Our downtown scene watcher talks to legendary performer Taylor Mac about how, exactly, he navigates the many worlds he inhabits onstage
By Kiara Downey
Taylor Mac makes transformation look easy. This veteran performer is a singer, an actor, a producer, and a writer who spent the month of February redefining a classical Brecht character at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club while also preparing for and presenting a dazzling piece of performance art at Joe’s Pub.
He’s a chameleon with raw talent and seemingly infinite ambitions and he refuses to be categorized; “I don’t like labels,” he says. “Labels are limiting. I love being called a drag queen, because it’s part of my history. But I hate it when people call me a ‘downtown artist’. In New York, we get stuck in our neighborhoods; we compartmentalize and reduce. The uptown/downtown divide is getting so strict – it’s getting harder and harder to cross. Can’t we have relativism in our lives? That’s the career I dream of: expansiveness.”
The Foundry Theatre’s sprawling staging of The Good Person of Szechwan at La Mama was sold out within days of its opening. Waiting lists stretched into the double-digits, and most of the hopeful audience members were turned away at the door. For those who were lucky enough to snatch a seat, the rewards came in the form of a smart and sassy spectacle. There was much to celebrate in the ensemble work, but at the center of it all was the riveting Mr. Mac.
Shortly after a Sunday matinee, I chased down this seasoned, but ever-surprising shape-shifter, to ask him about his work, his desires, and what he does while the rest of us are sleeping.
“I am fired up for tonight,” he said after enjoying one day of rest following a five-show, two-day run of the demanding production. “Every day gets better. It’s an emotional play, but with every performance I understand it more.”
As a man who played a woman who also plays a man, Mac explored the drama’s central character with anger, grace, and vulnerability; “I don’t get to relax during the show,” he said, “when I go backstage it’s only to change clothes.” In fact, Mac’s female persona underwent a transformation in front of the audience as well as behind the scenes. When cast members publicly zipped Mac into a pinstriped suit, the fragile woman he embodied seamlessly morphed into a strident businessman who dominated the room. His intensity took over the entire theater. Even those sitting in their seats were pulled into the play.
“The audience should matter,” said Mac. “At the end of The Good Person of Szechwan, Brecht asks the audience to go out into the world and make change happen.” This sense of a shared commitment appeals to Mac who believes, “theatre builds community. How can you build such community without an audience? You have to invite people into the experience. The show is for them.”
“I see plays sometimes where I think none of us needed to be here,” he said. “Reenacting a Broadway production for people in Vermont doesn’t make sense. That’s cookie cutter art. Theatre shouldn’t be like watching T.V. I prefer to ask: what does the audience need right now?”
Mac studied acting from an early age, and while many of his current pursuits are far from traditional, he considers the time he spent watching plays to be formative moments: “Seeing things on Broadway had a profound influence on my life. While I was in school I saw a production of An Inspector Calls multiple times. The set was designed like a dollhouse and the actors just chewed the scenery. It felt like it mattered every night. I also think I saw Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s Full Moon about ten times. It was a clown show, and every show was different – but the foundation was always there.”
With a voice influenced by luminaries such as Nina Simone, Michael Stipe, Patti Smith, and Mandy Patinkin, Mac eventually “stopped focusing on acting and started working in clubs,” where he learned that even “the drunk person has to become part of the story.”
“When you listen to someone like Patti Smith you understand that it’s not about perfection – but the underbelly of the story gets told.” Mac believes in “humanity first and foremost.” As a result of these experiences, he said, “I created my own aesthetic.”
A distinct element of that aesthetic is visual. He regularly sports long, glittery eyelashes and his lavish costumes are big, bold and vibrant. Mac often collaborates with the designer Machine Dazzle on the creations. While the looks are impressive, they don’t overwhelm or define the performer.
One of the reasons Mac believes Lear deBessonet, the director of The Good Person of Szechwan asked him to embody the work’s central character was because “she likes that I’ve developed my own kind of theatre.” And indeed, he is an innovator. He is writing four plays in the style of Greek theatre that will have initial performances in San Francisco, and he will soon leave New York for a musical tour of Australia. He will also regale audiences in Scotland and at the Dublin Fringe Festival, and his much-anticipated collaboration with Mandy Patinkin (“The Mandy/Mac Show”) is slated to premier in December.
Mac will return to Joe’s Pub on May 21st with another addition to his 24-Hour History of Popular Music. This unfolding series of cabaret-styled spectacles will eventually culminate in a one-day musical review. The final concert (timetabled for 2014) will literally ask attendees to stay for the full day. All will be encouraged to “bring bedding and toiletries.”
This man of many talents summarizes his oeuvre by saying, “ I want to be the winning float in a parade that wasn’t sponsored by a bank.”
It seems the parade is already in motion, and Taylor Mac’s float of many feathers reinvents itself at every corner.
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