Taylor Mac dares to lead audiences directly to the heart of matters, often via the most fabulously scenic route. Take, for example, the performance artist’s epic A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a comprehensive, Pulitzer-listed theatrical trip across 240 years of American culture and identity, expressed through songs that reflected and defined eras. In the show’s complete iteration, Mac performs nearly an hour for each decade, staging an eye-popping “Radical Faerie-realness ritual sacrifice” that spans four separate shows, and 246 songs, over a fortnight. New York Times critic Wesley Morris, who witnessed the play’s original, 24-hours-straight presentation, described A 24-Decade History as “one of the great experiences of my life.”
Mac seems to relish the journey as much as arriving at some great destination. That searching quality peeks out of Mac’s recent Tony-nominated comedy Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, starring Nathan Lane, as well as trans-themed play Hir, about a dysfunctional family struggling through myriad forms of transition. It’s true in conversation, too, that renegade Mac, who prefers the pronoun “judy,” takes a thoughtful, yet joyfully unconventional approach to getting right to a sharp point, whether discussing how life has changed since being awarded a $625,000 MacArthur Genius Grant in 2017, or musing on how to transform oppressive feelings of holidays past into a madcap rite of celebration.
“We were making A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, and I was doing all this research,” Mac says, recounting the origins of the now-annual, extra-spicy Christmas pageant Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce, playing one night only, Thursday, Dec. 12, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. “I discovered through that research a lot of holiday songs, and where they come from within our history. And then I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll make a whole decade of holiday songs.’ And then I scratched that idea, but I still had all these arrangements. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we make a separate show?’ And I was making that, and I was unhappy. I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Because there are so many holiday shows. Why does the world need one more holiday show?”
At the time, Mac was grieving the death of drag mother and pioneering LGBTQ activist Mother Flawless Sabrina. “I decided to make a show about her through the lens of the holidays, because she always had a holiday party every year when I moved to New York. It was kind of a queer orphans holiday party. And it was the first time I’d ever hung out on Christmas and had a good time. So I just said, ‘Why don’t I make a show that celebrates my drag mother?’ And that’s what we ultimately are doing. We’re sneaky about it. So, it’s framed like a holiday show, but it’s really about Mother Flawless Sabrina.”
Mac also attributes a share of the show’s artistic inspiration to costume creator Machine Dazzle, music director Matt Ray, and Pomegranate Arts — “two amazing women” Linda Brumbach and Alisa E. Regas — the producers of Holiday Sauce and 24-Decade. Gratefully acknowledging that behind each award-winning theatrical undertaking toils “a big, huge family [of] about 200 that are involved in the making of all of this stuff,” Mac sounds just as excited to point out that the family will be adding at least one more for the Kennedy Center performance of Holiday Sauce. “Ari Shapiro’s joining us for a guest spot. He’s the best. He’s so dear. And we have a few other surprises in store.”
METRO WEEKLY: Historically, what has been your relationship to Christmas and the holiday season?
TAYLOR MAC: My connection to it has been that I grew up in a relatively dysfunctional family, and the holiday time never felt good to me. One, because there was homophobia with family. And then consumerism. So it was this kind of religion that always felt homophobic, and then this consumerism that felt oppressive, and not the way that I wanted to celebrate community and friends and loved ones. It was buying things. So I’ve always felt like, “Oh god, you’ve just got to hunker down and get through the holidays.” And I think a lot of people feel that way. But recently in the last few years, I’ve been trying to make art that doesn’t just comment on the world, or doesn’t just wish for the world to be different, or complain about the world, but actually manifests the world that you want to live in through the work. So I decided to make a holiday show that was fun for me, where I get to hang out with my chosen family every year, and that offers an alternative to people. And maybe people who love the holidays, because I love holiday music. I just don’t like the content of most of the songs.
MW: So the show celebrates the seasonal mood more than it satirizes it?
MAC: Yeah. I’m an artist, so I’m always going to challenge the status quo. That’s the job of the artist to a degree. And so satire isn’t really my bag. It’s not that I don’t use satire every so often. But it’s not really my sweet spot. So it’s more that I like to celebrate things, and I like to find the things within something that aren’t worthy of celebration. Acknowledge that it’s not worthy of celebration. And then find the thing that isn’t in it that is worthy of celebration. Well, religious, homophobic dogma is not worthy of celebration. But pretty chords, those are worth celebration. And a nice melody. So how can we take the things that are dysfunctional, and transform them into something that works for us? That’s more what I do.
