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“Most art is a conversation starter. This is revolution.”

A 24-Hour History Of Popular Music at St Ann's Warehouse. Photo credit: Teddy Wolff.

A 24-Hour History Of Popular Music at St Ann’s Warehouse. Photo credit: Teddy Wolff.

Published in the Age on July 27, 2017.

In his blue mesh cap, striped vest, floral print board shorts and flip-flops, Taylor Mac resembles a weekend sailor on Long Island Sound, blandly handsome and trim. He runs through the Trolley Song, a Judy Garland staple, ducking out of the highest notes and dialling his vibrato way back. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were watching a casino cabaret singer and his band in second gear. “Chug, chug, chug went the motor.” He lazily pumps his arms.

Outside, it is a day to bust open a fire hydrant and blast Fight The Power, hottest of the New York summer. The musicians at Smash Studios – musical director Matt Ray at the piano, plus a guitarist, trumpeter and bass player – wear shorts and sandals. The sheet music for Pretty Woman is missing, and pages three and four of the bass player’s copy of Soliloquy. Mac rolls his eyes at no-one in particular, in can-you-believe-this-shit exasperation. “We can’t have this problem in San Francisco,” he says, mildly.

Sitting in on the practice session is like watching boxers going through the motions, feinting but never landing a blow. Like watching Lady Gaga walk through a tech rehearsal in flat shoes and a sensible skirt. Words are sung, but removed from the context of the longest, riskiest, most lauded, most alive theatrical event in recent memory, they are absent of meaning.

Every now and again, there are hints. “It’s kind of chaotic here, I’m climbing over audience members,” Mac tells the guitarist. “Picture you, upon my knee,” he begins Tea For Two, then deadpans “no, do it: picture me.” As the band segues into Where The Boys Are, he addresses an imaginary crowd, under his breath: “you’re gonna pretend you’re in a queer prison fantasy sex scene.”

In the award-winning, convention-shattering show, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, the scene was led by a naked James ‘Tigger’ Ferguson and costume designer Machine Dazzle, with the help of the audience, who after a full day and half the night of taking part in the “radical faerie realness ritual” had long since cast their inhibitions aside and giddily pretended to lather themselves in the shower as Mac sang.

“Around six in the morning, the emotional availability in the room was insane. I’d never experienced that. It was so intense, how every single thing I’d do would make people start sobbing, or screaming, or cheering like they’d never cheered before,” Mac says. “It was because we’d crafted a good show, but it was also fatigue. They couldn’t censor themselves anymore.”

To describe a production as “life-changing” is cliche, but in this case, appropriate. At least one couple got married and had a baby after meeting at an early iteration of the show. Another couple realised they no longer loved each other and got a divorce. “People have changed their genders, people have quit their jobs, and it’s just because we’ve taken the time to hang out with them,” Mac says. “Most art is a conversation starter. Fuck that! This is revolution.”

The show was conceived as a one-off, five years in development. Performances at Joe’s Pub, the Public Theatre and the Lincoln Centre built an audience in New York and refined the material, decade by decade. From Sept 15 to Oct 8 last year, Mac presented it in three hour chunks at St Ann’s Warehouse, leading up to the noon-to-noon extravaganza.

From Amazing Grace to Everything Is Everything, via Camptown Races and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Mac re-contextualises the hit parade, teasing out the hidden meanings of some songs and radically subverting others. Keep The Home Fires Burning is re-framed as a lesbian love song, the Mikado set in space to strip it of racist associations. You Keep Me Hanging On becomes an anthem for gays marching in support of the Civil Rights Movement.

A 24-Hour History Of Popular Music at St Ann's Warehouse. Photo credit: Teddy Wolff.

A 24-Hour History Of Popular Music at St Ann’s Warehouse. Photo credit: Teddy Wolff.

Mac dons a different costume for each decade, among them a cheerleader’s outfit with multi-coloured Mardi Gras headdress and gold sequinned gloves, a one piece geometric print bathing suit, a Statue of Liberty bodice made entirely of friendship bands and a micro skirt accessorised with a day-glo home-knit scarf and dandelion afro in mother-of-pearl. The elastic canvas of his face is painted and re-painted and re-painted in kaleidoscopic patterns.

At the end of each hour, a member of the band departs. At St Ann’s Warehouse, Ray burst into tears as he left the stage, leaving Mac to perform the last sixty minutes alone, with his ukulele. His quest for “authentic failure and authentic success in the same performance… the whole range of humanity” ended with a riotous standing ovation.

“I made a show that’s two hundred and forty-six songs, at least thirteen hours of original written material… I mean, I memorise it all, but I’m gonna fail. My voice is gonna crack. The band is gonna get tired. Things are gonna happen and they always do,” Mac says. “[Edward] Albee talks about art being a seditious act, and I’m right there with him, but I take it a little farther. It’s not just sedition in the traditional sense of getting you to rebel against a government. It’s also trying to get you to rebel against an obstinate sense of self.”

