to the backing of Clair de Lune. We slow it down and you can hear all the lyrics and the sentiment and a crass young girl culture that’s coming up. Simply by slowing it down and taking it out of context, you can pay attention to the details and relate it to your own experience, rather than just judge a pop star. The gays get more power in the world and they get more crass. Same with the young girls: they get more power (and we’re all very thankful for this) and they also get more crass. So you tear that apart, and you find find the sophistication that’s actually in the song. It suddenly becomes more than just a polarization, it becomes human. It becomes a real story, a real struggle to get at something. That’s the kind of thing I like to do with popular music. I say: “Okay, here’s what they were trying to sell. Now what’s underneath that? Let’s really examine that pain that’s inside of us or that joy and then do it all: pain, joy, commerce, frivolity, ideas, etcetera.” So it’s not about trying to make something homogenous or polarized but actually heterogeneous. It’s the same thing with all the gender work. I do the gender work not because I’m interested in gender but because I’m interested in heterogeneity.
KC It makes so much sense to me. Theatrical performance has so much to do with putting different things next to each other so that you can really see them, you know?
TM Erik Ehn says you have to have a little comedy at the end of your tragedy so that people can see the tragedy and a little tragedy at the end of your comedy so that people can see the comedy. I think that’s very true. I just try to do it in every beat.
KC So over the course of our conversation you’ve invoked all these different names of New York theater artists and people that you’ve admired, and I’m wondering, if I asked you, “Who is on your Mount Rushmore of artistic influence?”, who would you say?
KC We can also pick a less nationalist metaphor…
TM I get asked that a lot, and it’s hard to say because it feels like everyone is always asking about favorites. We’re always trying to reduce everything down to one thing instead of embracing multiplicity. To say, Justin Vivian Bond is on my Mount Rushmore feels rooted in capitalism and god and hero worship and I’m not sure that serves us so well. It’s monotheistic.
KC So maybe here’s a better way to frame the question: Who is in your person canon this week?
TM Ah yes. This week is Susan Stroman and Mandy Patinkin. Mandy is just the greatest. I’ve never worked with anyone like him before and we have both similar and total opposite tastes. But it doesn’t matter. I find him extraordinary. And Stro is such a craftsperson. She knows her craft so beautifully and it’s just remarkable to be in a room with those kind of theater giants even if neither one of them would make any of the shows I’ve made. I have to say it’s really nice to perform with people who are better than you. Stro knows dance and storytelling. She is a million times better than I am. It’s something I’ve longed for my whole life; I’ve always been attracted to working with artists who are better than I am because I want to get better. Justin Vivian Bond too. When I’m onstage with Justin, it’s just a master class in the gift of the gab, in how to always take the moment and turn it into something the audience will connect to in profound theatrical ways. It’s always spontaneous and fresh even if V practiced it on the way to the theater. Other contemporaries too, like Lady Rizo. Her voice just keeps getting better and better and better. Matt Ray is amazing, one of my musical directors. And there are people who have hardly any traditional craft at all, but they have a craft in who they are as human beings. That’s what a lot of queer artists have. They spent so much of their life having to craft who they are because the world was telling them to be something they weren’t. It’s something I try to recognize as well, and I love inviting those people into the work, like the World Famous BOB. She has a great craft in terms of her artistry—she’s so fine tuned in who she is as a person. Having her in the room with you is so inspiring—you learn how to be a better person just from being around her. She’s better than I am at what she does. It doesn’t always have to be what you think. It doesn’t have to be the person who can dance on point, it can be the person who knows how to walk to the subway.
KC You’ve had a year that has been so visible—Good Person of Szechwan, Last Two People on Earth, the new commission with the A.R.T.—very visible identifiable successes in a certain way. I would also ask you if there was a moment of faltering or failure that didn’t go right this year—
TM Everything! (laughter) Everything didn’t go right this year. I just got rejected for a major grant that would have helped me produce my twenty-four decade extravaganza. I haven’t had a new play produced in New York City in three years and it’ll be at least another two (because Off-Broadway theater doesn’t know how to do things quickly). And I have two new plays ready to be produced, and by the time I get one produced here, I’ll probably have another three. So it’s all hunky-dory but, at the same time, people keep saying, “You must be having all these meetings with Warner Brothers! People must be knocking down your door!” Nope. It’s just funny. There’s this expectation that because things are going well for you, everything’s great. Meanwhile, I’m making a net profit of $500 dollars a week at the Public Theater. Which I’m sure a lot of people would love and it’s certainly a lot better than it was twenty years ago. I would have loved $500 a week twenty years ago but that was twenty years ago. Then there’s the artistic stuff. Like, Good Person was torture. That process was very hard for me. The re-mount was easy but there’s all that insecurity everyday: “Is this going to work? Am I communicating anything? Everyone’s just going to think I’m dumb. It’s not funny.” And then you just do it and hope it works and luckily that one did. The process, in some ways, was a failure because I didn’t enjoy it. I was sick the whole time. I was juggling too many projects because I haven’t figured out how to make a living any other way. There’s been a lot of misery along with the success. So when people say, “What a great year!” Yes, I have had a great year, truly great, but it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t up all night because I was manic and worried. But that’s a life in theater. It’s a life as a human being. There’s no panacea to our misery. There’s only doing and dealing with whether or not you enjoyed the doing. I love it, but I like to be realistic about it all as well.
KC Thank you. I don’t mean to make you recount your failures for naught but I do wonder about it a lot as an artist.
TM I think it’s important for people, who might be looking to my career as a model, to know that almost all the grants that I’ve ever gotten I’ve applied to at least three times, if not five or seven. You do have to have a certain amount of consistency and resilience.
KC I’m really curious to hear you talk about your first love—and feel free to interpret that in any way you see fit.
TM (laughter) I think I’m going to keep that just for me, but I’ll talk about why I don’t want to talk about it. I’ll talk about it onstage. Onstage, nobody knows if I’m telling the truth or not. But in an interview it’s assumed that you’re telling the truth. In a performance you have protection. The point isn’t whether or not it’s true. The point is the act of sharing. In the theater, if you come up with it, it’s both false and true.
Katherine Cooper is a Brooklyn-based writer, director, and performer with an MA in Performance Studies from NYU. She is a regular online contributor to BOMB.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Sign up for the BOMB Retrospective newsletter to receive curated selections from each decade of the archive.