Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Time For Singing

Ever since the Spring of 2011, when Magic Theatre presented The Lily’s Revenge (as part of a rolling world premiere with New York's HERE Arts Center, the Southern Rep Theatre in New Orleans, and the National Theatre of Scotland), I have been in awe of Taylor Mac. Whether as a playwright (HIR) or performance artist, his work stands head and shoulders above the crowd for its searing strength and the phantasmagorical fearlessness of his artistic vision. As he explains on his website:
“In the eyes of those with stable occupations, actors historically are vagabonds, agitators, vain, not the brightest of breeds, and (the old standard) deceitful. We get paid to lie. And if we do it extraordinarily well -- so well that if the lie seems truer than truth -- then we’re hailed as great at what we do. Great at what we do, but not great humans to be trusted with political opinions and societal points of view.

One of the great things about the kind of career I've created for myself (with the help of many) is I get to work in a variety of different theatrical environments and with a wonderful assortment of performing artists. I've been in ensemble plays by other playwrights, acted in my own plays with actors I've cast, done the midnight show, and the midday matinee. I've worked in the circus, the strip club, the LORT, the street, museum, opera house, basement bar/sex-club, and ethical society.

I believe whole-heartedly in craft. I believe craft is essentially a commitment to learning the past, living in the present, and dreaming the culture forward. I try to see more theater than anyone else I know in a variety of venues, styles, genres, and forms and it’s made me a better director/producer/playwright in the process. I believe that, as a theater artist, I'm not a teacher; I'm a reminder. I'm just trying to remind you of things you've dismissed, forgotten, or buried.”
Taylor Mac onstage in San Francisco (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

An ambitious artist who is willing to push the creative envelope as far as possible in order to shake up the status quo, Taylor doesn't hesitate to tell audiences that "Perfection is for assholes." In addition to being an engaging storyteller, a compelling singer, and a defiantly delicious drag artist, his work achieves a great deal of consciousness raising with regard to gay, trans, and other gender-related issues.


While he may see himself as an American jester -- and delight in performing extensive research -- his latest project (entitled A 24-Decade History of Popular Music) is almost as ambitious an undertaking as Richard Wagner's famous tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen. It also allows him to demonstrate what has been sorely missing from today's schools. As the lead-in to her recent interview with Teller (the popular magician and former Latin teacher), Jessica Lahey wrote:
"Education, at its most engaging, is performance art. From the moment a teacher steps into the classroom, students look to him or her to set the tone and course of study for everyone, from the most enthusiastic to the most apathetic students. Even teachers who have moved away from the traditional lecture format, toward more learner autonomy-supportive approaches such as project-based and peer-to-peer learning, still need to engage students in the process, and serve as a vital conduit between learner and subject matter. Teachers are seldom trained in the performance aspect of teaching, however, and given that every American classroom contains at least one bored, reluctant, or frustrated student, engagement through performance may just be the most important skill in a teacher’s bag of tricks."
Taylor Mac enchanting the audience at the Curran Theatre
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Back when I was an undergraduate student at Brooklyn College, I took a course in music appreciation in which a bored professor played a recording of the Triumphal March from Verdi's Aida and said "Well, that's about all you need to know about opera." Had I taken him at his word, I would have missed out on one of the greatest passions of my life. Thankfully, I had already started attending live opera performances and knew enough to ignore the professor's ennui.

By contrast, as I sat blindfolded on the stage of San Francisco's Curran Theatre during one of Taylor's recent performances (which he models after a Radical Faeries realist ritual), I felt like I was sitting around a campfire at which a spiffily-dressed shaman was acting as my spirit guide during a trance-like exploration of our country's history of popular music. By the time the audience was instructed to remove their blindfolds, stand up, and join our hostess in singing Patti Smith's "People Have The Power," Taylor Mac had edged past Maria Callas's portrayal of Bellini's Druid priestess (Norma) and was well on his way to becoming a 21st-century oracle capable of dispensing wisdom in the most visually glorious, audience immersing, and socially conscious style imaginable. In short, he was doing exactly what Teller prescribed:
"The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds. If you don’t have both astonishment and content, you have either a technical exercise or you have a lecture. When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing. This, I think, is the principal gift of education."
Teller co-directing a production of The Tempest in Las Vegas
(Photo by: Anthony Mair)

If, in Now, Voyager, Charlotte Vale can say "Don't let's ask for the moon; we have the stars," there's no reason why Taylor Mac can't escort his audiences to Neverland, fly them to the moon, or tease them down a radical path through American history with the subversive humor of Charles Ludlam, the childlike bravado of Peter Pan, and the musicological inquisitiveness of Leonard Bernstein. Larry Kramer may have spent 40 years writing 800 pages of presumed gay history for The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart: A Novel (and hope to publish Volume 2 before he dies), but Taylor Mac is hard at work on a gigantic musical project which mines the collective wealth of material found in 240 years of songs that have been popular in America.


