Taylor Mac Takes Belfast Through Pop History
New York drag artist urges conservative audiences to 'embrace the discomfort' of his glittering tour-de-force set for the MAC later this month
American performance and drag artist Taylor Mac has been described as a 'genre-obliterator', which makes him sound rather like one of the Marvel Comic superheroes. You know – Thwack! Take that, straight drama, Kapow! There goes the traditional American musical and Biff! That’s for the classical drag act.
In truth, it is a good label as Mac’s work meshes not a few artistic forms. In his celebrated, and long, 24-Decade History of Popular Music, part of which is coming to the Belfast International Arts Festival this month, Taylor Mac investigates 246 songs which were hits between 1776 and 2016.
This is not show time as we know it, partly because the overall concert lasts 24 hours. The Belfast show is an extract that runs for a more modest three hours and will be expanded to contain music concerning the Easter Rising and songs of rebellion. Just don’t expect the expected from Taylor Mac.
'Making the show for Belfast I will use a collection of songs about 1916 and about the uprising and rebellion, but they’re not necessarily political,' he says. 'That could be rebellion against a lover or a parent.'
Another reason this performance bends notions of entertainment is because of the audience participation. In the New York premiere, spectactors huddled in an imaginary shanty town during the Depression, then imitated the way white families fled to the suburbs in the 1950s by squeezing to the side of the stalls. A political animal, although not into 'issue politics', Mac has said if anybody is discomfited by having to method act their way through his shows, they should 'embrace that discomfort'.
Down the line from New York, where he lives in an old Manhattan apartment block with his architect partner, the 42-year-old sounds alternately amused and serious as he discusses his first visit to Northern Ireland.
'I’ve been told that people are very conservative there and that they’ll go "Oh-oh." at drag' says Mac. 'But I’ve toured the American South, and nobody can be more conservative than they are there.' Likewise, those who dread the thought of being coerced into getting up on stage have nothing to fear: 'I never force anyone to do anything. You find that people who thought they loved audience participation may have a worse time than those who think they hate it. Mostly I make people laugh, although there is some emotion too.'
The genesis of Mac’s magnum opus, which also examines LGBT history, was an event linked to AIDS. 'When I was 14 I went to my first queer event, related to the AIDS epidemic,' he says. 'I noticed these poor people were bonding as a community while being torn apart. I was interested in that dichotomy.' He adds that when he’s performing, he tunes into that contradiction: 'Oh, I’m falling apart, the band’s falling apart but we’re building bonds.'
Don’t believe the line about chaos onstage, though. A Taylor Mac show is a superbly choreographed and musically well rehearsed event under musical director Matt Ray, albeit one with room for quite a few ad libs. And for the Belfast show, Mac will be soaking up the city’s soundtrack. 'I am looking forward to hanging out and getting some new material,' he alludes.
Mac’s show remains a drag act, however, albeit a very highbrow drag act. In other words, there will be OTT frocks – 'My costume designer Machine Dazzle is bringing over a bag-load' – as well as one-liners referencing the patriarchy and heteronormative attitudes.
In terms of the significance of drag, Mac refers the outre dress code to some historical roots. 'It’s the same as what the Greeks did,' he says. 'They wore masks, as I do, and arm extensions and high heels, as I do, for height. When you wear jeans and a T-shirt walking down the road, you’re hiding. In drag, I am showing what is not normally shown, the me I am inside. It’s a stage version, me in heightened circumstances.' He adds: 'As I say, it’s classical.'
On stage, Mac morphs into judy. That’s not Judy as in Garland, but judy as in the American term for woman or broad. 'It’s not a name but a neutral personal pronoun,' says the artist. 'I started using it a few years ago because some people referred to me as ‘he’, some as ‘she’, and neither seemed right.' He laughs: 'The name slows things down, makes people pause. You really can’t roll your eyes – in disapproval) – and say ‘judy’ without sounding like the biggest queer in the room.'
On the nature of camp, the late Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay defined the parameters while saying she had a sympathy for the sensibility modified by revulsion. She found 'failed seriousness' in camp, plus theatricalization, irony and playfulness, rather than content. Unsurprisingly, Mac disagrees. 'I haven’t read Sontag but it’s all just technique, I think. Content dictates form. Camp does involve those things but it’s an invitation to the audience, it invites your brain to engage with the performance. Camp traditionally was more than just entertainment. After all, Oscar Wilde was not just about fluff. There was something else going on.'
With Taylor Mac, there is definitely something else going on. In his remit, you get some politics, some gender-bending, some observational comedy, some great music and some optimism. 'I think of art as a seditious act,' he says 'I think it inspires us to do things. I get everyone to expand the idea of who they are.'
In the Los Angeles introduction to his Popular Music show performed earlier this year, critics highlighted the section in which Nazism was mocked by getting two blond male audience members to wear Nazi armbands while other members of the audience played horses behind carriages, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 'The Surrey With the Fringe On Top' was transported to the German countryside. Not straightforward satire, then, but a means of unsettling our views of history.
That being said, might anything, say Donald Trump’s ascent to Presidential candidate, be beyond satire? 'I don’t want to give that man any more attention, he’s already had too much,' Mac responds. 'My mother, who was Republican but has changed her views with age, was Facebooking about the election and I said "Stop." But he may pop up somewhere.'
Mac is not constrained in his work. In The Lily’s Revenge (2009), a five hour play with a cast of 36, he created a kind of new legend, in which the Lily has to defeat narrow definitions and traditional views and wed the bride.
The performer cites various influences, including the late John Vacarro, whose Play-House of the Ridiculous defined anarchic art practice in New York. 'I’m part of a lineage,' he explains. 'Vacarro was working off Molière and Commedia dell’arte. Then there’s Lady Rizo, the comedian and chanteuse. I think we’re living through a really exciting, alive time in New York, where peopLe are pushing the boundaries and are so innovative.'
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mac enthusiasts have described attending one of his shows as a religious experience. In his words it is 'ritualistic and becomes like a church. With durational, long work, the idea is people come back, say two years later, to see another production and remember what happened the first time. Audience members get to know each other. Babies may be born, businesses might get started.'
An outsider with a tough childhood, Mac’s first professional theatre job involved dressing up as a poodle singing 'Runaround Sue' eight times a week in Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. He admits that although this might have appealed to his zest for performance – he announced at the start of one of his own shows 'I normally come out of a cannon' – it didn’t satisfy, as he always wanted to do more than theatrics.
His wish has been granted. Although future works might see Mac tackle terrorism, he claims to remain optimistic. 'I am an optimist, yes. Nine times out of ten, when something sh***y happens, you come through it. Poverty is less, prejudice less, although it may not seem like that to a Syrian refugee.' He adds: 'Things work out.'
Taylor Mac performs the Northern Ireland premiere of his 24-Decade History of Popular Music as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival on October 25 and 26 at the MAC, before a finale concert on October 29. For tickets and more information visit www.belfastinternationalartsfestival.com.