Home » Artist Watch List » Reminding us of Our Humanity: An Inclusive Interview with Taylor Mac

Reminding us of Our Humanity: An Inclusive Interview with Taylor Mac

Taylor Mac isn’t just our favorite living theater person, he is one of our favorite artists making work today period. After seeing “The Lily’s Revenge,” his five hour manifesto at the Here Arts Center in 2009, we became full on Mac fans and haven’t missed out on anything he’s done in New York since then. We recently had the honor of being able to meet him for a two on one interview just before the final week of performances for his newest play, “The Walk Across America For Mother Earth,” took place at LaMama’s Ellen Stewart Theater. Since our interview, Mac played a number of successful shows down under in Australia and he is now in rehearsals for an all new production of “The Lily’s Revenge” in San Francisco, which Stephen and I will both be going to see in April. (Californians and travel savvy theater lovers, get your tickets now before they sell out and you have to wait all day like we did for rush tickets.)

It is our pleasure and privilege to offer you this conversation. May it thrill and touch you as deeply as it has us.

Enjoy!

MP: Hi Taylor! We’re both very excited to sit down with you and discuss your work but are finding it a little tricky to figure out exactly where to start with so much to talk about… Could you maybe tell us a bit about what it was like to be part of the first production to go up at La Mama since Ellen passed away? What sort of feelings has that brought up in you?

TM: I never actually met Ellen. I’d seen her a lot though. I saw her introduce shows with her infamous cow bell and I had a lot of respect for her and even more so now after having read various obituaries that have come out. I am so amazed that she created her legacy in her forties. It’s really remarkable that she was able to do it at a time when women weren’t able to do those things, let alone black women. She led a very inspiring life and I feel honored to be part of the first show at LaMama since her death. I also feel honored for the chance to work with The Talking Band who had worked with Ellen for so many years.

That said, my goals are different. Ellen’s goals were committed to Off Off Broadway and the Talking Band is committed to Off Off Broadway, but if I never do another Off Off Broadway show in my life I will be so frickin’ thrilled. It’s complicated. The industry is such a mixed bag. I’m so happy to be part of its legacy…


MP: And you’re close to the community…

TM: Yeah, the community… well Off Off Broadway is the place where artists don’t have to ask for permission to be creative; they’re able to just do it. That’s how I was able to start my career and I’m forever grateful to it, but I don’t want to do two week runs of my shows for the rest of my career. It’s unfair to my work. When I see “A Small Fire” at Playwrites Horizons that has four characters in it and it had a six-week preview period, I think, my play has twelve characters in it and I had one day of previews. Who wants to work like that? I don’t want to work like that. Circumstances often demand that I am only able to pay actors very little. I’m not saying that they pay actors much at Playwrites Horizons but you know, I’m tired of working in rooms where everyone has to scream at each other because the heater is so loud. I want to work in reasonable conditions. So you know, I don’t have the romance that many have in Off Off Broadway. I do honor them though.

MP: Well, Theater is so much different now… all across the board it seems like its becoming institutionalized… I just thought it might be a nice place to start talking…

TM: Yeah, it’s the right place to start talking… how would I have a career if there weren’t people in this community that I could walk up to and say, “I have a show I want to do,” and they respond, “Ok, do it.” It’s like, “wow, I don’t have to prove myself, I don’t have to audition.” That’s the spirit of the community.

Uptown is all about proving oneself, elitism, not having access to things. They’re doing everything they can to stop you from having access so they can protect themselves. So much of it is counter-intuitive to making art.

It makes me sad to say, “I will never do another play in New York” but for right now, I just can’t. At a certain point in ones career one has to say, “I’m going to respect this work that I’m doing and demand it be treated with the same amount of love that I put into it, the hours I put into it. The little detailed word combinations…” To have that just disregarded…well it’s not worth it.

MP: Speaking of leaving New York, what made you think about coming here in the first place? What about growing up in California introduced you or turned you onto living an alternative lifestyle? Why did you have to get out of there?


