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The Art in the Room

P Carl Talks with Taylor Mac

I caught up with Taylor Mac while judy was on vacation in Provincetown. Taylor is currently a playwright in residence with HERE in New York and we had a chance to talk about what judy's working on andas with Tayloreverything else we could think of!

Carl: So tell me, what are you and HERE up to?

Taylor: Right now we’re making a play with the working title, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus. The plot is fairly simple. Content-wise, I didn’t want a plot-plot. It’s right after the banquet-murder-coup scene and the people that run the coup leave and then the maids have to come in and clean up the banquet room. The whole play is the maids talking while they’re cleaning up the banquet room. That’s all it is. I’m really interested in—especially right now—cycles of mess, cycles of revenge. Politically, it’s fascinating how Reagan and Reaganomics created a big old mess, and then Clinton spent a lot of political capital making the neo-liberalism thing and trying to clean it up. And then there was Bush who starts the war, so we lose the deficit, and then it’s all a mess again. Then Obama spends eight years cleaning that all up, and now we’re back to a mess with Trump—the mess is escalating. That cycle is fascinating, and it seems we need a play about it from the perspective of people who are responsible for the cleanup, but who don’t get any of the benefits of the mess or the cleanup.

Carl: That’s really interesting in relationship to our environmental mess. Who cleans up after us in this world of climate change deniers?

Taylor: Exactly. I’m almost done with a first draft and so excited about it. It’s so much fun.

Carl: I’m always curious about the playwriting versus the performance, and how those things are different and the same for you, or part of the same continuum—how that works in your creative soul.

Taylor: I’m a theatre artist. I act, I write plays, I’m a performance artist, sometimes I do them all together, and sometimes I do them separately. That’s the lineage of being a theatre artist that I’m the most interested in. It comes from Shakespeare and Molière and probably all the Greeks as well—they were in their shows, too. Certainly Aristophanes was in his shows. So it feels natural. Our generation was told we had to decide. That’s changed a little bit in our culture, but certainly people said to us, “Oh no, you can’t be a playwright and an actor.” And you are dismissed a little bit in both categories if you’re not fully in one or the other, but nobody’s really fully in playwriting anymore—everybody’s either teaching or writing for TV or something. This is my version of that, except it’s not about a survival job, it’s because I love it.

Taylor Mac in makeup and a headdress
Taylor Mac in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Photo by Kevin Yatarola.


Aesthetics are politics. Drag is the story that you’re telling the world…On stage the drag isn’t a costume but something I’m exposing about myself; it’s what I look like on the inside.


Carl: You’re such an icon now in the queer community. I’d love to talk about your pronoun judy and how it’s evocative and provocative and funny. I’ve had this great experience of sitting in panel meetings talking about your work and everybody trying to say “judy.” As a trans guy I’m just in love with that.

Taylor: It makes me happy every time I hear it. My friend once said to me, “You know you picked the right pronoun if when people use it, it makes you happy.” 

Carl: I just love that. How do you think about this whole “gender binary,” politically or artistically?

Taylor: Aesthetics are politics. Drag is the story that you’re telling the world—everyone’s wearing drag at all times—so the question is are you telling a brave story, an interesting story, a corporate story, a work story…what kind of story are you telling? On stage the drag isn’t a costume but something I’m exposing about myself; it’s what I look like on the inside. Machine Dazzle for the last almost ten years now has been making all the outfits. I used to make them but now Machine makes them. So it’s what I look like on the inside, but it’s also what Machine sees in me, on my inside, and it’s what he wants the world to be. In some ways that’s about an expansion of collaboration, but it’s also trying to expand the way that you allow yourself to be seen in the world by letting other people identify you as well as you identifying yourself. 

My gender is “performer.” People say “Oh, you’re being cheeky,” or, “That’s a privileged point of view,” and I hear all that critique but I can only speak for myself. All I know is that when people introduce me as “he” it doesn’t feel right and when they introduce me as “she” it doesn’t feel right. I thought, “Well, what am I?” I’m something in between.

