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FIVE QUESTIONS FOR ... TAYLOR MAC
THE MacARTHUR GENIUS GRANT RECIPIENT WHO GOES BY THE PRONOUN judy
(Above: Taylor Mac and I at a photo shoot for a story I was running on judy in conversation with Charles Busch when I was the Editor-in-Chief of FourTwoNine magazine.)
I had surgery for my broken shoulder on Tuesday here in Santa Fe where I am recuperating and where I had planned to be this month on my cultural and spiritual pilgrimage. (See my last few columns about the break and my even deeper brokenness.) I decided to carry on and part of that carrying on is getting these columns written as I continue to type with one finger on my left hand since my right one remains out of commission. A deeper way to carry on is to write about something other than the break. My brokenness? That is always finally what I write about, my sentences the suturing of that subtext into place. Taylor Mac and I even ended up talking about the bravura of the broken that is at the heart of judy’s artistry when we had the conversation below. I had forgotten about that until, my own brokenness newly broken, I decided to edit this exchange we had for this latest column. I often state that Everything Connects. It is a kind of mantra for me along with “onward.” As I woke this morning broken and in pain determined to keep moving onward, everything connected when I read the last section of this conversation with Taylor. We had it then so I could read it now, so you could.
SES/SUMS IT UP with Kevin Sessums is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Culture is spiritual to me; it is healing, ritualistically so. Each time I have witnessed Taylor Mac’s singular artistry I have experienced not only a kind a tribal reckoning but also a ritualistic healing that rends righteousness from the forum, the format and raises up in its stead a radical queerness that disquiets with a transcendence unafraid of the rowdy randy outer reaches of the sacred. Judy’s latest play, Joy and Pandemic, has recently had a run at Boston’s The Huntington and was described by critic Bob Verini in his rave at New York Stage Review as ‘a tight one-set, two-act naturalistic drama whose look, language, and themes wouldn’t so much as startle Henrik Ibsen should he show up in Boston back from the dead. I use the great Norwegian in this context because we’re told that Mac’s having won 2020’s coveted, biennial International Ibsen Award prompted a deep dive into Ibsenite dramaturgy. The upshot is a haunting reverie on mothers and daughters, on plague and personality, on art and anguish unlike anything you’ve lately seen, I promise you.” Next up, the documentary about judy’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a 24-hour production that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 14th and be available on HBO on June 27th. In addition, Mac is writing the book for Jason Robert Brown’s musical adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Below is an excerpt from an interview I did with Mac for a critical study of judy’s work published by University of Michigan Press, The Taylor Mac Book: Ritual, Realness, and Radical Performance, edited by David Román and Sean F. Edgecomb. This is the intro I wrote for my contribution to this collection of essays, interviews, and commentaries about one of our most important theatre artists:
“The first time I ever saw Taylor Mac perform was at the AfterGlow Festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I think that was in 2011. I had heard that he was sort of a combination of that other Taylor - Laurette - along with, oh, a little Liberace and a lot of Ethyl Eichelberger with some Genet sprinkled in like ginger then peppered with some Peter and some Paul and marinaded with a mess of Mary. And even with all that, I still wasn’t prepared for the ‘all that’ he turned out to be. He was performing his Comparison Is Violence or the Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook. The last time I felt like I did that night was when I was twelve years old and answered the altar call at a little Methodist church in Mississippi at a revival service when “Just As I Am” was being sung and the Holy Ghost was stirring. Taylor Mac’s art is in its devoutly secular way about redemption and revival. It is about changing us in order to accept ourselves just as we are. It is about on some deeper level leveling the altar and elevating the alter.
“The last time I saw him was during the pandemic when we called each other on FaceTime on September 15, 2020. We were each at our homes upstate. He was wearing overalls. I wasn’t. We had this conversation.”
(Click here to purchase the book.)
Oh. And judy’s declared gender is performer. Also an art piece. One day I hope judy’ll get that on a passport.
What last got you out of your cabin?
Dental work. I had to go pick up some more clothes. I’d been wearing the same two pants and three shirts for three months. I wanted to get my ukulele. I went the first time to do some chores. Get the mail. The second time I went down to do a recording session with Matt Ray. We’re making a holiday album.
Very Andy Williams of you.
But it was so nice just to see friends. I saw friends. I miss seeing friends.
