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Friday Phone Call # 4

Taylor Mac

If you’ve been reading along in any of the #NewPlay conversations you’ve run into the wonderful mind of Taylor Mac. If you don’t know his work you should really poke around on his website while you listen. We talk a bit here about how it is that Taylor manages to stay lightly institutionalized, work on ambitious scale, and maintain professional and artistic momentum outside the mainstream elements of the #NewPlay infrastructure. He’s the epitome of someone who stopped waiting for permission and who has escaped “the box.” If you are interested in works of scale, or works with big community impact, and you don’t yet know The Lily’s Revenge, you should dig around and see what we’re talking about here.

Listen to weekly podcasts hosted by David Dower as he interviews theater artists from around the country to highlight #newplay bright spots. You can subscribe to the series via iTunes or this RSS Feed (for Android phones).

**** Read the full transcipt below

David Dower: Hello Taylor!

Taylor Mac: Hello!

David: How are you, Happy New Year!

Taylor: I'm very good, Happy New Year to you.

David: So what we wanted to talk about today.. I really want to talk about the scale that you are working on and this new project you are working on, this twenty- four hour project. Can you talk a little about the details, and then I have some questions for you.

Taylor: Sure. Well I'm working on this.. it's a concert, it's the twenty four hour history of popular music. And, ultimately it’s going to be twenty- four hours long from beginning to end, and it will be twenty four musicians on stage, and every hour we will loose a musician, and then at the final hour it will just be me. And it’s essentially, it’s a twenty-four hour history of popular music in America, so not necessarily American music, but stuff that was popular throughout the history of the United States. So we are starting with twenty four decades ago, in 1770s, and then going all the way up to the present decade. And I’ve been doing these workshops at Joe's Pub, and around venues all over the place to learn all the material, so kind of one a month, and taken a different decade at a time, but then we are squishing them all together. So that's kind of a durational big project, and then I’ve got playwriting projects as well.

Taylor Mac performs onstage in front of a crowd.
Taylor Mac in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
Photo by Teddy Wolff.

David: But I haven't focused on the big one. So you, you say " We're doing this, we're doing that",but a lot of this is you.

David Dower.
Photo by Mike Ritter.

Taylor(laughing): I know.

David: You have a theater company.

Taylor: I don't have a theater company. I'm.. You know, it's something that I, constantly, my whole life been battling with, and maybe when I'm 80 I'll start one, you know?

David: Uh huh, yeah. So you are having to create the institutional support. Like you're having to create as much institutional structure around your ideas as they require every time. You sort of, having to make up -

Taylor: Yeah, I mean I kind of think as a producer when I'm making things. And sometimes that gets me into trouble when I then start working with institutions, because I don't necessarily always know how to let people do the job. (laughing)

David: Yeah.

Taylor: Usually, that's not a major problem. It's just about little conversations that we have to have. You know, but I do all the pieces.

Portrait of Taylor Mac
Taylor Mac.
Photo by The Herb Alpret Award in the Arts.

David: That's a little piece of what I think is true in every one of these circumstances, whenever, when an organization like Arena tries to support something like Rainpan and Elfin Room, which it's doing right now, those guys come in, and basically Rainpan is the two of them and they have their third collaborator, and they have another artist who they've worked with to make this. And they come in, feeling like, wanting to be both as self directed and then also like the smallest footprint possible, you know, let's be self contained. And it's actually hard for an organization to connect to a piece that comes in self contained like that. And so, you must find at times that people are just saying to you "We have people who do that job, will you just let them do it"

Taylor: Yeah, yeah


Taylor: You know, what’s interesting, I've realized in kind of the regional theater world, is that people don’t want you to so much be involved in a lot of the conversations about how things will work, but to me that's so much of the art.

David: Yeah.

Taylor: That is how it works, where the audience is sitting, even.

David: Mhm.

Taylor: And how they are sitting. For an example, most subscriber audiences, they like to pick their seats, and then they like to sit there.