Aesthetics aren’t gender, but gender is performance. That’s not to say that it’s a choice. It’s biological and it’s performance. I’m a “yes and” kind of queen so most of my work is about battling homogeneity, so all of the choices aesthetically, politically, artistically, and even the form, are all about multifaceted expression. It looks like maximalism because theres so much in it, but there’s minimalism—maximalism includes minimalism—so sometimes it’s simple.

Carl: I love what you’re saying. I wonder, though, at what level do you feel privileged in being able to say that? At what level do you feel oppressed by being able to say it’s heterogeneous? I think there’s a freedom with which you approach your understanding of gender and queerness and I just wonder where you feel that freedom comes from, because I think there’s a sense of weight and freedom simultaneously, and I’m just curious about that. I think it’s empowering, and then sometimes I feel jealous of it.

Taylor: A lot of it is the privilege of circumstance. My grandmother was raised in a wealthy family; they lost the money in the Depression, but she kept the attitude that she deserved things, and she passed that on to my mother and then, even though we had way less money growing up, my mom still had the attitude that she deserved things and she passed that on to me. So it’s a certain amount of entitlement which I wish on all of the world—I wish that everyone had a certain amount of, “Oh, your system doesn’t work for me? I am going to make a system that does work for me!” So that’s the level of this privilege of circumstance, but I think it’s what we all should be working towards instead of working against it.


Art is a seditious act and it’s trying to get you to rebel against a government or a social dictate sometimes, but primarily, for me, it’s about trying to inspire you to rebel against an obstinate sense of self.


Carl: There was a lot of conversation at some point around the participatory nature of your work. In the song cycle, especially, you’re drawing on the audience in all kinds of appropriate and inappropriate ways, and people express their discomfort with that and their love of that. What are you hoping happens when you break that barrier between performer and audience?

Taylor: Art is a seditious act and it’s trying to get you to rebel against a government or a social dictate sometimes, but primarily, for me, it’s about trying to inspire you to rebel against an obstinate sense of self. So I’m saying to the audience in those moments, “You think you’re this way, now when I ask you to participate, how does that challenge you to think of yourself as a slightly different person?” 

We sing this Ted Nugent song, “Snakeskin Cowboy,” but we turn it into a gay junior prom style song. It’s this rock and roll raw aggressive thing that’s all about fag-bashing and how great fag-bashing is. We slow it down, we add tinkling music, we adjust the music, we transform it, and then we ask the entire audience to slow dance with someone of their same gender, or if you’re genderqueer you can pick anyone you want. So then the whole audience is slow dancing and a lot of the queer people in the room start to sob because this is their first time, which is so dear. And the vast majority of the audiences are usually heterosexual, so it’s often the first time they’ve ever been asked to dance with somebody of their same gender, so it makes them very uncomfortable. Even if they don’t think of themselves as homophobic, they start to laugh nervously and they kind of make a joke out of it. Depending on where we are—it really is about location, and that doesn’t mean North and South, because sometimes people in the South are much more willing to do this kind of stuff than puritan New England—the nervous laughter will go on longer and longer and my whole thing is: we’re just going to keep doing this until we get that nervous laughter out of the room. It maybe is a little bit about people being shy about their bodies, but it’s also a little bit about homophobia—that nervous laughter—so we’re going to work through that. We make that moment go on as long as it needs to until the room can be quiet. 

I’ve only done one show where they never quite got there. They couldn’t quite take it seriously, but I said, “This is the art that’s in the room.” The big thing about the participation piece is, I’m never trying to force fun on people, I’m just trying to expose the art that’s in the room. Sometimes that art is that we turn the whole space into a gay junior prom, other times the art that’s in the room is that we are not able to turn the space into a gay junior prom. Right? So then the trick becomes, how do we get them to consider that their homophobia stopped that moment from happening? So that’s how I deal with the participation. 