TM: I think it was my mom. She was a buyer for a clothing store and she often went on trips to New York as a buyer for the clothing store. We grew up with this mythology about New York… She was also from the Coast; she grew up in Corona Del Mar before Corona Del Mar was the Corona Del Mar it is today.


MP: Like when it was just a little surf town?

TM: Yeah, it was just a funky little surf town… My Grandmother’s house looked like a prairie house. Really small. And you don’t see those there anymore. You know, lower middle class living has been pushed out of the coastal cities in Southern California. My family left the ocean and moved to Stockton and then there was this new mythology of the beach, “We gotta get back to the ocean, we gotta get back to the ocean, we gotta get back to the ocean…” And looking back on it, there is this thread that runs through my family of “we don’t belong here, we belong somewhere else.” My Father came from Texas and his whole family was about getting out of Texas, so from my mom and father the mythology my family grew up with was always “Get out.” I think I was encouraged to move on.

Not to say it wouldn’t have been great to stay in Stockton if I was a different type of person, but I couldn’t stand Stockton as a queer person. I would have lived a very sad life if I would have stayed there. I think people that aren’t queer, I wouldn’t say it for everyone, but a lot of people living in Stockton live very sad lives. When I grew up it was the murder capitol of America and now it’s the number two place where people are defaulting on their home loans. People aren’t happy there. The land isn’t supposed to be track housing, it’s supposed to be farmland. It’s where nine percent of the produce in America used to come from and now its just track housing. Stockton is a place taken up by people that want to be somewhere else but feel stuck. Stockton was settled by the Okies when they moved from Oklahoma during the Depression because of the Dust Bowl. They moved there to make it rich but became migrant second-class workers, you know, “The Grapes of Wrath”.

MP: Is your mom still there?

TM: No. My mom moved down to Dana Point after my Grandmother died. They sold the house and got a place in Dana Point which made her much happier.

MP: When did you realize you wanted to be a theater artist? Is there a moment in theater that you link that aspiration to?

TM: When I was five I was in a Christmas Pageant and I was a toy soldier…So awful… that’s where it started from…

MP: Hey, it had to start somewhere…

TM: I specifically remember being good at it. It wasn’t that someone told me I was good at it, even though they did. But it was because I knew I was good at it. I knew I could do it. I knew it was right. I did children’s theater my entire life. I never thought I would do anything else. Well, then it shifted. For a little while I thought I was going to be an actor. I thought I would do theater primarily but also do film and television, which I still do plan on doing, but my goals shifted in my twenties.

I started writing plays and found I was really unhappy acting in the roles I was being cast in, like in a new production of “The Little Foxes”… Not that they were bad roles but I was unhappy feeling like I had something to say that I couldn’t express.

At the time I didn’t really understand what my options were. I just thought that I was on the trajectory I had to be on… do this to get to this, to get to this… Eventually I was so miserable taking roles I didn’t like and working survival day jobs that I just started writing. I just thought, “Well, I need to write a play”. And I started writing plays and found I really loved it. And then I got a reading of a play and one of the actors dropped out at the last minute so I said “I’ll play the role for the reading” and everyone said you can’t act and write because people tell you stupid things when you’re young…

MP: People tell you stupid things when you’re old too…

TM: It’s true. Anyways, that kinda gave me permission to do what I wanted to do and I did it and had a great time. So I just started writing plays that I could perform in and now it’s a mixture. Sometimes I write plays other people can do that I’m not in, other times I write plays for me and I’m so much happier. I’m not trying to get on “Law and Order” anymore. That’s not my goal. My goal is to have an affect on the peoples’ lives that come to the show.

MP: Why did you come to New York?

TM: I decided to come to New York when I was thirteen. There was some kind of program where all the kids could go to New York and Washington DC. When I got to New York I looked around and thought, “I could just stay right now. Point me to a cardboard box because I want to stay!”

Also it’s the theater capitol of America. Chicago is going to hate me for saying that, but it is. I came here with that romantic theater idea. And by the time I got here, I had already done the walk across the US that the new show is based on and I had lived in San Francisco. I had learned all sorts of alternative politics…I discovered I wanted to be more than just your regular actor. I had friends in Stockton and we kind of supported each other in our alternative lifestyle views.