MW: And also some of it is just really great music.
MAC: I mean, “Silent Night” is incredible. But can you transform the spirit of it so it’s really about paying attention to [what it’s about]? In some ways, it is about this outsider, the original song is about somebody who wasn’t part of the status quo. And of course, now Jesus Christ has become the status quo. So that is the status quo now. But at the time, the spirit of it was, “Oh, there was this outsider.” So what is that today? Well, I would say it’s Mother Flawless Sabrina. So let’s focus on Mother Flawless Sabrina as a way to get to the true spirit of the song.
MW: Is that a way of saying that Jesus would have been an activist and not a Republican?
MAC: Yeah. I mean, yeah, of course.
MW: Seems some folks forget that.
MAC: It seems that they do. I mean, we could have this conversation for hours and hours and hours. The religious Trump supporters have proven themselves to not actually be Christians. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.
MW: Actually, that leads me to your play Hir, which I saw at Woolly Mammoth. The play’s mother character, Paige, represents the idea of someone experiencing a radical political awakening. It’s an ideological transition that implies a belief that people can change radically, even though these days it feels less and less possible that people can change that way. How much do you believe in awakenings?
MAC: Epiphany is part of our way of life. I mean, everybody has them, everybody has some kind of epiphany in their life. And most people have many. So I do believe in change. I’ve certainly changed in my life. I’m very different from what I was raised to be. I was just listening to a woman on the news, or on NPR, who was a liberal who then got swept up in the white nationalist movement, and became a leader in that, and then realized how screwed up it was, and changed again! So obviously people can change. And in terms of gender, I think it’s fabulous when somebody changes their gender, and then they change it back, and then they change it again. It’s like, go for it. Life is short. Mix it up. Be a bunch of different things.
MW: There’s also generally some emotional journey behind change like that that has nothing to do with politics. As was the case in Hir. Paige went on this ideological journey, but a lot of it had to do with the emotions of dealing with abuse.
MAC: Often times we don’t see clearly. And there’s a certain kind of assuredness about Americans, where we value knowing things. Even if we don’t know, we will perform that we know. And there seems to be a kind of status from declaring knowledge. Even when everyone knows you don’t have the knowledge, we still gain status by declaring that we do. The brag is more important to us than the actual knowledge. I mean that’s obvious because our president is that. But we all have it as Americans. There’s something ingrained in probably capitalism that demands that. So I think when you’re performing that you know something, and then the rug gets pulled out from under you, and you find your way to humility and you realize you don’t actually know, it really can change you if you actually embrace that. And those are my favorite kind of people.
MW: You’re describing something so graceful. It’s hard to find that grace.
MAC: I think that’s what happens to Paige. She gets a little crazed about it. But that’s what happens to her. She thought she knew how to live a life, and then suddenly…. I was really writing about a particular kind of gender-based healing. A particular kind of assuredness. And how can we incorporate doubt into our lives more? That’s really what a lot of the question of Hir is, can we bring more doubt into our lives? And that’s kind of the question of all my work, because I’m grappling with the assuredness of being an American as much as everybody else.
MW: On the subject of gender transition in Hir, the play’s character Max prefers pronouns “ze” and “hir.” I’m curious how you arrived at the word “judy” as a personal pronoun for yourself. Beyond Judy Garland, what about that word applies to you and your identity?
MAC: Well, I mean everyone always assumes it’s Judy Garland, which is fine with me. I don’t mind that.
MW: Sorry, I’d read that.
MAC: People write about that all the time. They’re like, “It comes from Judy.” And I’m like, “Well, they didn’t ask me. They just assumed.” It actually comes from gay men — before most people were out of the closet, they would use Mary and Judy to talk about their boyfriends when they were in public. It was code. So I just thought, “Well, that’s a nice way to take that back, and have it be about my gender pronoun.”
