Taylor Mac: Creating Bonds Through Music

by Jean Schiffman

Curran Under Construction brings Taylor Mac’s musical extravaganza—an exploration of American history through song—to San Francisco this month.

The original impetus for innovative playwright/performer Taylor Mac’s latest work, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” began years ago when he attended an AIDS walk in San Francisco and saw the commitment of thousands of people to their community. “It was a profound experience,” he says, on the phone from New York, where he lives. “It shaped how I think of art and the kind of art I wanted to make.”

“24-Decade,” which Mac has been developing in stages for the past four years, is a true extravaganza—a narrative that, when finished, will track, through popular music, 240 years of American history, decade by decade, from 1776 to 2016. The first installment opened in New York last year (the 20th century’s first three decades, followed by the second three decades, followed by a six-hour performance of all six decades), garnering comments like “playful and thoroughly winning” (The New York Times).

Mac is bringing the next two installments (Part I: 1776-1806 and Part II: 1806-1836) to San Francisco; producer Carole Shorenstein is a commissioning partner, booking it into her “Curran Under Construction” series, in which a small audience sits onstage with the performers. The short run here ends with a six-hour performance of all six of those decades, seen together for the first time. Will the songs be familiar? Every decade has at least a few songs that everyone has heard, says Mac, even those from the 18th and the 19th centuries.

“I wanted to make a show about how community can be created because of…oppression or difficult circumstances,” Mac explains. “I thought, let me make a durational concert, where the audience and I are falling apart over the course of a 24-hour period because of the onslaught of history and culture and various ideas…And that’s what we’re making—a show about how deterioration can build community.”

Mac is no stranger to marathon-length performances; his 2009 Obie Award winner, “The Lily’s Revenge”—a hilarious and engrossing four-and-a-half-hour, 36-actor “flowergory” in which he himself performed—dazzled audiences and critics at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre (where his bizarre and utterly entertaining comedy “Hir” played in 2014). For “24-Decade,” he was particularly inspired by ukulele-strumming Tiny Tim, who staged a 24-hour show of 20th-century songs. “A classical song reaches for perfection,” Mac observes, “but a pop song reaches for people. It uses its imperfections—simple form and chord structure and repetition—and allows people to come together to mourn or celebrate. I thought, that’s a perfect form for a show that’s trying to build community.”

He was also inspired by listening to recordings of Nina Simone and Patti Smith. Why is it, he wondered, that their voices often aren’t melodious? Simone can be a little above or below pitch, he says; Smith sometimes simply screams. They sacrifice perfect tone to get to an emotional truth, he concluded. “That emotional truth exposes something about themselves, puts them at risk. I thought, that’s the key right there.” That revelation helped him form his ideas about “24-Decade.”

To research songs for each decade, Mac goes from library to library online, printing out sheet music, consulting the writings of amateur and professional musicologists, choosing songs that fit into his unifying theme. “It’s not a history lesson,” he emphasizes. This is a 24-decade, not the 24-decade. Culture Bot called the show a reframing of our history “through queer eyes,” a “marvelously subjective” picture of the American social consciousness. Mac refers to it as “cultural appropriation.”

Like Mac’s other shows, “24-Decade” is anything but dry. It is highly audience-interactive, physically and vocally—more about moving bodies in the space together, says Mac, than embarrassing viewers or provoking an easy laugh. In 1821, Braille was invented, so during Part II, the audience will be blindfolded for an hour as they listen to the music. And the Curran iteration may involve a choir and some dancers and possibly the inimitable Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Then there’s the array of extravagant costumes by Machine Dazzle, a “mad wonder of a creative being,” says Mac. He and Dazzle are longtime collaborators; Mac is likely to say to Dazzle, “This is the next decade we’re working on, these are some of the scenes, this is an element I need to help me tell the story,” and Dazzle picks it up from there. “Every decade is completely different,” says Dazzle, a self-taught designer whose art is not about fashion, or garments, or pulling out bolts of fabric and pinning and cutting, but rather about objects and ideas. For example, when Mac told him he’d need two costumes to represent a man and a woman, Dazzle came in with a five-foot-long key and a big, heart-shaped lock. Sometimes he shows up five minutes before curtain with a new outfit; he’s even been known to run onstage and throw something on Mac. “A show doesn’t go by where I don’t have a wardrobe malfunction,” says Mac cheerfully. “That’s part of the fun.”

Mac’s co-director, Niegel Smith, who helmed “Hir” at the Magic, sees himself as the interpretive director, Mac as the originating director. “One of the things Taylor does so well is to give a song a fresh, personal feeling,” he says via email, “reframing it so we hear it in a different way…. [He] slows down the lyrics, or puts them in a different genre, or stops them in the middle and tells a story.”

One of Smith’s jobs is to focus on the clarity of the story: “Is the narrative holding up? Are we spending too much time in an aside or impromptu moment? Are the lyrics of the songs landing at the moments we want them to land?” He also oversees the transitions between songs, critiques the singing and arrangements (Matt Ray is musical director) and works with dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke to sift through Mac’s source material, looking, he says, “for songs that help the narrative or musical arc flow.” Do they ever disagree? “Oh, of course,” says Smith.”Taylor is a nurturer, and sometimes I can be a wee bit sadistic. I like to push our audience to their breaking points and Taylor keeps me in check.” He adds, “We both love the formal structures that arrange theater, and we both are engaged in a self-aware queer performance aesthetic.” He sees the tension between those forms as the essence of the type of work in which both he and Mac engage.

In late November Mac was reading a biography of Grover Cleveland, memorizing Walt Whitman poems and preparing to launch into the Civil War. Future plans are for a 12-hour version, to be followed, a year from now, by the final, 24-hour marathon. “How far can I push my body, my voice, my concentration?” he wonders. “At what point does the audience get restless? When do I need to change their seats for a different perspective? You get in a trance and it gets you to some other parts of your brain.” He works regularly with a voice coach and a physical trainer but, he says, “the idea is to not hide the fact that this is difficult, but to expose it.” He anticipates “this dire circumstance where my voice is falling apart and so is your patience, and our bodies, and all we have to do to get through 24 hours is to build a community out of this intangible art form—create bonds.”

”A 24-Decade History of Popular Music”

Jan. 21 → 30

Curran Theatre

445 Geary St., San Francisco

(415) 358-1220/