When I came to New York I was uptown and thought it was so exciting but kept asking, “where are my people?” I was here for about a week and I had never heard of the village before. Stockton didn’t have culture and I grew up before the Internet. There weren’t magazines telling us anything and we didn’t have Art-House films in Stockton. The only thing I knew about New York City was that there’s theater there and I knew about the famous movies that got filmed here, which aren’t what New York is really about so much… So I was trying to find a place to live and I looked in the paper and read something about a gay flophouse where you pay by the week something like 450 for the month. I showed up and was like, “yes, ok, I found my people!” Then l looked around the space and thought, “but this is NOT where I want to live…”It was a whorehouse basically.

MP: I’ve lived in a couple of those…

TM: (LAUGHING) Oh and I just thought, “I get to pay to live in a whore house…” No! No!

MP: Well, I guess that leads us to the next question which is, when did you realize you were gay and why do you feel it’s important to include your sexual orientation into your work when so many performers and play writes go their entire career playing straight people.

TM: Yeah, well, I knew I was gay the first time I walked across the street. I had a feminine walk. Also, my very first wet dreams was about Maggie Smith from “Clash of the Titans”. Maggie Smith is an English Actress. There were muscly men in the dream as well. But there was something odd about it. And I woke up and thought, “I’m gay. I just can’t tell anyone ever.” That lasted for a couple years and then I told all my friends.

It’s a part of my work because queer culture is what I’m interested in. I’m not so much interested in gay, straight, lesbian; I can care less about that… queer culture is what interests me. So much of how I came to queer culture is through being a homosexual so when I say, “queer” I mean outsider art.

I went to a conservatory acting school that was very conservative in its approach to theater. That was a good thing because it gave me a great foundation that a lot of people in the “avant-garde” – I hate that term – In the kind of theater world I am in currently, most people don’t have a lot of foundation. They don’t have a lot of technique that they’ve learned. They have things that they’ve created. They are mostly self-taught. And I feel like I get to have both.

I don’t know if it {queer subject matter} will always interest me but right now I feel like those stories aren’t being told the way I’d like them to be told. Gay culture is really unappealing to me. Like commercial gay culture – straight acting gay people that want to have kids and get married and live normal lives. All that is wonderful but it’s not what I’m interested in. A technique I use when working on my plays is, “What don’t I want the audience to know about me.” The work gets very personal and my life is a queer life and a lot of my work is about my life. I’ll probably be moving away from that as the years go on, but it’s been a great thing.

MP: So riffing on that, what is your personal definition of drag as it pertains to the world and what’s different or the same about it as it pertains to the work you do?

TM: I think drag is much more varied than what the vast majority think of it as. Most people think of it as female impersonation, lip syncing and vagina jokes. And I think of it as the Greeks. It’s a part of a tradition of theater that’s been cast down for years and years and years where the men play the women. But even beyond gender stuff, drag to me is the story your telling at any given time. Drag is just appearance. What’s the physical story you’re trying to communicate to people around you, like, now {points at us} you’re in your “intellectual blogger sweater” drag and I’m in my “don’t notice me on the street” drag.

When I’m on stage it’s important for it to be a heightened circumstance, so I think, “What are the parts of our lives we normally don’t show?”, because that’s what we want to show onstage. And I think, “What do I look like on the inside?” The drag I’ve developed over the years has always been about “What do I look like on the inside?” It turns out that it’s this kinda feminine, masculine, chaotic, amateur, ugly mishmash. At least that’s how I think of my drag. And I think what I do is traditional. I’ve been saying this frequently, so you might have already heard this, but I think it’s very traditional what I do.

The Greeks used to wear platform high-heeled shoes; they wore crazy outfits and were theatrical. Then realism came along and took all of that and reduced it and squished the theatricality out of the theater. Now with film and television we have all that already and I just feel that it shouldn’t be the driving force in theater, so, I celebrate having theatricality in theater and making theatrical choices instead of reduction choices. We reduce so much of our lives and narrow ourselves down and homogenize ourselves and I want us to see the variance. I want us to see the variety of who we are as people. Our emotions. This is important so we’re not just black or white, boy or girl, hero or demon. I want us to be all of it. And that’s what is interesting about theater, theater reminds us of the range of humanity and that’s how I think about my drag.