Outrageously costumed by Machine Dazzle's Matthew Flower and co-directed by Niegel Smith, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is markedly enhanced by the lush musical arrangements created and conducted by Matt Ray (I'm not gushing, these orchestrations are a genuine class act). Aimed at examining the music which, in its historical context, appealed to oppressed segments of American society, Taylor Mac's undertaking is structured as follows:
  • 1776-1786: Songs Popular During the American Revolution.
  • 1786-1796: Songs Popular in Recovery From Revolution.
  • 1796-1806: Songs Popular in the Pubs (which inspired the Temperance).
  • 1806-1816: Songs Popular While Escaping the Heteronormative.
  • 1816-1826: Songs Popular with the Blind.
  • 1826-1836: Songs Popular with Children (during and around Trail of Tears).


  • 1976-1986: Songs Popular in the Backroom.
  • 1986-1996: Songs Popular at the Height of the AIDS Crisis.
  • 1996-2006: Songs Popular in the Radical Lesbian Community.
  • 2006-2016: Songs Written for "A 24-Decade History."
If you thought The Lily's Revenge was a big undertaking, Taylor Mac's ultimate goal is to perform all 24 decades of music with a 24-piece orchestra over the course of 24 consecutive hours. During his marathon, the orchestra will lose one musician during each decade. In one sequence, there will be 24 dancers/strippers. For the diehards in attendance, there will also be a medical tent.

Taylor Mac singing from the mezzanine of the Curran Theatre
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

During his appearances as part of the Curran: Under Construction series, Taylor Mac performed the first two segments of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (1776-1836) for small, but enraptured audiences. Seated on the stage of one of San Francisco's oldest theatres as it undergoes a sorely-needed renovation, audience members were startled to look out into the darkened auditorium and realize that, even with the evening's star wafting through the mezzanine like a glamorous ghost, the space felt as intimate as a living room. At times, when a spotlight shone through the auditorium's chandelier, onlookers began to feel as if they were experiencing the music from within a magical kaleidoscope.

Taylor Mac performing at the Curran Theatre (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

While the music from each decade can range from songs of woe and political unrest to English ballads like "Johnny's So Long At The Fair," the overall experience is a mind-boggling exercise in deliciously wretched excess. Certain moments stand out more than others:
  • On the first night I attended, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in the audience. After singing a popular 18th-century song about how much the people hate Congress, Taylor Mac suggested Pelosi remember that song when she returns to work in the nation's capitol.
  • The second evening (which still needs a lot of work) was described as "a workshop of a workshop for a backers audition for a heteronormative jukebox Broadway musical about colonization that will go on to win an Oscar."
  • In addition to familiar bits of musical Americana like "Turkey in the Straw," the true narrative of a popular sea chanty was revealed to be about a group of sailors who were planning a rowdy trip ashore to gang rape a black slave.
  • The tale of a young Cherokee girl who was adopted by Caucasians and forced to attend a Christian school (but could not relate to something as seemingly simple as singing the Alphabet Song because she had been raised in a Native American culture which responded differently to music) was especially moving.
  • Segments that featured audience participation included ping pong balls, a game of musical chairs, blindfolded attendees trying to find each other's mouths in order to insert slices of tangerines, a forklift, exercises in flirting, and Taylor Mac demonstrating how it doesn't really matter if the volunteers he recruits from the audience as his backup singers are, in fact, tone deaf. Why not? Because he's written a song for them.
Taylor Mac onstage at the Curran Theatre (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

In between recollections of his sexual escapades while hitchhiking -- and bawdy tales about people who have no boundaries whatsoever -- Taylor uses his show's format to explain how cultural appropriation becomes a handy-dandy way of whitewashing indigenous and queer culture (especially if money is at stake for a backers' audition or a feature film). In between instructing members of his audience to cough, play dead, pretend they're rowing a boat, and join in the singing, Taylor captivates his audience by showing what can happen when "mythology meets melody."

If I had any regret, it was that the songs from 1816-1826 (which were popular with the blind and, therefore, had many in the audience blindfolded), caused the second evening to lose a bit of momentum as chairs were stacked and removed and the audience (with quite a few seniors) was asked to sit on the floor. Although he never forced anything on his audience, Taylor mischievously suggested that they treat their discomfort as a "bourgeois crisis" while reminding people that they've paid a helluva lot more for big-ticket theatre events that have delivered a helluva lot less.

Bottom line: Carpe drag diem. Whenever and wherever you have a chance to experience parts of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, seize the moment. Let Taylor Mac be your "Hostess with the Mostess" for a memorable theatrical outing and a great learning experience. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

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