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“Oh they love it when things go wrong!”: Taylor Mac

INTERVIEW! The acclaimed performer is in Berlin for "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music", opening Oct 10 at Berliner Festspiele. Before curtain up Mac talks trials and tribulations of the marathon show, American politics and drag...

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Photo by Little Fang Photography. Catch chapter one of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music on Oct 10, 18:00, at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele.

Over four nights at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele Taylor Mac will perform the 24-hour long A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. The show arrives in Berlin after rave reviews from critics and audiences alike saw it short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize. A recipient of the prestigious  MacArthur “genius” grant, Mac is an entertainer, guide, and performer of the highest caliber. Starting October 10, this show sees Mac at his scintillating best.

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music looks at American history through 246 songs. What inspired the project? 

It was inspired by activism in the United States, really. Every decade in the show, every hour of the show, is about a different community in US history that was building itself as a result of being torn apart, from Native Americans to the Underground Railroad to the AIDS crisis. And we use the form of popular music to talk about all of that.

The title says “Popular Music”. Shouldn’t it say “American Popular Music”?

Not necessarily. It’s music that was popular in the United States from 1776 to the present. So, we have a lot of Irish songs and British songs. There’s a whole decade of songs that were popular in the Jewish tenements – I sing in Yiddish at one point. We mix it up.

Your 2016 performance of the piece over 24 straight hours got rave reviews and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In Berlin, you’re breaking it up into four six-hour chapters. How else will your Berlin show be different?

Well, the big part is the audience here will be different. The show is built around the idea that they’re the central character and I’m just kind of the host. But also it’s different because we work with local guest performers. Peaches is coming, we have a local choir, and an all-female acrobatic troupe. We’ve got fifteen accordion players at one point as well as lots of local drag queens, so that changes the show. And even though it’s US history, I’m interested in what’s going on in Berlin right now, trying to find the parallels between what’s happening in the US and what’s happening here. 

Berlin is the city of Bertolt Brecht, Marlene Dietrich and David Bowie. How do you fit into Berlin’s history of theatre and performers?

Every city wants to claim David Bowie!

He produced his best work in Berlin, so we claim him, first! 

Well, I think he’d love it if we could all share him. Where I fit into that history is, I’ve been influenced by Brecht, by Kurt Weill, by the Berliner Ensemble, by the cabaret scene. People think that performing alternative kinds of cabaret started in the 2000s, but it was happening here in the 1920s. The only thing Berlin doesn’t have is the tradition of African sounds in their music. There’s been such a back and forth between our cities, and I’m part of that long tradition of sharing inspiration. 

You’re a performer, but you’re also a historian and critic. Which is more important to you – entertaining or educating? 

Well, I’m not a teacher. My goal is to remind people of things that have been forgotten or buried. So I’m trying to unearth things. I think of myself as a diviner – I’ve got my little divining stick called my drag and it starts to vibrate and I say to the audience, “the water is right there, go digging. Go dig for the profundity.” And if they don’t dig deep enough, I say, “Go a little bit deeper.” Obviously I like to entertain. I love to make an audience laugh. The show is sad at times, but it’s more funny than anything else. I like to get to the profundity through a variety of tools. 

I read a quote from you: “I’m neither female nor male, my gender is performer.” What do you mean?

That’s just how I feel. I don’t really totally relate to “he”, or “she”, or even the gender-queer thing. Right now, I’m performing male-leaning gender. On stage, I’m performing drag-creature gender. Other times I’ve performed female-leaning gender. It has nothing to do with dress, with aesthetics, really. Even when I’m alone, I feel like I’m performing gender. So my gender is performer.

Is it fair to say you’re looking at American history through a queer lens? 

I don’t necessarily think of identity as the central focus. I’m talking about how communities are built as a result of being torn apart, and that is going to be framed as a queer conversation because I’m queer and it’s being told through my body. But that’s subplot. When someone makes identity the main theme, I lose interest. A show about somebody saying “this is who I am!” for 24 hours. I think I would kill myself. (laughs)

Did you plan that it would be 24 hours long right from the beginning?

I always knew we would do the 24-hour show one time, just as a kind of exclamation point on the project. But the project itself was gathering the songs, deconstructing and reframing them. And performing it in different ways. And having the whole process start in 2010 and end in 2020. We won’t perform the entire thing in even smaller sections after 2020 because it was designed to be finished in a decade. 

Even broken into four six-hour performances, this show is still an endurance test. How do you maintain your concentration and energy level?

Well, we marathon-trained it, so we started with 90-minute shows, two-hour shows, three-hour shows. The hardest thing I ever did was that 24-hour show from beginning to end, non-stop. But the six-hour shows are hard because there’s all the rehearsals with local performers, so usually my voice is on the verge of being worn down before the first show. But we schedule vocal rest days for me in between. I live a bit like a monk.

And you also do physical training?

Yeah, I do my Alexander technique, I do stretching, all of it. But one core value of the piece is that I’m falling apart. It’s supposed to be imperfect, and we’re supposed to expose the deterioration. So if I sound as good at the end of the show as I did at the beginning of the show, something didn’t work.

Yes! As a performer, you have to work with your virtuosity but also the imperfection. It’s so interesting for audiences if things go wrong.

Oh, they love it when things go wrong! It’s their favorite moment! Because it was a moment of liveness, and vulnerability. But it depends on what you do with that moment. If you use it as an opportunity to connect to them, instead of protecting yourself from them, then it usually works out.

For Germans, how will your American spectacle differ from the one they’re currently watching in Washington?

Well… oof! That whole DC thing is a spectacle all of its own creation. As citizens of our own country, we don’t have access to how it’s playing out – you don’t see anyone like us on that stage, on your news channels. So I’m just as curious as the Germans! All I can do is grassroots – local, local, local. I can just have a conversation with the people in the room and hope to dream the culture forward that way. 

Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen the perception of the U.S. among Germans really go downhill. What would you say to those Germans?

Well, I mean, I would validate it! My perception of America has gone downhill! But I would say you’re not getting the whole story. For example, in Jackson, Mississippi, there’s this whole solidarity economy – started primarily by black people and activists – that’s happening right now. An entire city is using barter and is running a little bit like a co-op. That is thrilling and could change the world, but nobody in the media is talking about it because it’s too dangerous, dismantling capitalism. So what we’re here to say is, hey, things are changing, and we can all be part of it!

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music | Haus der Berliner Festpiele. Oct 10, 12, 18 and 20.