It also comes from Punch and Judy. And I won’t deny Judy Garland. I’m a big fan of Judy Garland, so it’s not that it’s not in there, but I wanted something to make people pause. I wanted something that made my heart feel light when people use it. And it’s an activist pronoun in the sense that, if you judge it and you roll your eyes, it immediately emasculates you. So you can’t roll your eyes and say “judy” without being camp. Again, it’s that thing of can you manifest the world that you want to live in, rather than just comment on it, or wish for the world? Can I create a gender pronoun that does the thing that I want the world to be, that transforms the user as much as me? So that’s why I chose it. My friend who’s transgender said that you know you’ve chosen the right pronoun when people use it, and it makes you happy. And it does. Even when they’re snarky about it, it makes me happy.
MW: So much of that code language of the closet — terms like “friend of Dorothy,” and “my best Judy” and “Mary” — it would be a shame to lose that. Or will we just have to let it go?
MAC: No, I don’t think we have to let it go. We just transform it. It just means something different now. Friend of Dorothy is just fun to say now, instead of this shameful thing. Now it’s transformed into something that’s sweet. I always make fun of young people who are upset about the word “tranny,” because they’re not upset about the word “queer.” And the argument that they use about not using the word tranny is that it’s often the last thing people hear when they’re beat up, which I [understand] that. That’s awful, so I don’t use the word anymore. But meanwhile, those same people that advocate for not using the word tranny all want to use the word queer. Well, queer was the last word that older people heard when they were being beat up.
So I make fun of the younger generation because they’re the best in the world in terms of, “We will leave no one behind.” They’re so adamant, we will leave no one behind, except for old people. They’re happy to sacrifice old people. The last thing I heard when I was first beat up was, “Don’t look at my sister ever again.” [Laughs.] So I kind of go, “Well, whatever.” I find it’s all interesting. Of course, I have some judgment on everything, and I also have some celebration for everything.
MW: Code words, or pronouns, I feel like it all goes back to being a matter of respect. A friend and I were just talking about using “they” in the singular form.
MAC: Yeah, I don’t like that one. I mean, I use it. Whatever people tell me they want me to use for themselves, then yes. It is about respect. Even bigger than respect, it’s about stretching towards another human being. It’s healthy for you to stretch towards somebody else, and to consider somebody else, and to get out of your own thinking. So when someone says how they want to be identified, that’s how I identify them. But I don’t really personally want “they” or “them,” because I don’t think it’s creative enough, frankly. And I feel like it’s adhering to normative culture in order to be accepted by normative culture. It’s like trying to appease the pedants while also still annoying them. So I don’t know. I just think, can’t we come up with something that’s more interesting than they or them? I mean, can’t you choose your own? I think, “We’re queer. Can’t we be more creative?”
MW: I would advocate for ze and hir. Those are good ones.
MAC: Well, those are old. Those started in the ’70s, and they’ve been around for decades, but they never really caught on in a major way. And so they are kind of dated, which I like in my play Hir, because it feels like these are people that don’t have access to the community as much as they would like, and so they get their information in different places, and they’re creating their own definition of how it all works.
MW: Changing gears, I wanted to ask about the MacArthur Grant. I’m curious, what is the impact to one’s ego upon being awarded something called a Genius grant?
MAC: What is the impact on my ego? I may not be a genius, but I am smart enough to know that I should never call myself one. [Laughs.]
MW: Stable or unstable.
MAC: Right? Stable or unstable. It’s certainly flattering, it gives you access to things you didn’t have access to before. Counterbalances a lot of judgment that you get when you wear high heels and you have hairy legs. There’s a lot of dismissal, and so then they say, “Oh, that’s a MacArthur winner.” Then people go, “Oh, well. I guess I have to take those hairy legs and those high heels seriously.”
But at the same time, it’s not that difficult to be humble about it, because I go to the MacArthur gathering of all the MacArthur winners. I’m talking to this volcanologist — she’s studying a volcano that could end all life on the planet. She says, “What do you do?” I say, “Well, I wear high heels and I have hairy legs.” Then I talked to another woman who invented a machine that has saved thousands of women’s lives. She says, “And what do you do?” And I’m like, “Well, I glue on eyelashes.”
MW: Technically speaking, what were your goals for using the grant?
MAC: I’m just trying to be really smart with it. I don’t know if it’s smart. But I’ve been lucky enough to know a few people who have won them over the years, and older people who didn’t invest the money and stuff. One man I know who’s always been financially strapped. And some people, that’s just how they can create. They have to sleep on a couch in order to make things.
