It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in San Francisco at the beginning of the summer and a street trumpeter over in a corner of UN Plaza is playing something that sounds a little like Miles Davis slurred through chunks of Chet Baker. The guy hits all the wrong notes in just the right way – there’s something in there we’re all trying to divine – as costumed performance artist Taylor Mac, after answering nature’s call, answers the trumpeter’s siren one by striding in his high heels and a dress made of cascading ladies leather gloves toward the plaza to rejoin an outre troupe of outsiders who are as outrageously outfitted as Mac is on this Saturday. Among them are an eccentric becaped biddy with two bemused parakeets named Sunny and Aiden perched precariously atop her shoulders, my dog sitter Zach whom I suddenly recognize beneath his glittering false eyelashes and an expanse of iridescent blue wings, and Sister Rosemary Chicken of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They and other members of the troupe have been cast by the Curran’s marketing department to be part of a promotional video being made throughout San Francisco as a run-up to Mac’s bringing his lavishly lauded A 24-Decade History of Popular Music to the Curran for four six-hour performances from September 15 – 24.
Having entered UN Plaza to get back to his troupe, Mac now passes a couple of burly guys in another corner putting out card tables with Biblical tracts atop them. Hand-printed placards have also been carefully placed around their designated area warning Mac of the dangers of his not accepting Jesus into his life. He smiles at them – not begrudgingly but with benevolence – while the trumpeter across the way tries out a chorus now of a more easily divined Amazing Grace, the slyness of it sliding from his trumpet since he is now echoing Mac and his troupe who have been incongruously singing the old hymn on cue all morning each time the video director points his camera their way. The burly Bible thumpers do not smile back at Mac as they, humming congruously along with the trumpeter now, watch Mac in mid-stride adjust his magnificent Isis-like headdress which completes his costume and sits throne-like there atop his head. No, not that ISIS. The Isis who is the mythological basis for Jesus’s mama, the one who was the daughter of Geb, father of the earth, and Nut, mother of the sky. The one who married her brother Osiris. That one. The big-haired gal who is the goddess of nature and magic and the friend of slaves and sinners and artists alike yet hears as well the prayers of aristocrats which, come to think of it, sounds like an apt description for Mac himself who describes his intersectional intent in ritualistic terms. There is a kind of paganish aplomb to it all – his swagger and his swag and his art.
San Francisco aristo Carole Shorenstein Hays – once considered an arriviste but who has been vetted with years of producing on Broadway and most recently with slyly wresting herself and the Curran from SHN’s local theatrical empire – seems, in fact, to be offering up a prayer of sorts herself to Mac (and maybe Isis) in her hope that the Curran will have its first big fat hit this year when Mac’s show opens her venue’s fall season. But will San Francisco audiences take to this artist’s singular genius, one that hits all the right notes in just the wrong way and consists of an amazing grace all its own? “If we weren’t able to bring the whole show – all 24 hours of it – to San Francisco, we wouldn’t have done the show,” he says. “It feels as if we wouldn’t have finished our project in some way. I would have felt pretty bad about that. San Francisco was the place that gave me the seed for the entire project. To come back and do it here was essential.”
Taylor Mac Bowyer was born in Laguna Beach forty-four years ago and grew up in Stockton. His mother was an art teacher and his father, who died in a motorcycle accident when Mac was four, was “in stocks, I think. He worked for the National Forest Service and helped invest its money. Something like that. I could be wrong, ” Mac tells me over Skype on another recent Saturday morning. No longer costumed, he is sitting in his New York apartment and his shaved pate gives him a Yul Brynner-ish handsomeness if Brynner has been less brash in his own appeal for as challenging and brazen as Mac is on a stage he is just as charmingly self-effacing off one. He is certainly no milquetoast but uncostumed he could be cast as one. “I have only a few memories of my father,” he says quietly. “I remember riding on his motorcycle. Playing hide’n’seek. Jumping on a trampoline. I took art classes from my mother but I never really liked it. he rather surprisingly admits. “It was drudgery for me.”
