Playwright, actor, performance artist, director, producer and singer-songwriter, Taylor Mac asks fundamental question about what theatre should be and why it matters in in the twenty-first century.
In a world of increased polarisation and divisions, Taylor Mac crafts work that shows theatre’s potential to bind and unite audiences, to think about how we relate to culture in varied and different forms and what it means to engage as communities imaginatively, ethically and politically through the act of performance.
While on the surface, Taylor Mac’s theatre may have little in common with the playwriting of Henrik Ibsen, like Ibsen, Mac works to make audiences, in his own words, ‘think out of their norms a little bit’. Avoiding binaries – Mac uses the pronoun judy instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ – judy refashions dramatic form to consider how we inherit and negotiate particular histories and what it means to forge new ways of thinking about how the past has been narrated. Deconstructing established forms and rupturing long held ideas of what constitutes the ‘popular’ and the ‘rarified’, judy moves across dramatic text, cabaret, burlesque, and performance art with a theatre that brings audiences from the margins into the very centre of how work is created and experienced. Taylor Mac breaks down the fourth wall that Ibsen so promoted – but to create a theatre that asks its audience, as Ibsen did, to think through what it means to be engaged with the world in which we live. This is a theatre of moral questioning, that is unafraid of opening up emotions, events, peoples and understandings to allow audiences to think about the world they want to create.
Studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York, Taylor Mac began creating original drag pieces when struggling to find work as an actor. Developing work across both text-based theatre and performance, judy has forged a theatre of glorious theatricality and spontaneity which invites audiences to ‘stretch towards each other’ in consideration of who is given voice and why.
Mac’s works – over seventeen to date – are eclectic, imaginative and irreverent. They range from The Lily’s Revenge (2009), an epic extravaganza melding haiku, commedia dell’arte and dance, to the 2015 play Hir which reenvisages the American family drama in its tale of a marine returning home from war to find his post-stroke father on estrogen, his sister transitioning and his mother realising the role culture can play in the new life she is creating for herself. The Tony-nominated Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (2019) takes one of Shakespeare’s most bloody plays as the starting point for a contemplation of the forgotten individuals who survive brutal conflicts and then find themselves cleaning up in the aftermath of carnage. Key to all of them is an aesthetic practice where virtuosity and failure engender a poetics of transformation.
But it is his extraordinary A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, developed over eight years in collaboration with his producers at Pomegranate Arts, that represents his most profound contribution to theatre. Structured around 246 songs that enjoyed popularity in America from 1776 to the present, it contemplates how America’s past has been narrated in ways that show the power of Mac’s queering of long-established foundational myths. Drawing on cabaret, burlesque, puppetry, music, pageant and performance art, it has been performed in multiple iterative forms – from early 90-minute shows to a 24-hour version first seen at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2016. Deploying local performers in its different iterations, A 24-Decade History moves across borders and binaries, mapping a complex ecosystem of theatrical exchange and participation that both celebrates the thrill of the live and questions pervasive global models of how theatre is made and disseminated.
Plays and performances always reflect the societies in which they are read and produced. Taylor Mac's performance of A 24-Decade succeeds in the rare case of forming a different form of society itself. It is the anticipation of a future in which power relations, as reproduced, reflected and suspended by theatre, position everyone as potentially an actor, experiencing moments of social solidarity and reimagined roles. For Taylor Mac, queerness is a practice of transforming the social here and now into a utopian world that does not remain behind the fourth wall but becomes a rite of passage in the theatre itself, a journey through both the centuries and a day. Mac’s productions are centred on the potentiality of theatre itself.
Taylor Mac’s work has been performed in a range of international venues and producing houses, including New York’s Public Theatre, Los Angeles’s Royce Hall and Ace Theater, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, Sydney Opera House, the Melbourne Festival, Stockholm’s Södra Theatern, Spoleto USA Festival, London’s Hackney Empire and Barbican Theatre, and Berlin’s Festspiele. Shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for A 24-Decade History of Music and the recipient of a McArthur Genius Grant, Taylor Mac’s many honours include the Kennedy Prize, a Guggenheim, a New York Critics Circle Award, two Obies, and the Peter Zeisler Memorial Award.
The awarding of the International Ibsen Award to Taylor Mac recognises the importance of a body of work that uses our uncertain times as both form and subject matter. Acknowledging a theatrical genealogy that encompasses Euripides, Shakespeare and Beckett, while incorporating into it the influences of cultural icons such as Judy Garland and the Radical Faeries, Taylor Mac forges a theatre of imperfection that fuses low and high art forms, the banal and the sublime to powerful effect. Mac has spoken of judy’s ‘job as a theatre artist to remind people of the things they’ve forgotten, dismissed or buried, or that other people have buried for them’. Mac’s energizing theatre looks beyond surface to remind us of theatre’s potentiality and agency in ways that consistently remind us of how community is created and what it means to be human.