MW: I know people like that.
MAC: Yeah. I mean, I think they’re amazing, and really inspirational. For me, I thought I don’t want to have to write grants for the rest of my life. At least individual grants. I’ll have to make grants for the work itself. But if I invest the money, and assuming the economy doesn’t crash — and it could — but if I invest the money, then I get a return every year. So then it’s like getting a grant every year, instead of just for this little period of time. So I’m trying to be as smart as I can with it.
MW: Well, congratulations on the MacArthur.
MAC: Thank you. It does change your life. I mean, financially I knew that it would change my life, but also, the access it gives you is very bizarre. It’s strange. And at the same time, some people don’t even know anything about it. So there you go.
MW: Speaking of access, this year Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus was on Broadway. When you started in your career as a performer and writer, did you ever foresee a Taylor Mac show on Broadway?
MAC: Oh yeah, absolutely. I grew up in suburban California, so what we knew of theater back then before the internet was Broadway. That’s it. That’s all we thought theater was. So when I said I want to be a theater artist, that’s what I meant. And it took some years to kind of deconstruct that and figure out alternatives. But it was always part of the goal. I didn’t really want to do something I didn’t like on Broadway. I didn’t want to do something I didn’t think was helping the world be a better place. But yeah, that’s what I wanted. Now, you know, I want it less than I did certainly as a kid. But I still think it’s a really interesting place to work. I hopefully will work in that kind of milieu again at some point.
MW: Broadway is expensive in a way that limits access. What audience did you have in mind when you were writing, knowing how expensive a ticket could be?
MAC: Well, a strange thing about Broadway is that actually the play ran longer than any of my other plays have run. Even though it ended its run two weeks earlier than it was supposed to, so people had framed it like it failed. It actually ran longer than any of my other plays. There were almost a hundred performances — that’s a lot for a play, I think. Especially from someone from downtown who came from only having 16 performances of things. So I was like, “Whoa, this is a lot.” And the other thing is that because it wasn’t like a Hamilton hit or something like that, there were cheap tickets. You could see it for $40. So a lot of people saw it for $40, and a lot of people went back and saw it again and again. So it actually had much more access than less — at least, that was my experience of Broadway.
People that would never come to see my work came. And that is tricky in a way. I always liked having people that are surprised by the work in the audience. But then, when there’s more of them than the other, it can change the energy and the narrative in the room about how to experience the work, or listen to it. So that was interesting to learn.
MW: Another show I want to talk about is A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which I guess you got to see change on tour, where you did an abridged version?
MAC: Well, on tour we do it very differently. Sometimes it’s abridged. When we brought it to the Kennedy Center, we did the abridged version. But sometimes on tour, we do four six-hour shows over the course of two weeks. That’s how we’ve been touring it. And sometimes we do it just as a two-hour show that is just abridged. So it’s always in a different kind of configuration. But we were just in Berlin doing four, six-hour shows over two weeks.
MW: What is the mental preparation for that? I think everybody can understand that it requires physical stamina, but mentally, to be on for two hours or significantly more, how do you get into the headspace for that?
MAC: I kind of live like a monk when we’re doing the durational versions. The abridged version, I can go out and have fun with people after the show. Depends on how intense the tour is, you know. If I’ve got eight shows a week, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t go out after it. But if it’s just four shows in a week, then I could go out after.
If it’s a durational show, to do a six-hour show and do that four times over a two-week period, plus all the [tech rehearsals] and everything, I have to live like a monk. So basically I am at the hotel, at the theater, at the hotel, at the theater. I take care of myself and do the best I can to keep my body and my voice healthy. But you want to keep your spirit happy too, so you’ve got to try to have fun sometimes.
MW: How do you keep it fun if you have to maintain this sort of ascetic state?
MAC: I tour with my family, so breakfast is fun. I’m in it for the hang, I love hanging out with people. I love hanging out with the collaborators and the artists, and the audience too. I just try to find places where I don’t have to shout, because your ears get tired too. So you don’t want to be in too loud of places when you’re doing these durational shows. But I don’t know. I just have fun. The shows are really fun. It feeds my soul. It’s a good life, even if it’s just hotel, theater, hotel, theater. That’s a really good life.
MW: From your point of view, how much does the visual presentation anchor what it is that you have to do on stage?