You know critics are socially awkward people—they just are!—so of course many of them have a problem with the participation because they can barely have a conversation with anyone. Right? So they always bring their bias to the critique of the participation, and then they say, “I didn’t like it, but I did it, and it was really transformative and really great,” or they dismiss it and say, “I wish there were less of those party shenanigans.”

And that’s your perspective, you have control over your perspective. I don’t think resting your head on a stranger’s lap is a party shenanigan, I think that’s an opportunity for profundity, towards consideration about intimacy and public space with strangers, right? But you could swing that as a shenanigan and then you don’t have to deal with it. Again, it’s my job to try to get everybody to think about it in the way that we’re hoping they will. But it’s an uphill battle sometimes with the participation.

Carl: The way you describe it, it feels like a very overt form of activism. You have an agenda, to make the world more connected, and you’re playing that out. Ted Nugent at the prom—there’s nothing subtle about that.

Taylor: No, absolutely not, but the subtly comes in how the audience interacts with each other. We let them be the art instead of forcing the art on them. That’s the difference.

Carl: I want to talk a little more about performing for twenty-four hours, and what drew you to the notion of stamina as a piece of performance. 

Taylor: Content dictates the form. I wanted to make a show about how communities are built as a result of falling apart, and so I needed a form that was going to help build the audience while they’re being torn apart, while they’re falling apart, so it had to be durational. It’s not going to be a community in a ninety-minute show. In the twenty-four-hour performance or the six-hour performance or even a three-hour performance, there is some deterioration, there’s some exhaustion. There is an onslaught of history that we’re dealing with—and that is heavy at times. Because of all the things that we ask the audience to do, and because we’re doing all of it all together, we start to build some bonds with each other. So people that were at the twenty-four hour show feel like they’re family members in some way.

Taylor Mac onstage in costume, and an audience dances
Taylor Mac in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Carl: You’re asking the audience to fall apart and to become undone in a way, and you’re engaging that as well as a performer, right? 

Taylor: Yeah, it’s symbiotic—I can’t get through the show unless they get through the show, and vice versa, so we are taking care of each other in a way. In the twenty-four hour show, I was saying to the crew, “Could I get some more water?” but then audience members run up on stage to give me water, so they’re taking care of me. Meanwhile we’ve crafted it so that we’re taking care of them. We’ve researched how someone gets through a twenty-four hour experience, so we got them up on their feet at certain times, we’ve got light in their faces at certain times to help them stay up. We nourish them—we feed them really good food—at very specific times. We supported people who really couldn’t stand in the parts where we took the chairs away by making sure there were some chairs on the side. We do it together, we get through it together.

Carl: As we’re thinking about people falling apart, the country is currently falling apart—we’re literally having this conversation as we have a president supporting white supremacy. Do you have a vision of what will rise up from the rubble?

Taylor: That’s the really important thing about art, and what the new play is grappling with and the residency. 24-Decade wasn’t a wish for how the world could be, it was a manifestation of how the world is. Yeah, there is white supremacy, and there’s this horrible man who is apparently representing us, but there’s also all of these wonderful incredible artists that have gotten together and this incredible community here that exists. It’s a little bit like saying, “Queer people have existed throughout all of history, even though we’re not necessarily in the history books.” It’s saying, “Look, we are here, we made a queer historical event with this show. Something that’s so big it is in the fucking books, it can’t be denied.” We’re manifesting the world that we want, instead of just wishing for it or commenting on the world that is. That’s the kind of work I want to make going forward. My least favorite kind of liberal activist is the kind that believes that politics are the same as postmodern art. Deconstruction is not the way to move politics forward. I’m not big on the people that voted for Trump or didnt vote for Hillary, because they wanted to see the country fall apart so that we could build something new. That’s bullshit.