David: Forever.

Taylor: And my play Lily’s Revenge requires that they sit in a different seat every time. Every single show they see at that theater they have the same seat, and so I’m already going into the space saying "No, you can't do things the way they usually do it", and then they get all these nasty phone calls from their patrons (laughing), you know?

David: Mm hm.

Taylor: But it's, and I can't just let them have that because it's integral to the play that the audience is always sitting in a different seat.

David: Yeah.

Taylor: So I do really need to be involved in a lot of these conversations, but then there are other sides where it’s just such a blessing that somebody can actually- somebody is there to do the work and you don't have to be involved at all. I love working with institutions-

David: It’s a balance.

Taylor: But it's negotiation. Negotiation that has to happen.

David: You seem to be working with a lot of different pieces. The last couple days we've been writing about virtual theater and infrastructure and institutions and buildings and all of this stuff, and you seem to be able to make use of a kind of distributed network of support; like institutional, infrastructure support. You have a lot of different supports.

Taylor: I just think that, you know, theater to me is a pastiche, and I kind of look at the business angle of it as that as well, you just have to, it's the most collaborative art form there is, so you need to collaborate with as many different kinds of people, and view yourself, and in order to have some kind of success you have to write, you have to act, you have to know how to do the books and make the budget, and you have to know what the lighting instruments are, and you have to, you know, and to really kind of be a real theater artist, you have to kind of have your fingers in all the little pots, just so that, and not so for everybody, but for me, I found that that helps. So what’s also helped me financially is to look at myself as an artist that is, I can do my work in galleries, and I can do my work in a concert hall, and I can do my work in a bar, and I can do my work in an opera house, and a theater, and a, you know, and what does it mean to be able to translate your work to those kind of audiences and expectations? I just saw a rock musical that really is a concept album, and that's what they want it to be, and I could see just how it would just look gangbusters in a concert hall, you know in a gurgey ceby jeebies kind of place, it would just look gangbusters, it's so good. But the expectations of the audience have when they come into the theater is completely different, so it just didn't work!

David: Mhm, you know I feel the same way, I saw the same piece, and I had the experience of it not working (laughing)

Taylor: Right!

David: And I don't know the group at all, I don’t know where else, but it didn’t make sense to me.

Taylor: And I thought "This is so well done, and yet it's not working, and it’s just about, it really is about expectation, and you have to, you have to adjust your work for the world that you are working in.

David: If you didn't.. did you discover that about your work as you were doing it, or is it something that you knew in advance and so you made that for yourself, or did you discover that as you were making pieces and then finding the context and expectation.

Taylor: No,you discover it by failing(laughing)

David:Right, right.

Taylor: Right, I would come to a bar that would book me to perform, and I would be, and there would be one hundred drunk people who are more interested in hooking up with each other than watching the show.

David: Mhm.

Taylor: And I would do my thing that would work gang busters in the theater, and realize "Oh no, I have be louder, I have to be bigger, I have to be the most important thing in the room for these people to even mildly pay attention.

David: Mhmm.

Taylor: So it's through trial and error that you learn that. And then I would do stuff that I would do, that I would make for a club and bring it to a theater, and people would be scared of it(laughing) because it’s too big you know, so then I had to adjust that.


Taylor: So it's all trial and error.

David: There's something about failure that's so important. You know, it's the failing forward, and having a thick skin, are the only two things that you can rely on as momentum.

Taylor: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things that we don’t, that took me a while to realize, is that my last performance is not my last performance. If it goes bad, there is always tomorrow night. I forget what actor, I think it was Brian Dennehy said in an interview that I love; he said " Well, there's eight shows a week and one of them is going to be your best and one of them is going to be your worst". And that’s the career. And I think " Oh, that's such a lovely thing". And when you are just awful on stage, you stay up all night figuring out why you were awful and how you can fix it, and then the next day it actually works, or it's better, anyway. The career is on going. But often times we have such short runs for our productions we feel we have to get it right, and that's my whole thing, I just want us to have longer runs. I think all theater artists need to have long runs. I didn't understand, what kind of, I didn't understand what my theater could do until I had long runs. I didn't understand what a long run could do.