There was also a stepfather who was emotionally abusive. Mac’s mother divorced him when Mac was nine. “He was sort of a hippie but more to be trendy. He was a hippie who wanted to perpetuate the system. A raging leftie homophobe and misogynist.” An art school teacher for a mom and a hippie for a step-father with anger issues: sounds like the all-American California upbringing. “Oh – and my first job was as a paperboy when I was 11 to 13,” he says, laughing. “One of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. You had to get up every day no matter the weather or how tired you were. You got paid a hundred dollars a month and you had to collect the money. This was around 1984 – 86.” So he must have been preternaturally aware during that time of Gorbachev’s rise and Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Microsoft’s first release of Windows and compact discs going on sale, the famine in Ethiopia and the summer Olympics in Los Angeles? Again, he laughs. “I didn’t read the headlines, honey, I just delivered the papers.”
It was in 1987, however, when awareness not so much shifted for him but emerged full-blown when at the age of 13 he attended the first AIDS Walk in San Francisco. “I had never met an out homosexual before – or, at least, one that was out to me. I found out about this AIDS Walk that was happening in San Francisco so I went with my friend Marcy,” Mac tells me, mentioning Marcy Coburn who is now the Executive Director of the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. “The first time I ever saw an out homosexual was thousands of them at the same time,” he says, recalling that San Francisco AIDS Walk. “It was a profound experience to see that queer history, queer agency, queer pride, queer power all for the first time.”
“And queer grief?” I ask.
“Yes – and queer grief,” he agrees. “People were pushing loved ones in wheelchairs. The Sisters of Perpetual of Indulgence were there. I saw my first drag queens that day. People were singing and chanting. People were screaming and furious. ACT UP was there. It was the first AIDS Walk they ever had I think in San Francisco before it became something one was expected to attend. So that first one felt like a seditious act just to be there. To discover that community as a result of the community deteriorating and falling apart because of the epidemic was to discover at the same time a community being built and strengthened. That paradox – the dichotomy of that – was profoundly interesting to me and I think I just put that in the back of my brain.” He pauses. Every queer of a certain age has learned to blink back tears when recalling that time. “No. No, it didn’t go to the back of my brain,” he insists as he both hardens and softens all at the same time, such an emotional, yes, dichotomy the dizzying heart of so much of Mac’s art. “It was one of the most profound moments of my life and really affected me. Fast forward 30 years later and I wanted to make a show that was a metaphor and a representation of that. I wanted to put the audience in a situation in which they are under some kind of complicated circumstance and I’m under some sort of complicated circumstance and as a result of falling apart together we’re building bonds. So I decided to make a durational concert. I decided to create A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.”
But first, after that AIDS Walk, he had to return to Stockton to his mother and an older sister. “One of the reasons I created this show,” he tells me when we are discussing the show’s subtitle: A Radical Faerie Realness Ritual, “is because during my whole public school experience there was never any mention of anything gay except for the time my English Lit teacher said that Shakespeare was ‘a fag.’ It was intense growing up in Stockton during that time of the AIDS epidemic when you were being told that being gay was evil and could kill you and gays deserved to die. It was a message I got on a regular basis.”
In 1994, Mac moved to New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Art. A playwright and actor, he began around the turn of this new century to find his high-heel footing in the downtown clubs and bars of Manhattan as a performance artist. It was there where he first met his brilliant costume designer Machine Dazzle who was a member of the stripper troupe the Dazzle Dancers that would often perform on the same bill as Mac. “It’s more about sculpture to me,” the designer says of his singular work for Mac. Dazzle is a kind of Willem de Kooning of wanton detritus. “I do consider myself an artist who covers the body in a certain way,” he says, “But Taylor is beyond a canvas for me. He’s a real muse. Taylor becomes this being onstage which allows him to get away with so many things. I’m putting art on a piece of art.”
