Taylor Mac brings 24 decades of delirium and music to Los Angeles – Los Angeles Times
The show features 246 songs. Itâs 24 hours long, split into six-hour chapters. And, yes, you are expected to sit through all six hours. This is theater of the unexpected; it is theater of calamity; it is theater according to the gospel of Taylor Mac.
Since the performance artist first staged portions of this delirious piece of experimental theater, âA 24-Decade History of Popular Music,â at Joeâs Pub in New York City in 2011, the show has evolved into an artistic juggernaut and its creator heralded as a perspicacious shaman of the counterculture.
In the lobby of the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on a recent afternoon, however, Mac shrugs off the hype surrounding his first tour of the full â24-Decade History.â Heâs just a vessel for the art, he insists.
The show, in which each hour of music represents a decade, seeks to tell the story of communities built as a result of being torn apart: the defiant triumph of minorities, LGBTQ people, women, the disabled and the chronically disadvantaged over the dominant cultural forces of homogeneity and oppression.
âIâm not representing a community. Iâm representing a history and a whole country,â he says, smiling slyly. âItâs partially why Iâm phantasmagorical when you look at me. You donât necessarily see a human, but you see a fool in the Elizabethan sense.â
Mac is bald with a shiny head, mischievous blue eyes and a coquettish smile. His voice is slightly raspy and his demeanor relaxed. As an artist, he thinks of himself as a bridge between âthe normative and the insane, between male and female, between the queers and the straights, and the West Coast thing and the East Coast thing.â
In â24-Decade Historyâ he performs in ravishing drag created by a costume designer who goes by the name of Machine Dazzle and sometimes follows Mac onstage to make adjustments to this feather or that sequin in real time. Drag isnât a costume for him to hide in, Mac says, itâs exposing what he looks like on the inside.
âThe amazing thing about that is that queer people donât get to represent America, queer people are always just in America, weâre only allowed to be ourselves, which is a queer person. So to use a queerâs body as a metaphor for the entire country is fresh,â he says with relish.
Mac is in town to begin work with Kristy Edmunds, artistic director of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, who commissioned a decade of the show when Mac was creating it. The show wonât open at the Ace for another nine months, as part of CAP UCLAâs 2017-18 season. But staging the piece â which will involve more than 200 performers, many of whom will be cast locally, and almost as many behind-the-scenes players â will be a Herculean effort of coordination, stamina and creativity.
Six decades of music will be unfurled at one time, the whole âHistoryâ performed over the course of two weeks. The 246 songs begin in 1776 and end in present day.
It is not musical theater, it is not a concert and it is not pure theater.
Mac calls the show a âritual sacrifice.â Its power lies in its duration. The audience must feel the weight of history and time; they must see Macâs body exhaust itself and hear his voice deteriorate with the effort of it all.
Identity politics are not the point, he says. They are the subplot.
âI think of art as a seditious act. Sometimes itâs asking you to rebel against the government, but really itâs asking you to rebel against an obstinate sense of self,â he says. âSo you come in and say, âIâm this kind of person,â and the art says, âNo, no, dig a little deeper, go a little wider, bring a sense of wonder into your life,â so thatâs what weâre doing up there, weâre sacrificing obstinance.â
The result was a finalist this year for the Pulitzer Prize in drama. When Mac performed an almost-three-hour sneak peak of the show at UCLAâs Royce Hall in March, Times theater critic Charles McNulty wrote an exuberant review, noting that as a performer, âMac might well be the love child of David Bowie and Liza Minnelli.â
Here at the Ace, Mac appears onstage to deliver a nearly 30-minute monologue to an enraptured audience of more than 100 artists, creators and donors who have gathered to explore the possibility of contributing artistically or financially toward staging âA 24-Decade Historyâ in Los Angeles.
Says Edmunds, âYou donât commit to a show like this if you donât know you can carry its integrity.â
The show is very much a living, breathing entity in that you canât control everything that will happen during a six-hour stretch of live theater. Hundreds of local performers need to be cast. In Los Angeles, for example, the audience might see a female mariachi band and a childrenâs choir. Even the fabrics for the costume design are expected to be sourced locally.
The audience plays a crucial role as well. It might participate in a bread line during the Great Depression, create a funeral procession for Judy Garland, or rearrange 80 chairs. In 2016 Mac performed the entire show over a single 24-hour stretch in New York for 700 people who he says became âderanged in their emotional availability.â
It was a feat that he intends to accomplish only once.
âThe goal was to make something tangible out of an ephemeral art and it worked,â Mac says. By using âexhaustion to dream the culture forward,â viewers came to embrace the fact that âwe werenât making something accessible, but extraordinary. And we were building it together.â
On this particular evening Mac asks his Los Angeles audience to help him build a future promise. He asks them to commit to viewing art as something as worthwhile as a 40-hour workweek.
âYou must protest the tools of reduction,â he says. âIt needs to be long so that you feel the weight of it â the onslaught of it â and so that you have an opportunity to transform as a result of that weight.â
In other words, this isnât art to be taken lightly. Watching it should â and will â take effort.
Popular music is the ideal medium to convey the complexities of history because it is built through imperfection, Mac says. Imperfect rhymes, simple chords, unpolished vocal deliveries.
âYou could argue that classical music is about perfection and virtuosity â trying to touch the hem of God,â Mac says. âPopular music is about reaching people. Itâs there to rally you to a cause. To celebrate together. To mourn together. To love together.â
Mac will love you for 24 hours â an experience he hopes will never leave you.