I miss live culture. I’ve been to a few things at PS21 over in Chatham. I know we say that theatre and music and dance nourish the soul but they also heal the body in some way. My body has viscerally missed paying witness to art being conjured. I didn’t realize how much my body missed being in the presence of it.
Yeah, yeah. The wonderful thing about Brooklyn - especially when everybody was getting their $600 a week - is that it was a little bit like the government was finally paying for the arts. All these musicians were just performing for free on the street. It was just heaven. There was free art everywhere. Vanderbilt Avenue was shut down and it was open for people to walk and it was so civilized. For me, Brooklyn is just where it is at right now.
Sounds like you’re moving there.
No. I’m not moving there. I’m hunkering down. I’m one of those hunker-down people. I just let the world change around me. I used to live in Brooklyn. But I moved because it was so boring. Really boring in the ‘90s. But when I moved to the East Village, everybody moved to Brooklyn.
To get away from you, huh.
Yeah, but I didn’t take it personally.
Hmm .. the kind of artists who don’t take it personally would be …
The healthy kind - unlike some other artists I could tell you about.
Brooklyn sounds utopian in its way.
It’s a combination of everything. It’s awful to walk around with masks on. It’s awful that the west is burning. It’s awful that we have [Trump as] this president and white supremacy is rising. It’s awful. All of these things are awful … and … well … and …. it would be also irresponsible not to recognize that there is also some really good stuff going on despite all that. That is the human challenge. I just read something recently that said that if you are going to worship anything then worship compassion. So I see that happening all over the place: people digging into their compassion as much as I see a lot of people who are hateful. So whenever there is horrible stuff there is also good stuff with it. I believe in what Justin Vivian Bond says about the end of the world: It is not happening because it is not that easy. The end of the world is going to be slow. It is going to be sloooooooow.
Well, maybe it has been slow all along and we’re at the endgame.
I can tell you that the world is going to last a lot longer than my life. I’m learning Italian right now. Because it’s a dying language. But I can guarantee you that I will die before Italian does.
QUESTION NUMBER TWO
I talked to you once and you cited your first gay rights parade in San Francisco as being seminal to your life - a kind of starting point for you - when you saw AIDS patients being pushed in wheelchairs in the midst of all that celebration, and your play Joy and Pandemic has a parade in Philadelphia as a starting point - a super spreader event - that was seminal to the 1918 flu pandemic. There is something about you and parades. Or is it the heightened incongruous sadness within a celebration?
There is something about the festival. It’s all about the day when normal society celebrates the fact that men can wear high heels and perhaps dresses. To me, theatre is all about why is today different than any other day. So, of course, since I gravitated toward theatre, I also gravitate toward those days that are different than every other day. And those are celebrations and funerals and memorial services and election days …
Ritual. You’re talking about rituals and the ritualized.
Big ritual events, yes. And also that moment when the release valve is opened and you can let out the steam and how in that moment the culture sits on you and “the etiquette” sits on you and your own personal judgment sits on you, but you can let some of that stuff go. That’s a real queer survival technique, how we latch ourselves onto those kinds of days, those kinds of moments.
QUESTION NUMBER THREE
Is being competitive part of being an artist?
Or they think they are in competition. I guess they are because if you think you’re in competition, you’re in competition. I mean, that is the thing I didn’t like about Broadway actually. [Judy’s play Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus was produced on Broadway starring Nathan Lane and received seven Tony nominations, including Best Play.] I realized at the Tony Awards that I had unconsciously signed myself up - just by going to Broadway - to be a cast member in a reality TV show competition. You know: Who’s gonna win? Here I was, I thought I’d never go on RuPaul’s show. I’d never do anything like that. And there I was at the Tony Awards thinking: I’m on RuPaul! It’s just called the American Theatre Wing.
And yet, you’re going back to Broadway because you’re writing this book for this musical based on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Well, yeah. Yeah.
So there is a place in your life for RuPaul’s show.
I don’t know. I guess that’s an interpretation of it. I’m just trying to get away from competition and make this stuff. I will try to figure out how to balance having to participate in the rat race and just make my stuff. … All I really want to do anymore. is write sing-along songs that take me a day to write. I want to write a hundred of them. So there you go. That’s me right now.