There have been fifteen other artistic endeavors leading up to the “stay woke” grandness of this latest one by Mac. Among them were his 2010 performance piece Comparison Is Violence Or The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook and his plays the Obie-winning The Lily’s Revenge which premiered in 2009 at HERE in New York and Hir, the latter premiering here in San Francisco in 2014 at the Magic Theatre which also staged its own production of the former in 2011 and which was referred to as part of that play’s “rolling premiere.” Critics have longed championed him. The New York Times headlined Wesley Morris’s rave of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at St. Ann’s Warehouse after its 24-hour performance, “One of the Great Experiences of My Life.” This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, The New Yorker’s Hilton Als,, wrote of him, “Mac is a theatre artist through and through – no aspect of the stage is alien to him – but what I remember most when I think of him is his voice: his sweet singing, almost contralto at times, is as original as anything else he does, and isn’t the artist’s voice what we look for when we go to the theatre? … Mac’s musical survey of the country that made him and others like him,” Als continued, referencing Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, “is offered in the spirit Whitman had in mind when he said that he heard America singing,”
The production itself was the runner-up to Sweat for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And yet after that one-time-only 24-hour performance at St. Ann’s last October, a culmination of six years work on the project with his remarkable musical director Matt Ray and co-director Niegel Smith, Mac fell into a funk not only as a kind of creative postpartum but also because of both a cultural and a personal grief. “Trump being elected was bad enough but my mom died two days after his election,” he says, trying to summon that ability to both harden and soften simultaneously but this time it’s more difficult to conjure. The sadness at his mother dying seeps from him still all these months later. There is a tinge of anger too. Well, more than a tinge. There is a deep, dark dollop of it awaiting its destination: his art, the daring of it. “My mom saw the 24-Decade show through all its years of development,” he tells me. “The last show she saw us do was when we were in Los Angeles and she drove up from where she lived in southern California and saw us at UCLA’s Royce Hall. That was sweet that she got to see us in that big 1600-seat space. It might have been the first time to see me play a space like that. She would budget her yearly expenses so she could fly across the country to see all the new work I was doing. She had conservative politics. She would pass around all those Clinton-bashing movies to people telling them how horrible Hillary was. She voted Republican her entire life until Obama. But she hated the Clintons with a fury that was weird. It was hard to work with her about the homosexual stuff but she came around eventually. The larger point though is that she traveled across the country every year to see her crazy drag queen child do shows and experience the new art piece. She would say to me, ‘Well, you’re not going to do drag forever,” as a way of saying to me: please don’t continue to do this. Still she would come and celebrate it. Ultimately she really loved the work.”
“Did she make you aware that there are, in fact, people in your audience like her who might not share your politics?” I ask.
“The last decade of my work, the audience is diverse enough that a large chunk of it won’t believe in the things that I do,” he asserts. “I am not preaching to the converted. I don’t mind preaching to them – I think that is necessary and I think we need to inspire each other – but that is not the case with this show. … I’ve never really thought of myself as counterculture. What I say in the show is that I feel as if I am a bridge between the normative and the insane – but also a bridge between queer people and straight people and between gay men and women and definitely between the mainstream and the counterculture. But I don’t really feel as if I am any of those particular things. I’m just a little bit of all of it …. I often say that until I look into the audience and see an entire room full of drag queens then I am not preaching to the converted. And even then, when I hang out with drag queens, they tend to look at me and go, “Aahhh … no, honey ….” A lot of them don’t have the same politics I have. But the point of art isn’t to agree with it. It is not to convince somebody that you’re right. That’s politics. That’s activism maybe.” So Mac doesn’t look on this latest production – a survey of our national history seen through the queer gaze – as agitprop? “God, no. No, no, no. I am serious when I say that everything you’re feeling while watching the show is appropriate because everything that you think about the art and feel about the art is a part of the art I am creating. If you hate it then your hatred is a part of the art that is in the room. Use your hatred to consider why a piece of art is making you hate it. Or if you love it, consider why you are connecting to it – not the fuzzy feeling about it but the ‘why’ of how it is connecting to the world around you. I am just trying to get people to dig deeper. It’s not my job to teach you about the profundity or even to say, ‘Here is the profundity.’ It is my job to spot what might have profundity in it and say, ‘Go digging.’ I have my little diviner stick – which I call my text or my drag or the show or the music – and I say, ‘Audience, go dig.’ That’s how I think of it all … The audience is the central character in the show. I’m kind of the narrator of the audience’s experience.” He pauses. He hardens. He softens. He then conjures something indecipherable there on the Skype screen and I realize I am his audience in this moment. He is making me the central character suddenly. And through me he is now making you the reader the central one. “I think of myself as a diviner,” he says and there’s something in there we’re all trying to divine.
