Artist Taylor Mac has enough awards and recognitions to warrant me fantasizing about what statuette or plaque I might get clobbered with if I use the wrong gender pronoun. “Judy” is the preferred term. Mac’s betting you can’t mock judy without emasculating yourself, and he’s right.
Judy garnered critical acclaim for the 2016 Brooklyn, NY showing of A 24 Decade History of Popular Music that famously entailed a magnificent twenty-four consecutive hours of period costumes and retelling of history that broke the audience down to build them up again. However, Mac wants you to know that it’s not judy’s doing. It’s the audience’s. The audience is responsible for deciding how wildly they dance with same-sex strangers in the aisles or choose to consciously uncouple – aka break up – as a result of this sprawling interactive performance. Either way, judy just wants you to live the best life you can.
Start by seeing the abridged version of A 24 Decade History on September 14, presented by FirstWorks with the Brown Arts Initiative.
Options: Do you think there is an afterlife, and is it queer?
Taylor: My honest answer is no! [Laughs] What are we? Children? We’re hoping for something better than right now. We should just make this moment better! Live your life. Engage the world, your political system, your community, your neighborhood. I don’t think there’s a utopian thing out there. There’s not even a utopian thing on this planet.
Options: How did your first encounter with the gay community contribute to your philosophy of “incorporating calamity?”
Taylor: I went to the 1987 San Francisco AIDS Walk. It was the first time I saw thousands of out homosexuals. They were there because they and their lovers were dying of AIDS. They were building their community and resistance because of the epidemic and the government thinking they could be thrown aside. That was everything to me: that you can build yourself up as you’re torn apart is an incredible historical lesson.
Options: Instead of he, she, or even they, how did you decide upon the pronoun judy and why is it deliberately lowercase?
Taylor: It’s only lowercase when judy is not beginning a sentence. People introduced me as she or he and neither felt right. I thought, “I’m a queer person trying to be queer. Why don’t I invent my own pronoun since that’s what a queer person would do?” It’s the job of artists to bring a little pause to people’s routine. Judy does that. Also, people tend to judge non-status quo gender pronouns. If you roll your eyes when you say judy, it immediately emasculates you and makes you camp. I made you gay just by using my gender pronoun.
Options: How disappointed would your audience have been if you chose something like frank?
Taylor: People would think frank funny too. [Laughs] Though there probably would be less backlash. Everyone always attacks the feminine in this culture.
Options: A 24 Decade History of Popular Music has been described as a “Radical Faerie Realness Ritual.” How would you explain what that means to an unloved eleven-year-old queer stepchild?
Taylor: It’s ok to be uncomfortable. The world will make you uncomfortable. You will have tools and wonderful abilities throughout your life to find a way through [the discomfort]. You will find other people to help you. That’s what radical faeries are. [Laughs] Radical faeries are just a bunch of queers who do things differently. If you don’t like the way the world is right now maybe you should hang out with some radical faeries. I can’t tell someone [whether] to leave or not. Some people stick around and it gets better. At the same time, if your life is in danger, get out of Dodge.
Options: I read an anecdote about the junior high queer prom segment of your performance where you urged the audience to dance with random same-sex partners. This ultimately led to at least one happy pairing. What are some of the most curious audience experiences to result from A 24 Decade History?
Taylor: A few babies have been born from people who met at the show. I’ve broken up a couple. [Laughs] I didn’t really do that. I’m sure they were gonna break up anyway. They were inspired by the show. I’ve also gotten a few wedding invitations.
Options: Do you ever respond or send a wedding gift in lieu of your presence?
Taylor: No wedding gifts. [Laughs] My gift was my art. I don’t also have to purchase something. I do respond to emails with a little note saying I can’t make it. Though there is someone getting married in Toronto whose wedding I would like to attend.
Options: Too cold? What’s the excuse?
Taylor: We’ll be on tour in the fall.
Options: The Obamas would send beautiful letters in response to invitations. Isn’t that thoughtful?
Taylor: I guess. [Laughs] There are a thousand people in my audience and they all have this very intimate experience with me. If the collective one thousand people were getting married then I would make that a priority. Individually, you can’t attend all of them. I don’t blame the Obamas for not wanting to attend the events of the millions of people who think they had an intimate relationship with them even though they never met. [Laughs]
Options: The Office of the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland also responds to invitations and sends gifts on occasion.