Sounds like a sequel to your 24-hour durational history of the 24 decades of popular music.
When it’s ten, it’s like they’re just semi-okay songs. But when there’s a hundred of them then it’s really amazing.
That was Shakespeare’s attitude about his sonnets. I think he made it up to around 150 or so.
That queen knew how to write.
That’s the same line I’ve heard about you. Not because of competition, but based on how we gauge things, you’ve had a lot of success. You’ve been acknowledged. You’ve been affirmed.
I’ve been affirmed!
(Above: Taylor Mac as Socrates in The Hang, an opera by Mac and Matt Ray. Photo by Justin J Wee for The New York Times)
QUESTION NUMBER FOUR
A lot of artists create art in the hopes of attaining the kind of affirmation you’ve rightly attained. Artists like an audience. You certainly engage yours and make them at times even a part of the art being conjured in real time. How do you keep creating art once the acclaim has happened?
You have to learn that if you want longevity in this business. Although I’ve met some old people who are still doing it for the applause. So maybe I’m wrong on that. For me personally at a certain point I had to learn a different way of being an artist. I couldn’t keep my 13-year-old self who was happy when someone told me I was good at something. As Quentin Crisp said: Find out who you are without praise or blame and be it. When I heard that quote, it became a kind of organizing principle for how to work my life. It’s okay if they love it. It’s okay if they hate it. Just make. Just figure out a way you can enjoy making. That’s where it’s really at for me. But there are other people who love to have the audience stand and cheer for them. I always feel sad at that point. I feel happy for about five seconds. And then, I go, “ …. oooohhhh …”
There is something inherent in applause signaling the end of something that is death-like. Something has died in that moment of applause.
Yeah, yeah. They are applauding the end. It’s lovely and dear. I like the ritual of that. But it’s not my favorite part. Being in the moment and making - I’m more that kind of queen.
QUESTION NUMBER FIVE
You are old enough to have lived through two different pandemics. How is this COVID one different to you as an artist and a person and a queer than the AIDS one?
Well, I’m a solid adult in this one. I grew up during the AIDS epidemic. AIDS really hit the national attention around 1984 maybe. Is that about right? I was eleven. But I came into my sexuality during AIDS. Then as a young adult in the early 1990s I had my first dating experiences during it. So I think I had a slightly different experience of it than even people 10 years older than me who went through that epidemic. This one feels less dramatic. It feels like there is less stigma. It feels like less people are getting it even though I don’t know what the numbers actually are. It just feels that way. It feels like people are dying less excruciating deaths. It doesn’t feel like it’s focused on one demographic. It doesn’t feel like we’re losing an entire generation of leaders. It is a lot less traumatizing for me personally. If I had lots of loved ones who died of it, I’d feel differently.
I had an uncle yesterday die of it. He was 93 but he wasn’t sick until he got it and then he was gone very quickly.
But that is different than if it took every friend you had. It’s just different. I find the comparison to be … well .. it’s similar in that I stayed out to 5:30 in the morning the other night and had a lot of fun. I had not done that in over a year. I was with everybody. We were outside. We were on picnic benches. We were drinking. Everyone was wearing masks. People were socially distanced. But then as happens when you’re outside dining and you’re with people, somebody will always have a different level of boundaries than you do and they cross your boundaries before you even know they’re doing it. You know, people without masks are getting up in your face. Then you take your mask off to drink. Suddenly someone is sitting right next to you and doesn’t have a mask on. So I did have a little bit of that concern. It was my first time in six months that I had been with that many people. But I had so much fun. But then the next morning, I thought, oh, I’ve got to go get tested. I’ve got to tell everyone I know that I’m going to be in contact with that I’ve had this experience. So I was having all those kind of flashbacks to the 1990s. My personal life has to be private and I have to hold a little bit of guilt about fun and shame about having fun beyond just the puritan weight. That’s the thing I find the most similar about this time. I feel like this is much less of a big deal -although it’s a bigger economic deal.
I was going to ask if you had been lonely. But you’ve been up in the Berkshires with your husband. It seems to have strengthened your marriage.
