Arts » Theater

Taylor Mac Marathon!

by Richard Dodds
Sunday Sep 10, 2017

It's not Calamity Jane. It's Calamity judy, and yes, with that lower case "j." Actor-playwright-and-performance-artist extraordinaire Taylor Mac prefers "judy" as his personal pronoun, as opposed to he, she, or ze, and community-through-calamity is a theme that runs throughout his work.

That's certainly the case with "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" that Mac will perform in four six-hour chapters Sept. 15-24 at the Curran Theatre. This will be Mac's first performance of the entire piece since its one-time-only 24-hour marathon production in New York last year.

It will also mark Mac's return to the Curran, where he performed two three-hour segments in 2016 made up of songs from 1776 to 1836. That was during the Curran's "Under Construction" phase that had audiences and performers onstage together. But instead of sharing the stage with a couple hundred people, he will now be facing upwards of 1,600 people in regular theater seats from beneath the theater's formal proscenium arch. For those who saw the "Under Construction" performances, the informal proximity aided in incorporating audiences into the show as a troupe of "Dandy Minions" distributed participatory props and guided them when relocation was needed.

Not to worry that the changing logistics will deter from his mission to make sure every theatergoer can have an intimate experience, Mac said. "When the audience was sitting onstage at the Curran, we had four Dandy Minions. Now we will have 24." Those sitting in the mezzanine and balcony won't be left out of the kind of the community Mac wants to build at each performance. "We have to rethink every performance because every theater is different, and this isn't the kind of show where you just sit watching something that stays on the stage. The whole thing was designed to be big-scale."

Nor is it the kind of show in which the 246 songs pulled from 24 decades of American music are done straight - no pun intended, but the pun works as well - as Mac changes into a new extravaganza of costuming for each decade that somehow reflects that decade. Created by Mac's longtime collaborator and costumer Machine Dazzle, the outfits explode with color, form, and ornamentation. In the 1906-16 segment, when zippers were invented, a Medusa-collection of zippers becomes the headpiece. In 1846-56, when potato chips were invented, Mac's whole outfit is made out of potato chip bags.

"Machine Dazzle has created this aesthetic of a drag that is his interpretation of what he thinks I think I look like on the inside, then we put it on the outside," Mac said. Mac's other partner throughout the long gestation of the show is music director Matt Ray, who will lead a 24-piece orchestra and who rearranged all 246 songs, both famous and obscure, into pieces that can both illustrate and comment on the times during which they were popular.

"We do 'Don't Fence Me In,' that kind of nostalgic song which makes you think of Bing Crosby singing while riding on horseback in the country," Mac said. "But when you consider that this song is from the same decade as the Japanese-American internment camps, and after a little bit of research you find out there was a Japanese swing band in one of the camps that would play 'Don't Fence Me In' for the other internees, it puts it in a totally different light."

The kernel of the idea that became "24 Decade" goes back to when Mac, growing up in miserable queer isolation in Stockton, made his way at age 14 to the first AIDS Walk in San Francisco. "I saw a community being built as a result of falling apart because of an epidemic." A very different kind of inspiration, but of equal importance, was the mercurial singer Nina Simone. "She showed how perfection is not necessary the ultimate goal," Mac said. "Virtuosity is fine, but if it's not in tandem with the vulnerability of authentic failure, then you're not risking anything. She was brave enough to engage her imperfections along with her virtuosity to take us to the heart of a song, and to have both onstage at the same time is probably the greatest inspiration to my artistry."

In other words, things can and do go wrong during performances of "24-Decade," and it is Mac and his collaborators' job not to cover it up, but to make it work in the context of the moment. At times, the disruption can come from an audience member - not surprising, since portions of the show have been performed in such locales as Utah, Iowa, Texas, and Northern Ireland - and Mac makes it a mission to engage them, up to the point of getting a heckler onto the stage and into costume.

"I think one of my callings in life is to say, here is this thing that is totally outside of normativity, and here is this thing that is totally normal. I have existed in both worlds, and just try to let me be the bridge between the two," Mac said. "But the last thing I want an audience to do is say they like it or dislike it. Please don't decide. Just consider what you see and keep asking questions. And try to be in the moment. You are responsible for your engagement in this piece, and most theater does not give the audience agency to be responsible for their engagement."

Mac's run at the Curran will be the first time he's done the entire show since Donald Trump was elected president, so he doesn't have much experience in how that will affect audiences' moods in a show about calamity and community.

"Honestly," Mac said, "the show is about the Trumps of the world who have been in charge of things for 241 years. So the fact that Hillary Clinton lost the election based on some of the exact same tactics used to prevent women from rallying during the first women's lib movement in the 1780s, and that we address in the show, that is not some new thing with Trump."

When his play "Hir" had its world premiere at the Magic Theatre in 2014, he told the B.A.R. that the drama of shifting power bases among the genders asked, "How do we mourn the passing of the patriarchy in a respectful way?" Doesn't the election of Trump show that the patriarchy isn't about to lay down to be mourned?

"Just because they decided in their last throes to get bully-ish and have temper tantrums doesn't mean it's not going to die," Mac said. "This is going to go on for decades to come, but my feeling is that we can't jump to forgiveness. Being respectful and jumping to forgiveness are two entirely different things."

"A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" will be performed at the Curran Theatre in four six-hour chapters: 1776-1836 on Sept. 15, 1836-1896 on Sept. 17, 1896-1956 on Sept. 22, and 1956-2016 on Sept. 24. Tickets are $49-$285 per chapter, available at

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