Taylor: I feel like people should be giving the gift of verbs more than nouns. Just sing something or go on a stroll. Give something other than a sterling silver spoon. Isn’t the landfill full enough?
Options: Do the various cities and different performing venues influence your decision on what to display in your abridged versions of A 24 Decade History?
Taylor: I definitely think about what is going on socially and in politics wherever we perform. We often work with local performers. We talk to the people who transport you from the airport, waiters, and generally locals who are working class. Some of these perspectives get brought into the show. Every show is very different.
Options: What’s the significance of your artist residency with FirstWorks and the Brown Arts Initiative around your upcoming September performance in Rhode Island?
Taylor: This is my first time performing in Rhode Island. I don’t know anyone there. It’s an opportunity to get to know people, the town, and the audience. Once you have an experience with somebody then you can start building your story with them.
Options: Are you saying you have no ex-partners in Rhode Island?
Taylor: I don’t think that anyone I’ve ever worked with or slept with is living in Rhode Island.
Options: Recent tragedies such as the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre have been the subject of the final decade of your performance. Is this done out of hope that the LGBTQ community will face less persecution in the next few decades or are we all screwed?
Taylor: I’m not such a pessimist. [Pause] I am a pessimist in thinking that no one gets out alive. Right? We are all going to die. We might as well spend time making our lives as good as we possibly can, considering the immediate future. It’s not selfish to make your life as good as it possibly can be. However, if you’re sucking up all the fossil fuels in the process, it doesn’t seem like you’re actually making your life better. That’s a horrible existence.
I guess I’m a little more optimistic. But I don’t see the alternative. Everyone is going to die. What’s the point in being nihilistic? Since the end is that it’s all coming to an end, we might as well try to live as consciously as possible.
Options: Is there too much sentimentality attached to the narrative of American history?
Taylor: Yes! [Laughs] “Make America Great Again” is just another way of saying, “Put nostalgia and sentimentality ahead of consideration, progression, and love.”
Options: How do you foresee the presidential election unfolding next year?
Taylor: I don’t make predictions. All I do is the work. I’m not going to tell you who’s going to win or lose. I hope I can inspire other people to do the work too.
Options: Who died and appointed you the queen bee reconstructor of queer history?
Taylor: [Laughs] Nobody! Here’s the thing about being queer. People tell you that you can’t, you shouldn’t, you’re not allowed, it’s not your right, it’s not your place. At least they did to me for most of my childhood. The queerest act that you can do is to say ‘No, I’m gonna do it anyway.’ [Laughs] I was raised in a public school system where not one thing was ever mentioned about anyone who was queer in any of the books. They even taught us about Walt Whitman and didn’t mention he was gay. Since no one was doing it for me, I thought I would do it for myself.
Options: Is A 24 Decade History an elaborate experiment to break your audience down or to build them up?
Taylor: Both. It breaks the audience down to build them up. I don’t do it. The audience does it for themselves. The history does it. The show isn’t really so much about history as it is pointing out that we have all this history on our backs and we are figuring out what to do with it. All I’m saying is, “Here’s the history. What are you going to do with it?” I’m creating the circumstances for the audience to do the work.
Options: What’s your method for handling hecklers and regaining control of the show?
Taylor: My drag mother, Mother Flawless Sabrina, did drag in the late fifties and started drag competitions in major cities throughout the country. One day she was walking down the street In New York and was shot in the ass by two guys who didn’t like that she was in drag. She survived it. We once were talking about how horrible they were and she said, “No, Taylor. They just wanted to be part of the show.”
I think about that a lot. Donald Trump, for instance, desperately wants to be part of the show. He wants to be the lead. Unfortunately, the show is America and nobody gets to be the lead. America is the lead. This means all of us are making something bigger than ourselves. Trump wants to be the only lead. We have to figure out a way for America to stay the lead. We have to allow him to be part of the show but not the entire show. It’s about incorporating him into the narrative. You can’t ignore him. You do have to grapple with [Trump]. [Laughs]
That’s how I deal with hecklers. I set my boundaries but I allow them space. If I completely ignore them, they’ll take over. I welcome them. They are invited to be in the theater. If they try to stop the show from happening then they have to go. I’ve had to do that a couple of times, but for the most part everyone can get along. It’s fun.