It has. He’s been very good through this whole thing. I’ve been a little bit more emotionally up and down and up and down - oddly manic depressive even though I’m not a manic depressive. I’ve had lots of energy and then no energy. Really happy and then totally depressed. And all in the same day. It’s very odd for me to be that moody. But, yes, it’s been really beautiful and I am really lucky to have him. And yet I do miss stimulation from other people but not the city. I was sort of hating the city before all this started. So I was really actually happy to get out. I thought: maybe I’m done with New York. Because I just hate the way it’s become. I hate the capitalism of it. I hate how overpopulated it is. Nonstop construction everywhere. Either the noise level has gone up or I’ve gotten older and I can tolerate it less. It was all of that at the same time and I was ready to leave. But with COVID and everybody leaving it, New York is now heaven.
But the only thing is the lack of a cultural life.
But there is culture.
It’s just not $200-a-ticket culture.
Yeah. $200 tickets to see something you don’t even like. It’s now free jazz on the street. It’s free rock’n’roll on the street. It’s salons. And activism. It’s everything I care about.
I’ve only been down to the city once since February and that was for the queer march in June. I was sort of shocked at how empty it was. It was as if a bomb went off and left the buildings standing. I kept thinking, Where are the people …
Yeah. I hope it stays that way. I’d like the indoor culture to start happening again but I don’t need the people. I don’t need all the money. I feel like money has killed that city. I can say that Manhattan feels sad right now. It felt gross before. So between sad and gross, which do you want? But Brooklyn just felt so fun. I’m loving it. But I also realize that none of this will stay the same. One thing you can count on about New York: it will change.
When I first got to New York in the 1970s, I had mentors who told me that I should have been around in the 1950s in New York when it was filled with artists and apartments were cheap and it was grittier and it was the real New York. Now I hear myself telling young people you should have been in New York in the 1970s when Time Square was sleazy and sex was really sex and apartments were cheap and it was filled with artists. Kids now will later tell kids in the future that they should have been in New York in the first couple of decades of the 21st Century when the High Line went up and everyone was fucking with masks on and marriage equality happened and we fought back at fascism and a reality TV star was the damn president and you could get a studio apartment for $3000 a month. We are all just saying we miss our youth.
I don’t miss my youth. I much prefer this moment to my youth.
I do too honestly. But I just went though a beloved dog dying and it broke open something in me. It lanced the grief I’ve carried around with me my whole life - through a childhood in which I lost both my parents and then my youth and my adulthood which were both imbued by AIDS. I think gay men of a certain age just carry this grief around with us from that other pandemic. I think grief actually informs your work, Taylor.
I think so, too. My dad died when I was four. So I think my understanding of loss is a little more calloused than most people I meet. I was at the funeral for an acting teacher of mine and I was sad. We’re sad when people pass. But the young people in the room in their early 20s - I was in my early 30s at that point - were responding to it in the way that people do when they have never experienced grief before. And I realized, oh, I have grown up with expecting people to die as opposed to being surprised by it. You just have a different approach to life when your parent goes early. You become very aware of death and how it works. I don’t know if that is good or bad. It’s probably just made me a little more cynical. But that’s okay. I’ll take it.
On the flip side of that, joy too is important to your work, an integral ingredient. I know as someone who pays witness to it, I feel joy while experiencing it.
I guess that’s what I really mean. We’re all dying. We’re all going to die. None of us is getting out alive. So let’s live. Let’s enjoy each other. Let’s try to figure out a way to have a good time. I don’t discredit delving into sorrow as a good time. We just watched Chinatown the other night. It’s the most tragic movie you can ever watch. It’s soooooooo tragic. Everything bad happens in that movie. And yet, I don’t know … it’s just so good.
But that is one of the things I love about the art you make: its embrace of the incongruous. You acknowledge disintegration in all its forms and yet you mine it for joy. I like how it always keeps me a bit off-balance.
Yeah. A lot of people mine joy for joy. But I go, you don’t have to mine joy for joy. It’s joy. You don’t have to deconstruct it. You don’t have to transform it. It’s great already. You don’t have to turn it into a drug and then shoot it and ruin it. Because by overworking joy, you end up ruining it. The more interesting thing for me - the more purposeful thing - is to work sorrow. How can you transform sorrow?
You’re not just an artist. You’re an alchemist.
Oh, well. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. But if it is broke …
… make it more broken and make it more of a prism.
Sometimes that is the way to make it more fun - to break it even more.
SES/SUMS IT UP with Kevin Sessums is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.