David: What' s a long run for you?

Taylor: Uh, a long run for me is, well I say about at performance, seventy five, I feel like the play is finding itself. (laughing). You know what I meant? So a long run for me is about two hundred performances of the thing.

David: Yeah.

Taylor: Of the thing. And the London would run for years, their shows, but they would do them in rep. And so there's a reason why they had the reputation they had, because they worked their shows over and over and over again every day. The biggest frustration for me so far in the regional theater is that there is this idea that once the show is open it's done, and I just don't work that way. I have to re-write once it's open, and if I’m, and I know as a performer if I’m on stage, and I’m, and the directors are off directing other projects, so you're up there alone, and the audience is watching this moment not work, and you know how you could make it work because you've thought about it all night, and so you want to implement that, but then there's these weird, there's this etiquette that this, I just don’t think is serving us at all, rules about rehearsals and all this stuff, which I understand, but I just think is not for me.

David: Yeah, well they came from a place, you know there was a reason why they came into being, and how are they relevant to now, what's the unintended consequence of that. How.. I think ambition in scale is one of the places that is suffering. You know, somehow you are able to keep these enormous projects, that are so, you know, I find for myself and for everybody I know who hears about them, when we hear about people working on scale in the way that you are, it's so delightful, you know. And it's compelling, you lean into that scale. And yet, what the information of the institution now is "scale back, scale back, scale back", somehow you are able to just say "You know, I'm going to just start this", and sometimes they even get bigger, I bet Lily's Revenge even grew on you as you were going.

Photo of Taylor Mac in drag.
Production photo from Lily's Revenge.
Photo by Karl Giant of Taylor Mac.

Taylor: Yeah, there was supposed to be twelve people originally, and then it became, and it was supposed to be an hour and a half and it became five hours. You know, there were thirty-six in the first production, and sixty-five now.

David: So how do you keep that? How do you keep the space for yourself, to dream that big, and then how do you keep that bigness?

Taylor: Well, you know I've learned, that. maybe this isn't true for everybody but for me it seems true to people that I talk to that raise a lot of money, it seems true then. It's easier to raise a hundred thousand dollars than five thousand dollars(laughing) I would do these solo shows were I would just have one other person in the show, or five other people, or something like that, and I would have the hardest time raising money for it! And then, the minute I said, and I had a really hard time, I got turned down for everything, and then minute I said " Ooh, I want to do this show, I want Lilly, to you know, have thirty six people in it, and for five hours long, and for all these different scenic elements to it, involved in it, and everyone said "Oh, you will never be able to produce this", and the money just came in for it! Every grant I applied for I got! And I've been applying for the same grants you know, for the same project when it was just twelve people and I didn't get them, and then when it expanded I ended up getting it. And I think it's just that people see that A) you are supporting more artists, so there is more of a need for them to support you, and that’s exciting to them, and then also that there is just not that much of it out there, there isn't big grant scale stuff, so it makes people excited. I mean I think that's what it's about.

David: But it's also about the context, I think it's also.. you're developing and producing these things outside of the main subscriber based season of what we call "The regional theater” right, so it's not that there are..

Taylor: Well it's not, well yeah. I tend to do them first.

David: Yeah.

Taylor: And then prove that they can be done.

David: Right.

Taylor: And then, and then other people will come on board, and not to say that when they come on board they are not taking a risk, and that it's not challenging and hard for them as well, but at least they know that it's happened, and that people like it. (laughing)

David: They know it, and they've seen it a lot of times too.

Taylor: Yeah.

David: What I know is a lot of your biggest supporters that you have for life, they talk about you as the experience when they first saw your work, rather than heard about your ideas, you know,

Taylor: Oh.

