Tay­lor Mac’s A 24-Decade His­tory of Pop­u­lar Mu­sic

Laura Parker on Tay­lor Mac’s A 24-Decade His­tory of Pop­u­lar Mu­sic

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Laura Parker

The un­of­fi­cial motto of Tay­lor Mac’s A24-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.”

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