MAC: Well, I think that aesthetics are part of the politics, but also the ethics, of our work. And it’s a core principle that surprise is part of everything, so the aesthetics help with that. I mean they are a major element in surprise, and opening people’s hearts and brains, and passions. So they’re a major part of it. I see a lot of theater that is so well written, and with interesting ideas. And yet, then you’ll just see them in khaki pants and a button-down shirt. I just go, “Okay, well, that’s great. Thanks for stopping the vision.” You know, “Thanks for allowing corporate America to control your aesthetics.” You can see the most anti-capitalist thing, and they’ll be wearing corporate clothes on stage.
Or even, we went to the anti-capitalist march, the queer alternative march for queer pride, and they had put out this thing that everyone wear black and stuff. So [costume designer and collaborator] Machine Dazzle and I were the only two people that I saw dressed up really in kind of very queer, phantasmagorical, original costuming, or aesthetic or activism. Aesthetic as activism. And everyone else was wearing black T-shirts and black pants, which of course they bought from a corporation. So I was like, “Wait, it’s the anti-capitalism march, and everyone is supporting corporations with their clothing choices, and promoting corporations.” They’re all wearing H&M T-shirts. It just was so unconscious as far as I was concerned.
MW: That gets to, as you were saying, performing the knowledge, as opposed to breaking down what you do and don’t know.
MAC: Yeah. It’s like, can we just keep asking questions? It’s Socratic. Can we ask questions? How do we live a virtuous life in an unvirtuous world? And can we keep asking that question again and again and again and again, until we get closer, we inch our way to it? And then when we think we know, then we’ve got to ask more questions because the chances are, we don’t if we think we do.
MW: A final question on what we think we know about the impeachment inquiry. It’s a perfect example of people being able to look at one thing, and see many different versions of truth. Has anything that you have seen in the last few weeks of following it changed your mind? Or has it reinforced what you thought you knew?
MAC: I mean, it’s an interesting way to frame it, and this is how the conversation is being framed, is to say, “Has your mind changed? And if it has, then that means you’re open. And if it hasn’t, then that means you’re part of the problem.” [Laughs.] It’s interesting, because I hear it being framed that way a lot. And I would just say that listening to people testify with facts and details, listening to people testify details — you know, God is in the details — that is about an expansion. It’s not necessarily about epiphany, right? It’s about expanding our understanding of this process, and how things have played out.
Has it changed my mind? That’s like saying I’m supposed to believe one side, or I’m polarized. And no, it hasn’t changed my mind. I think that Trump is bad for our country. And I still think he’s bad for our country. But again, when you ask the question, how do you live a virtuous life in an unvirtuous world? Obviously there’s an unvirtuous governance that is happening. That’s not really debatable. It just is.
MW: Except that people are debating it.
MAC: No, no, no, they’re lying. That’s different from debating. It’s a performance of lies. I mean, c’mon, really? They’re just lying, and they know they’re lying, we know they’re lying. Everybody knows they’re lying. And that’s not a debate. That is a performance. But the question of how to live a virtuous life within an unvirtuous world, that’s what I keep going back to, to listen to these people testify and say, “Okay, well, I tried this way. I tried to report it to my superiors. I tried to talk to the press about it. I tried to just keep my head down and do my job. I tried….” How they’re experimenting with trying to be virtuous, I think is inspiring and fascinating, and it just makes me want to consider the ways even more. I guess that’s what I’m getting out of the impeachment hearing more than anything, because I know he’s bad for our country. He just is. It’s not debatable.
MW: I appreciate your answer. Now, to my very last question: How, or where will you spend the holidays this year?
MAC: Well, I’m spending it with some queer friends, and with some queer family. And I’m on tour with my other wonderful queer family, doing the holiday songs. That’s what we’re doing for most of December. And then the actual holidays, my husband [Patt Scarlett] and I just chill out. We don’t tend to make a ritual out of it because so much of our lives is the ritual of performance. And sometimes it’s nice just to chill out.
Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce plays Thursday, Dec. 12, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $39 to $129. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
Holiday Sauce also plays December 7 and 8, at Modlin Center for the Arts in Richmond, Va. Tickets are $50. Call 804-289-8980, or visit www.modlin.richmond.edu.
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