Davi: Or read a play? And that's I think a problem often for playwrights is that people, they experience them on paper.

Taylor: Yeah.

David: And then they make judgements based on that. But you are able to get these things on their feet, and then people experience the fullness of the idea viscerally.

Taylor: Yeah, well that's, I just think that if people saw more plays, more plays would get done. You know?(laughing) Of one thing I’ve noticed is that most artistic directors don’t go to the theater (laughing)

David: Yeah(laughing)

Taylor: They don't even see the shows they do at their own theaters (laughing), I've performed at so many, so many theater all across the, in a presenting kind of mode, you know, so many theaters all over the place, and I would say that more than fifty percent of the artistic directors don’t even introduce themselves to me.

David: Oh Lord.

Taylor: Or even come to the show. So, I mean that tells me something, it's that, you know, that they work all day and they are trying to keep their theaters alive, and they just don't have the energy to go to the theater at night.

David: Right.

Taylor: And there’s something wrong about that. So I think that’s another thing that could change. But yet, the submission thing, I'm just not into it. Baseball players would never( I hate sports metaphors but I'll use it because I just saw Moneyball) But, you know baseball players would never, they would just, they would have to see the person, you know like, you're never would-

David: Right. And as the baseball player you would never wait to be asked, you would be playing baseball until someone called you to the next contest.

Taylor: Yeah.

David: And then you play baseball there. But you don't sit at home and send your reel around, hoping that somebody's going to spot you.

Taylor: Right, It’s not movies, you can’t, you know, you don’t send a- I don't understand it. I don't submit on paper. And I, hopefully, and I don't know, maybe my agent does, maybe she sends off scripts to people and stuff, and every so often somebody will ask something and I'll send it, but it's, but I've never, never once gotten anything from submitting a paper (laughing) even when people are saying '”We really want your play, we really want it”, and they don't know my work at all, they just, you know, they've heard about it and they say “Please send us your play”' and I send and I never hear from them ever again.But if they come see the play then they do want to do it, so.

David: Yeah. And they not only know it can be done, they know what it feels like when you do it. And those are two big barriers.

Taylor; Yeah. And I wish, I guess the trick is then you build a relationship with them, and then there is a trust that builds up, and then they just say yes to your next project, rather than having to read it first. But I wish more of that would happen. I wish I didn't have to actually prove it every single time.

David: Every single time, yeah.

Taylor: Before people come on board.

David: Anne Boragrat said that.

Taylor: Anne Bogart says that?

David:I think so,I should call her and ask her. So yeah, I don’t know who it is that doesn't feel the same way that “Really, I'm going to have to prove it again?"

Taylor: Again. I think that conversation is happening a bit more, we are seeing in the grant world that grants are getting created to help artists that have proven that they, you know, they'e gotten a few grants in their lives and maybe they don’t have to apply for another one, maybe we could just give them the support, and that's starting to happen, and I’m hoping that will, kind of trickle into the submissions policy world, and the actor world and all of that stuff, and that we just start kind of trusting our artists a bit more, and say "Oh, yeah, you’ve committed your life to making theater, and you make interesting theater, and you've shown it here, here, here, and here, here’s a date, make something for us, you know?

David: Yeah. Well, that will be a change.

(Both laugh)

Taylor: Yeah. That would be a really nice change. Because how can you know, you know, this whole desire to kind of know what, I mean I wrote that thing on HowlRound for it, but that whole desire to kind of know what, to hedge your bets, it's so silly, it stops you from being a collaborator. You know, if you are in the trenches with me, and you don’t know, just like I don’t know, then we get to make it together. But if you make, have me, go through all these hoops and you hedge your bets, then, then there will always be the separation. You will be that person, you will be the gatekeeper producer and I will be the lowly artist, and there will never be a true collaboration that happens. And that's really what everybody wants, so..