Options: Who fed you better? The Tony Awards or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert?
Taylor: [Laughs] Colbert had a nice spread out. It wasn’t a meal. There were really good snacks. At the Tonys, you don’t get to eat until midnight because the show goes till around eleven thirty before you get to the after party at The Plaza. The food was pretty good. The after party was the most fun.
Options: You went through the Tony Awards without eating?
Taylor: There was no food. Not even snacks in the lobby. It was so long. I had never done the Tonys before so it was fun to watch the workings and that kept it interesting.
Options: Did you use a teleprompter to present?
Taylor: There was a little prompter. I thought about going off script. The playwright before me had gone off script and his [speech] was pretty bad. [Laughs] I thought I better play it by the rules and maybe next time I could play around. I was dealing with a Radio City Music Hall audience for the first time and CBS for the second.
Options: I was watching your eyes in the video of your presentation to see if you were actually using the teleprompter.
Taylor: They all kept reminding me I had thirty seconds. The show is long enough. I can make a thing go on longer than it should. [Laughs] Not this time. Not my show. Not my year. I thought I better just get on stage, do my thing, bring a little of my magic, and get off. I really wanted to get to the party. I thought, “Get this show over with.”
Options: Did you see any scruff daddies at the party?
Taylor: I didn’t see that many. Most guys were clean shaven. In Broadway, most people are coming from the position of a weirdo within the status quo who’s there to sort of support the status quo. [Laughs] They’re all a little weird but they’re all trying to sure up the middle class. What’s going on here? Why is everyone here weird and yet trying to support this thing they don’t even believe in? It’s very strange to me.
Options: Do you acknowledge that many people are going to be exposed to a play for the first time through the lens of the Tony Awards? Many have never seen these nominations because it’s not affordable to go see all these shows and it’s all concentrated so heavily around NYC.
Taylor: Broadway is not the only way to access these plays. They’re all going to be published and produced across the country. Just because people haven’t had access to or read these productions yet doesn’t mean that you can’t be interested in them or have them do something for you. People just aren’t that engaged in culture and make every excuse they can not to be engaged. [Laughs]
Options: Are you calling out North Dakota? Is that what you’re doing?
Taylor: No! [Laughs] For all I know North Dakota has more art that is interesting than NYC. I have never been to North Dakota so I can’t say. [Laughs] I do know that there has been a lot of interesting art everywhere I visited in the US. I don’t think just because somewhere is not New York that it won’t have fascinating art. It’s just that we don’t hear about it.
I want to support whatever art is happening in North Dakota even though I’m never going to see it and experience it firsthand. I don’t see why people can’t support the art happening in New York even though they’re not going to see it. [Laughs] Shouldn’t we all be supporting each other?
Options: You’ve said that “perfection is for assholes.” Does that mean even the pursuit of it is a feckless endeavor?
Taylor: The pursuit of perfection can be extraordinary. The delusion is that you’re going to get there. I read from Emma Thompson that “tradjedians” are speaking to God. I often say that classical artists, musicians, thespians, people interested in Ancient Greeks, and older forms tend to want to reach for the hand of God when they’re performing. That means they’re reaching for perfection. They’re trying to be the best human being. I think that’s a noble goal but there’s also something remarkable in just trying to reach the audience. It’s healthy to acknowledge your humanity and imperfection and see what that can gift the world.
Options: Will you come speak at my wedding?
Taylor: No. [Laughs] Are you getting married to a scruff daddy?
Options: Not yet. But I have my toes crossed. Fingers too. Will you agree that this was the fourth funniest interview you’ve ever done?
Taylor: It might even be the third funniest.
For tickets and info to Taylor Mac’s September 14, 2019 show in Providence: http://first-works.org/events/taylor-mac/
Kevin Assam is a leftie with the third most beautiful penmanship you'll ever see. He thinks life is too short for separate loads of laundry. His national interviews and columns elicit collective gasps from conservative society. He has a few awards. Climate Change is a thing.