NEW YORK — Minimalism is anathema to theater artist Taylor Mac, who has supersized the maxim “go big or go home.” Mac’s philosophy is go bigger, don’t even consider going home.
Mac’s masterwork, “The 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” is an endurance feat of the imagination: 24 hours, 24 OMG costumes — more Vegas architecture than garments — and 246 songs, every one performed by Mac.
“I wanted to tell a story about communities falling apart and building themselves as a result of falling apart. That was the catalyst. American history has all these examples of that, so why not go to the history?” says Mac, 44, who will perform an abridged version — around two hours — at the Kennedy Center on March 6.
“24-Decade” was a 2017 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama and won the Kennedy Prize for Drama inspired by history, which Mac shared with his music director and arranger, Matt Ray.
Last fall, he was anointed a MacArthur Fellow, garnering the so-called “genius” grant, possibly the first drag artist to do so. (MacArthur spokesguy: “We don’t track things like that.”)
What Mac does is more audacious, political and subversive than most drag shows. “The audience needs to be building themselves while they’re also being torn apart by duration or by an onslaught of history and ideas,” he says. For completists, all two dozen decades will be performed in Los Angeles in March (in four chapters) and in Philadelphia in June (two parts).
His bold, adjective-defying stage appearance is misleading. “Taylor is very much the fool in the king’s court talking truth to power. That is something you could miss if you were just looking at pictures,” says Ray. “This is a giant community-building project” and always includes audience participation.
The Washington performance will concentrate on songs of resistance, including the civil rights movement.
“You can look at the way I’m dressed and know that I’m not a fan of the president,” Mac says. “But, you know, now’s the time, baby.” The performance will include the Bowie State marching band and Detroit blues and soul singers Thornetta Davis and Steffanie Christi’an.
“The show is a living, breathing organism,” says Ray. “We’re about action. We believe in doing and making. If you’re not making, you’re not doing anything.” Mac loathes the passive and static.
“Sly, belabored, audacious, messy, brilliant, annoying, endearing, beautiful, scatalogical,” The Washington Post’s Peter Marks wrote of the 2016 Brooklyn world premiere, which took five years to create and continues to evolve, no performance the same. “Like the star himself.”
Taylor Mac Bowyer was raised in Stockton, Calif. “I come from the suburbs,” Mac says, “where everyone was supposed to be the same.”
Mac is not the same.
He knew he could sing by age 5. More important, “I knew I was good before they told me.” Mac was not waiting around for permission.
“My whole art has really been about trying to figure out the full range of what a human being can be and trying to kind of combat this concept that subtlety is authenticity,” Mac says. “Expressing the full range of who you are is really citizenship.”
Mac prefers the pronoun judy, as in Garland, but always lower case — though onstage he is a militantly ALL-CAP performer. (Mac’s pronoun of choice will not be used here so as to avert massive hair-pulling and possibly a Masada-like revolt by editors.)
A congenial fellow, Mac is fine with he. He’s just putting judy out there.
Onstage, he is loud and insistently bossy. “We don’t care what other people think about us. We only care about what we think of other people,” he pronounced during his “24-Decade History: Holiday Sauce” New York performance in December.
In his daily life, he prefers quiet, order and grace. And privacy.
Mac sits in his snug apartment, which he asks us not to describe, dressed like almost anyone else (jeans, plaid shirt, zippy socks) in his neighborhood, which he requests we not mention. His shaved head, free from Buick-size headpieces, resembles a polished egg. His eyes, absent a hailstorm of glitter, are a startling azure.
He has been with his husband, architect Patt Scarlett, for 21 years. Today, he’s recovering from the removal of two wisdom teeth, the surgery delayed for decades due to insufficient funds.
Despite being the recipient of a $625,000 award paid over five years, Mac doesn’t possess a credit card. He never has.
“I couldn’t get one when I was younger. Then, you know, 20 years go by,” he says, curled up on a butter-yellow sofa. “I actually can’t get one. If you don’t believe in debt, you can’t have credit.”
After attending San Francisco State for one year, he graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. An autodidact and polymath, he studied history and pretty much everything else on his own, devouring books and ideas.