David: You are able to make it, make work and have it be produced, and have an audience, and increasingly you are able to make work of a scale that also travels. You know, the presenting world and the theater world, and seems to move between. How would you say, what would you say if you had anything to say that didn’t feel pretentious to say to people who are trying to figure it out, to people who are kind of, back where you were, let’s say eight, ten years ago. How do you get that kind of network of support that you can then go to and say "I need three nights here, or I need, you know, a fiscal agent for that, or I need somebody to start this and then I need the second place for it. So you're working on twenty- hours, you're working on, you know, you are doing what did you say, you are learning one at a time, right?

Taylor: Yeah, one decade at a time.

David: So it's goes different places.

Taylor; Yeah. And the big thing is you can't do it alone. You know, it sounds like " Oh, you;ve managed to do all this on your own"

David: Yeah.

Taylor: No, I've had the most incredible agent Morgan Geness who, she is the kind of woman who goes and sees everything. And she came and saw my show in the basement bar, and she came and saw, you know, and saw the workshops in the small little theater, you know.

David: Mhmm.

Taylor: So, there are those people Mark Russell, was an early supporter, who, you know actually came down and saw the work, and then would book me for these things, like End of the Radar and stuff like that. And so you can’t- I don’t think you can do it alone, but there are people out there who are avid explorers, and-

David: But those people is that, what you are saying, is that, but those people also need you to be somewhere they can see you.

Taylor: Yeah.

David: Right.

Taylor:You have to do it, you have to do it initially.

David: Right. And that can be anywhere, those people, the ones that you are mentioning, I think this is really key for people who are following along this conversation, is that what you are saying is that, you had the responsibility of making yourself available, right, by being in motion, by being in a club.

Taylor: Right.

David: By being in a club, by being a museum, wherever the hell you could be, you were there, and there are a group of people, and you reached out to that group of people, who are open to seeing a show in a club, seeing in a bathroom, seeing it in a museum.

Taylor: Right.

David: And understanding the potential for it to move, to grow and to cross platforms.

Taylor: Yeah, absolutely. And they get excited about the idea that they can share it. And you know, they have friends who see it, who know that they are the kind of person who likes to see things, and so those friends tell them. So I didn't email Morgan Geness and say "Please come to my show", you know I did a show with somebody who was friends with her, who came and saw my work that was separate from that show, and thought "Oh Morgan would love this work", and brought Morgan, and then Morgan of course, so it's a whole network(laughing) that you kind of build, but it only happens through motion. You have to do it. And one of the things that I think really helped me was when I tried, tried, tried, I did the whole submission thing years ago, you know, and it just felt like the theater wouldn't have me. And so I went to the place, places, that I thought would have me.

David: Right.

Taylor: And it turns out that they would have me because they would have anybody, and those are the clubs, and bars. You know, you can go to a bar and say " Hey, can I do my show here once a week?", and I'll bring in people and you can have the entire bar, and we will just charge people just ten dollars for the show, or even five dollars, I think when I first started I was`doing it, and then nine times out of ten they will just say "Yes", because if it's not like a happening bar they want people to come.

David: Right.

Taylor: So it works better for them. And then if you don't bring people in, you're not, you know, hustling and getting people to the show, then they will say no, you know.

David: Right.

Taylor: But for the most part they will always say yes, and you don't have to give them a script or get them to a different show to prove that, you know, they are just willing to take a chance, it doesn't hurt them at all, you know. So bars are a great way to do things, I think.

David: Yeah. It feels to me, like, maybe this is just my own soap box, but for me waiting is the death of art.

Taylor: Oh yeah.

David: Waiting for permission. And you are at a level, talking at a level right now that I think I often hear people, it's like a big black box for people, how do I get from "I'm sitting in my living room" to "I'm in the end of the Radar Festival", like, you know.

Taylor: Yeah.

David: Under the Radar won't have me, to use the phrase that you use about the theater. But if you stop there, and just wait for them to change their mind, then you are going to be in your living room your whole life.

Taylor: Right. And it wasn't that the theater wouldn't have me, it was that the theater didn't know how to, how to know me.