But what exactly is this A 24-Decade History of Popular Music? What exactly is a durational concert? According to Mac’s own website it consists of “over 246 songs – some original and many pre-existing popular songs (popular in the US from 1776 to the present day) – as well as over thirteen hours of original text. The work is a deconstruction, reimagining, reframing, and reenactment of 240 years of US history.”
In other words, it is an extravaganza and it is requiring a couple of other local institutions in addition to the Curran and its owner and producer Shorenstein Hays and the New York production company Pomegranate with which Mac himself is associated to bring it to the Bay Area. Mac has had a long association with San Francisco’s Magic Theatre and it is also billed as one of the show’s producers. The Magic’s Artistic Director, Loretta Greco, is one of Mac’s biggest supporters and admirers. “Loretta is just one of those special people,’ says Mac. “She the first artistic director of a real established institution who said to me, ‘What do you want to do and when do you want to do it?’ I’d never had that before and it was something I longed for. They gave me a slot and trusted me to make what I would make,” he says, which turned out to be the Magic’s production of his Hir. “That is the most respectful way to treat artists,” he insists. “I feel very emotionally connected to the Magic as a result of that. Primarily it is Loretta though. Her energy and her passion for what she does is infectious.”
“From the first time I sat down to break bread with Taylor, I knew he was unlike anyone,” Greco says, explaining why she trusted Mac artistically. “I sensed he was beautifully, playfully, unusually authentic. His vision continues to chip away mindfully at our collective armor ensuring that each of us leaves the theater a more compassionate person.”
I ask Shorenstein Hays if her long association with the late playwright August Wilson, who himself wrote a kind of historical survey of the African American experience in the 20th century in his cycle of plays, led her to her affinity for Mac who is writing from an outsider’s view of America as well. “When we presented a nascent incarnation of Taylor’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at Curran: Under Construction – the first six hours of it – I was reminded, yes, of seeing August Wilson’s work for the first time. The way Taylor weaves a story through centuries of American popular music is the way August taught us intimate lessons about the African American experience. Their work will endure beyond us.”
Another producer of Mac’s stand at the Curran is Stanford Live and Mac will perform an abridged version of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at the school’s Bing Concert Hall in Palo Alto on September 27th. “I have been tracking Taylor and his performances for the last eight years,” says Chris Lorway, the Executive Director of Stanford Live and Bing Concert Hall. “I have been amazed by how he has expanded on his downtown New York audiences. Taylor has such kindness and openness as an artist that he welcomes everybody to be a part of the party. Some of our trustees were the first to buy tickets to his show.” Does Lorway expect any of the 184 fellows from the Hoover Institute, the conservative think tank located on the Stanford campus, to attend this particular historical survey? “Sure,” he says. “I expect some of that gang to show up.”
How about Mac himself? Does he hope the Hoover Institute’s Condoleezza Rice finds her way to Bing Hall for his performance? “I think it would be awesome if Condoleezza comes,” says Mac. “I think that she has made up her mind about a lot of things but she welcomes in doubt more than most extreme conservatives. So it would be fun to have her at the show. Whereas, someone like Donald Trump – he’s made up his mind. He’s not interested in welcoming in doubt.”
When Mac did the 24-hour version of this show at St. Ann’s in New York in October, Trump still had not been elected president. It was still possible that Clinton instead would be in the White House. Has he changed the ending of the show for San Francisco and Palo Alto now that Trump is our president? He pauses. I try to decipher any softened edges to his now hardened expression. “Part of my job is to incorporate calamity. That’s how I see it,” he says, some noticeable softening around his eyes as he squints into the Skype screen as if to discern some sort of distillation of his motives there in it. “And another part of my job is to do something with that calamity and to make art out of it. So since Trump is the biggest thing in our lives right now that is causing calamity he’ll be incorporated. But the calamity doesn’t get to be the lead. It’s always the subplot. It’s never the main story. Trump gets to be the lead in his own narrative but I don’t need to give him so much attention that he becomes the lead in the narrative that we’re making.”