Mac was born in 1973 and raised in Stockton, California, one of the most violent cities in the United States. He prefers not to talk about his closeted Christian Scientist childhood – “I think the present is much more interesting” – but has previously described it as a never-ending school bus trip, on fake green leather seats spackled with spent gum, in the company of boys who threatened and ostracised him.

From his first performance, as a toy soldier in the nativity play, aged five, he knew he could act. He found refuge in the community theatre, especially during the two years the children’s programme was run by Mark McLelland, who chose interesting and provocative plays, including Runaways by Liz Swados: a musical about homeless kids, created in workshops with teenagers from broken homes and foster care.

Mac’s first encounter with an out gay person was at an AIDS march in San Francisco, in 1987. His friend Marcy was two years older, and had a car, so they drove from Stockton, and were amazed and empowered to find thousands of LGBTQ activists raising their voices and organising support networks. The experience marked him, and continues to define his work. “The reason they were all together was because they were being torn apart,” he says.

Building community in adversity has been his great theme, from his breakthrough production, The Lily’s Revenge, a five hour play in five radically different acts, each with its own set, to A 24-Hour History, which he describes as a “metaphorical re-enactment” of the AIDS walk.

The idea came to him in Sydney in 2011, after a performance of Comparison Is Violence, a cabaret show conceived in answer to a review that reduced him to Ziggy Stardust meets Tiny Tim. Australian artist Martin Sharp, founder of Oz magazine, told Mac that Tiny Tim once performed round the clock for a fundraiser. “And I thought ‘oh, that’s the form,’ and immediately flew home and started making it.”

At school, Mac was taught Walt Whitman poems, but never that the author of Leaves Of Grass was gay, or that he wrote love poems to men and changed the pronouns to female for publication. An English teacher’s offhand comment that “Shakespeare was a fag,” a cheap laugh for the boys at the back, was the closest thing to an acknowledgement that homosexuals were responsible for any art (or science or conquest or progress) at all.

Mac’s magnum opus is a “queering of history” that searches for and celebrates gay pioneers, acknowledged and unacknowledged, real and imagined. Whitman is there, and Bayard Rustin, whose contribution to the civil rights movement is underplayed because he had sex with male prostitutes. “The historians have not done their job, throughout time, so now we have to make it up a little bit,” Mac says

Earlier this year, he attended re-enactments of the first battles of the American Revolutionary War, at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, with his friend (and extraordinarily gifted costume designer) Machine Dazzle. They went in full period drag, in Mac’s case an officer’s jacket in purple and yellow, a deconstructed hoop skirt with visible wires and a hat made of hot dogs.

“What we kept getting was ‘what are you doing here?’ You must be the French, ha ha ha,’ because we don’t belong. We’re other and so we’re not Americans. Which is hysterical! Of course there were queens. The dandy in Yankee Doodle Dandy; who do you think that is?” Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben – “a big old queer” – transformed George Washington’s ragtag Continental Army into an effective fighting force.

Warming to the theme, Mac declaims a stanza of Whitman’s Song Of Myself: “I beat and pound for the dead. I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them. Vivas to those who have fail’d… And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!” His show is a monument, not merely to the foot soldiers of the gay liberation movement, but to untold legions of men and women who denied their sexuality, or were persecuted because of it.

Taylor Mac at St Ann's Warehouse. Photo credit: Teddy Wolff.

Taylor Mac at St Ann’s Warehouse. Photo credit: Teddy Wolff.

In the last year, Mac has won a Guggenheim fellowship, the Doris Duke Award and the Edward M. Kennedy Prize, and as a result is financially secure for the first time in his life. For more than two decades after arriving in New York on his twenty-first birthday (and immediately buying a ticket for Stephen Sondheim’s Passion) he lived week to week, running up debt and spending as much time writing grant applications as plays.

“I’m not good at a lot of things, but I’m good at theatre, and I think I was always good at theatre, and what I didn’t have was support, or permission, or people championing the work, so it took years and years and years,” he says. He is harshly critical of the gatekeepers of New York’s theatre scene, the penurious wages paid by downtown producers, and Broadway’s aversion to taking risks.

“People say that what I’m doing is in the lineage of the avant-garde, or that gross word ‘new’ and I like to point out that what’s new is kitchen sink drama. What’s old is mask work, heightened language, heightened circumstances… I feel like it’s the puritan dominance over expression that’s creeping back in and we’re forcing theatre to be controlled rather than wild and alive.”

In Melbourne, at the Forum Theatre, Mac will perform the show in four parts, six decades at a time, a format getting its first test run in San Francisco in September. Tickets are only available for the whole performance, staggered over a fortnight.

“Audiences come with defences. The longer they hang out with you, the more their defences are dismantled. The six hour is kind of the magic spot, for me. It does something to them that I find very moving,” he says. “I’m really excited about this new version. What does it mean to hang out with the show for two weeks?” All he knows is that when people are exhausted and sore and exhilarated, all at once and together, minds will open and lives will change.