David: Yeah. Didn't know how to see you.

Taylor: You know, I had to find a way for them to get to know me(laughing), that was really what it was about. Nobody is a bad guy. I mean sometimes we have these conversations, you know, and everyone is like '”Oh those Artistic Directors is a bitch about it", you know, and I fall into that trap all the time. No body is a bad person, everybody is trying to figure it out.

David: Yeah.

Taylor: What they want is to discover you. They want it. So, you have to.. I mean, if you are sitting around in your living room, do your show in your living room, invite some people over; that's what musicians do. They have living room concerts, and that's how they make their living down in Tennessee. You know, they just go to, somebody has a party, everybody pitches in ten bucks for the musician, and they go home with two hundred bucks, and you know, and then they do a different one the next night.

David: Right.

Taylor: Not only then are they learning their craft and getting better at their craft, and how to communicate to smaller audiences and stuff, but they are getting out there, you know.

David: I think that's also true... my experience anyway, is that it's also true.. If you are stuck in your living room let's say, here in DC, or in New York, or in LA, and you can't, you can’t find people, you can't find places to be, you can find those places in Roanoke, Virginia, or in Iowa City, as the Working Group has found, that the notion that you have to do the path that somebody else did is actually part of the waiting. If, in some ways it's much easier to blaze your own, there are people who don'’t know, they don't know their gatekeepers(laughing)

Taylor: Right.

David: They have a space, you have an idea, please use it

Taylor: Right(laughing

David: You get out of the idea that you are going to start on Broadway, or you get out of the idea that you are going to start on tour, or Under the Radar, that you can just start.

Taylor: Right.

David: I mean, the first show I ever did I did on a beach because I didn't know how to get to a theater.

Taylor: Right(laughing)

David: I mean, nobody wanted to produce..

Taylor: Well but then, then the show is interesting, right. (laughing)

David: Yeah, really interesting.

Taylor: You did it on a beach! I mean Thousand Princes is giving Lahoa all this money to make this show on a beach, and here you are, you already did it on a beach!

David: Yeah, exactly, it would have been so easy just walk down the hill at Lahoa and do it on a beach, you know.

Taylor: Right! (laughing) I would have to get the money for it, you know! (Laughing)

David: Right. Okay, so we promised you fifteen minutes and we promised people who are listening fifteen minutes, so, we can do this another time. Just like a show, we can do more of them.

Taylor: Yeah.

David: I really appreciate it. But this is kind of what we're after, is, you just sort of casually just string together how are people doing it, and what are they facing when they do it,

Taylor: Yeah.

David: And make a conversation based, you know, a database of conversation as well as a knowledge base.

Taylor: That's really wonderful. And I look forward to hearing all the other ones (laughing), cause obviously I'm still figuring it out!

David: Exactly. Me too. Alright, Happy New Year Taylor!

Taylor: Thank you, Happy New Year to you.

David: Thank you for your time.

Taylor: Sure, I will talk to you later David.

David: Okay talk soon bye.

Taylor: Bye.


End of podcast.




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Thoughts from the curator

Listen to weekly podcasts hosted by David Dower as he interviews theater artists from around the country to highlight #newplay bright spots. You can subscribe to the series via Apple iTunes or RSS Feed.

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Thank you, David and Taylor. I agree with Aaron. WONDERFUL!!! I love the "you don't know just like I don't know" relationship vs. "The hedging your bets" notion. You are helping us question the received notion of the lowly artist and the producer/gatekeeper division and I for one am so grateful for your courage and vision!

This is a really wonderful interview. Taylor. Really fine insights on everything from the responsibility of artists to understand context, venue, budgetry and artistry, to the value of failure, to working with institutions as an independent player. I am also finding that it's easier to raise money for a larger scale project than a smaller one. Great insights on the longer trajectory of an artist, how a single project fits into a life and a career. It would be nice to make this mandatory for BFA and MFA students.

Thanks for this, you two.