The lead in the narrative that Taylor Mac has been making his whole life has been in some abiding way Judy Garland – which points us back to the Curran where she performed a four-week engagement in 1952 when she told the San Francisco Chronicle, “”Hollywood loves the show. I wow ’em the way the papers say. But I’m scared of San Francisco. The audiences there are tough; I’ve got to be great up there.” Indeed, Mac, who is aware that he himself must be great here for his toughened Curran crowd, reveres Garland to such an extent that he prefers that one use the pronoun “judy” when referring to him. “It’s not something I like to be called,” he corrects me when I, in fact, ask if he would like for me to call him that. “It’s my pronoun. It’s not my nickname. I’m not adamant about it. I just don’t give a shit. It makes me happy when people use it. If you have a problem with using it then that is the journey that you’re going on. I chose it because to me it’s art. And, yes, it is absolutely based on Judy Garland.”
So what is it like for him to perform on the same stage where Garland herself performed? Is it hallowed ground for him? “It’s the best thing ever,” he says giddily. “I’m sharing a dressing room with Judy Garland’s ghost and I get to go on that stage where Judy Garland performed. It makes me happier than almost anything that has happened in my life since I did the 24-hour version of the show in New York.”
“People think of you as an avant-garde performance artist who almost won the Pulitzer Prize this year,” I tell Mac, “but you’re just an old-fashioned drag queen who loves Judy Garland.”
“She was the greatest performance artist of all time,” Mac claims. “Maybe half of it was unconscious performance art. Maybe I shouldn’t say unconscious. Well … no … she was probably unconscious a little bit,” he says, laughing rather ruefully. “Performing on the Curran stage I get to be part of that lineage. But I do think of myself as an entertainer that likes to express the full range of our humanity on a stage so that it’s not just about fun fun fun fun fun. I do like an intellectual pursuit as well.”
“You’re Liberace if he had read some Andre Gide,” I offer.
“I suppose so. If I had been of Judy’s or Liberace’s generation I wouldn’t have ended up being a Hollywood performer though. I think I would have ended up being the kind of performer I am now. I just don’t think because someone created performance art that suddenly that was what opened doors for me. Weirdos are weirdos and do weird things. Euripides was a weirdo and he did weird things. He didn’t need doors opened for him.”
Taylor Mac is finally shooting the last scenes in the Curran’s promotional video on that Saturday at the beginning of the summer. The sun is setting and he is now wrapped in a blanket waiting for the video’s director to set up the next shot on Castro Street where Mac and his troupe of “weirdos” has been winding its way through this chilly dusk over and over and over before the last bit of golden light disappears and the darkness descends. The long pink tendrils carefully puttied into place where Mac’s lower lashes would be on his heavily made-up face are beginning to droop and uncurl as if they are tired tears now and not lashes at all. He is, yes, a trouper but it has been a long day trudging fabulously around San Francisco in high heels and that heavy throne-like headdress.
Mac is sitting next to the Twin Peaks bar and those warming themselves inside, who have seen it all out here on Castro Street where weirdos have paraded for decades, are staring out fascinated by him and his troupe about whom Mac has told me he feels protective. Does he feel maternal toward these members of his San Francisco fold? “I don’t want to be a mother figure,” Mac says. “I think of myself as a fool. I’m an Elizabethan fool. That’s all I am. So when people want The Fool to be their mom there is something wrong with that. The Fool isn’t anybody’s mom. The Fool is going to fuck you up. I don’t want people to feel so comfortable with me that they think I’m going to nurture them. I want them to be responsible for themselves and I am trying to give them that agency.”
There in the window of Twin Peaks is a portrait of Harvey Milk made up of jelly beans which was Ronald Reagan’s favorite candy. Jelly beans are hard. They are soft. All is dictated by dichotomy. Incongruity abounds. And in this golden moment, Milk’s jelly-bean eyes take in Mac’s draped with their wilting tear-like tendrils. The video’s director calls for one more shot. Taylor Mac rises and throws off the blanket. Together with his troupe they all find that last bit of light as the camera that has been pointed at them all day points at them one last time. Harvey Milk, who owned a camera shop, stares not begrudgingly but with benevolence at the high-heeled Mac who walks by Milk’s portrait with judy’s exhausted head held amazingly, gracefully high. The weirdos, reveling in their weirdness, follow.