It’s going to be a long road, but the more we envision and the more we manifest how great the world can be in this moment, the better the world is. That’s what we’re trying to do with the art and community, while at the same time recognizing that there’s a lot of horror going on right now. But the horror has always been going on. This is not really surprising to anyone I know who is a member of a community that’s not a part of the status quo.

Carl: You’re an itinerant performer, you’re all over the place, what does it mean to be in this residency for three years at HERE in New York? What does that provide you as an artist that you didn’t feel you had before?

Taylor: Health insurance, that’s what I have to say. 

I have these two plays that I wrote that are basically finished. They’ve been sitting around waiting to get a production. You would think at this point in my career it would be easy for me to get a production, but for whatever reason it’s very hard—theatres that commission them don’t want to do them, not because the plays aren’t good. but because of money and this and that and blah blah blah blah. So just partnering up with HERE is great because we can just do the plays. The play that I’m writing for them will be premiered before the two plays that are already finished. Now I have to produce the other two myself, or with the incredible Pomegranate Arts team that took on A 24-Decade. But that means raising money and creating a system and such, which will take years. Which is fine! In some ways I prefer to do it that way. But the flipside is, it’s really nice to write something, and while you have the excitement for it, and the passion for it, get it done! So that’s the big difference in terms of working with HERE. The production is already scheduled and the play isn’t even finished. Plus it feels like home, because they were the first people to support my work in the theatre, and I love them. And I want to keep working with them as long as we’re all on the planet.

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I can't say I agree with everything here -- I mean "critics are socially awkward people—they just are!" is more hilarious than defensible. But I have to admit I'm in awe of Taylor Mac.

I really do believe fantastic art is operating at the highest level when the same work comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
When we exist in the margins we want to know we are not alone. And when we are dominant or unquestioning of the status quo, those moments when we are shaken out of our delusion, hopefully we get curious and become engaged with more collectivist ideals.
Judy slays!
Carl slays!

Thank you both for all of your incredible efforts at finding ways to bring us together at this time. Taylor and everyone at Howlround are shining lights from the world of performance and theatre and art and everything it all can be that we need in the world at this time.

I did want to call some attention to the first paragraph that talks about, essentially, democrats cleaning up republican messes as a clear narrative in American politics.

I wanted to challenge this concept, and encourage folks to see that this narrative, from both sides, that the other is the problem...is a binary concept without nuance and that leaves very little room for actual engagement and collaboration.

The rest of this interview so readily understands the nuances of politics and art, but by starting out with that blanket statement about what is happening...I feel the nuance of the rest of the interview is undermined.

I think especially at this time, artists must not only be clear on political values, but also be a force for engaging in the details and encouraging deeper understanding of how we are where we are. And we must call into question ourselves as much as others.

For instance do our theaters, and us personally, bank with banks that invest in climate change but show moral outrage on Facebook about climate change?

There's a great article from earlier in the week about combining the issues of race and climate change...It uses nuance and information to bring the issues together.

In it, we see folks struggling during the Obama era with climate change. That administration, while it did make some small strides for the environment, made devastating advancements for hydrofractured gas technology, that is undeniably complicit in our current climate change problem.

By denying that at the beginning and saying Dems are cleaning up the mess of the GOP...it undermines the effort to be moral/truthful with inconsistency, when deeply/wholly addressing one of these messes.

And that inconsistency and lack of self examination by much of 'the left' hollows out the many moral arguments that are being had.

Until we break through our own cognitive dissonance that makes it feel good to be on the "good side" while there simply isn't one in the two party system...then aren't we in fact doing a similar political thing that has been fought against in gender politics with the same kind of binary biases and persecutions?

Thank you so much for this comment Brad. When I first read the article yesterday (Sunday) I had (as those who know me would probably suspect) the exact same thoughts, but I did not have the courage to post. So extra kudos to you for your courage -- as well as for articulating the thoughts so well (probably far better than I could have) and in such a constructive (positive) way.