Mac has performed Brecht and Shakespeare (Puck, naturally), and appeared with Mandy Patinkin in “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville,” directed by Susan Stroman. His other works include “Hir,” which he didn’t appear in, and the five-hour, 40-cast-member “The Lily’s Revenge.”
He maintains a coterie of artists on his projects. “He knows I love big, epic, impossible things,” says Machine Dazzle (né Matthew Flower), his fearless costume designer and dresser. “Taylor’s really wonderful, magical, very open-minded. He knows everything about theater and, because of that, he knows almost everything about life. He’s read all the stories.”
Onstage, Mac aims “to look as ugly and as beautiful as I possibly can.” Which means sporting hairy legs, vertiginous heels (size 13), costumes so large they could apply for statehood, those extraordinary headpieces and a Sephora’s worth of makeup.
Like Susan Sontag, Mac rails against interpretation. Compare him to others at your peril.
His influences are not the usual suspects but include clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner and the late playwright Sam Shepard. His work is infused with what Mac calls “radical faerie realness rituals.” Which, of course, became academic fodder for a paper published in Johns Hopkins’s “Journal of Dramatic History and Criticism.”
Critics deigned to describe earlier performances as “Ziggy Stardust meets Tiny Tim,” the former due to the glitter and gender malleability, the latter because Mac strums a ukulele.
He countered with the 2010 cabaret work, “Comparison is Violence or the Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook,” written in a month and consisting entirely of songs by the two artists.
“Comparison is something that is such a huge part of our lives. And nobody really dissects it,” he says.
Mac is vested in “a commitment to art as a perpetual consideration as opposed to decision-making,” he says, condemning snap judgments — “did you like it?” — and treating art as a piece of consumption, another experience to be checked off some list. “People come to the theater to have a date night, and they come to shop. One of my goals in the theater is to liberate the audience from that. I don’t think anyone really has fun doing that.”
Mac prefers to leave audiences annoyed and confused and, if they sign up for the full 24 hours, exhausted.
“I want to take theater outside of what you know,” he says. A benevolent, high-heeled dictator, he orders audiences not to clap. He encourages them to hiss.
“That frees the work from the global capitalist economy you know,” he says. “You’re basically saying to the audience, ‘I give you permission to make this crazy sound when you like something or you hate it, and it’s the same sound.’ ”
Audiences are often astounded. “You watch the transformation of people who have no idea of what they’re getting into. As soon as we hit the stage, their mouths are open,” Ray says. “The aim is to unearth things that have been forgotten, dismissed and buried so we can right ourselves in history and move the culture forward, instead of being stuck.”
Mac is the drag queen who rails against capitalism, emphasizing experience over consumption. “I believe you can make a living as a theater artist, but in order to do so, without making work you don’t like,” he writes in his personal manifesto, “you might need to think about falling in love with verbs more than nouns.”
Drag, instead of being radical, has become superficial, more about the makeup and the dress than the message. Drag’s “great representatives used to be intellectuals, and now our great representatives are game show hosts,” Mac says. “The thing that drives me crazy is that everyone wants to be Marie Antoinette.”
And look what happened to her. “Why would you want to be the person who is oblivious to the struggles of this citizenship?” he says. “In a time when a salesman is the president of the United States, I think we need to start to protest the tools of production because that’s how he became the president, by reducing everything to a slogan or a sound bite.”
Mac’s on a campaign against reduction. “You need time and you need space and you need to make space for other people, and so you need a certain amount of size,” he says. Like 24 decades, 24 hours and 246 songs.
Mac has been creating or performing “24-Decade” for the better part of one decade, eight years, and is constantly touring all over the world.
So he could be excused if he didn’t have another project. But that would not be Mac.
He has already written three more plays. “Gary: A sequel to Titus Andronicus” is “my consideration of the way that our culture is so obsessed with revenge now, and everything is revenge.”
He has also written “Prosperous Fools,” about economic disparity, and “The Fre”(more creative orthography, pronounced “fray”), about relationships and love. Along with “Hir,” about the family, Mac envisions these as “four plays that I’ve been writing that are about the conversation of America from different angles.”
And, with the MacArthur, “I’m researching how to be a good, responsible person with money,” he says. “Money is only worth talking about if it allows you to be creative.”