MP: So, earlier you mentioned that you lived in San Francisco. Do you still have lots of friends there?

TM: No. I wasn’t really there that long. I know a few people there.

MP: So the people that will be involved with The Lilies Revenge in San Francisco…are you bringing people from New York out there?

TM: The entire production is going to be comprised of local talent. The only person not local is the costume designer but I’m kinda local cause I’m a California boy.


MP: And the directors…?

TM: All the directors are local, the cast is local, it’s all new people. I loved the people I worked with in New York but “Lily’s” is a play about community and I just felt that if I brought people out from New York…

MP: It’d be like you were taking over…

TM: Yeah.

MP: It reminds me of The Cockettes documentary. They were so great in San Francisco but when they tried to go to New York it just didn’t happen. They used so many inside jokes and style and feels that are so different. Granted what you do is much more structured and it’s a real play.

TM: It’s not just a bunch of people on acid running around in costumes and glitter. Which is fiiiiiine!

MP: Totally. It’s Amazing! It’s just not what you do. It’s not really theater.

TM: One of my issues with theater, after having worked in theater for so long, is access. It’s so hard for people to get access to their institutions. I just did this thing for an artistic director in the city. I called him up today and was like “Hey, I want to have a meeting” and he wouldn’t see me. And you know, I’m pretty well known and have some recognition and still I don’t have access. I find it really shameful that theater works like that. I know that people that live in San Francisco don’t have access to their theaters either because San Francisco always casts out of LA or NYC. It’s really hard for them to work at their theaters. So I thought, let’s try to open up to these people.

MP: In The Lilies Revenge you used ideas and quotes from “On Longing” and sited from it directly. You waved a copy of it at the audience and it was backstage for people to look at during the intermissions. Earlier you talked about how careful you are about the words you use and I feel like much of your work is very poetic and that it’s obvious that you’re a very literate person. It shows in all your plays and in this conversation we’re having now. How does reading effect the way your write and your dialogue? Also, many writers will appropriate works and lift pieces of dialogue from other writers and act like that isn’t what is happening, can you talk a bit about the way you include other people’s work in your own.

TM: Well, I love reading but I don’t have an academic background. I have a craft background. I’m not an intellectual but I wish I was. I wish that more of America were like that. I wish people would say, “Okay, I’m not as smart as Wally Shawn and I never will be but I wish I was. Isn’t that amazing that he’s so smart and isn’t that something to strive for?” I’m a very curious person and I’m an energetic person. When ideas and certain ways of communicating things are presented to me that I wasn’t aware of before I get excited. With “On Longing,” my dramaturge said, “Oh you’re doing a play about nostalgia, well you should read this book “On Longing” that’s all about nostalgia,” and I read it and I fell in love and it exploded the play for me. I was like, “Well I need to honor her”. I just felt like she needed to be part of the play, so, I wrote her and told her, “Hey I wrote you into my play but if you want I can change the name or change this or that” and she was like “Sure. Just use me”. Of course she hasn’t seen it so she might change her mind…

MP: Very doubtful.

TM: It was very sweet of her to do that. Nobody creates anything without someone else. Shakespeare stole all his plots. What is this stealing thing… I don’t know all of them, but how many Hamlets are there? You know? I guess it doesn’t concern me very much. There are only so many stories in the world. It’s about the details. The details are what remain interesting. I always think that teachers shouldn’t teach facts. Teachers should teach curiosity. If they could figure out a way to teach curiosity people would keep learning and people wouldn’t have to go into debt. Then everyone would always want to find new things out. We have more access to information now than at any other time in the history of the world, so why not find a way to teach curiosity so people could learn how to learn. That’s my feeling about reading and intellectualism…

MP: In other interviews I’ve read of yours you speak at great length about how much you love the use of heightened language and suggestion in theater and you employ both these elements liberally in your work. What helps you make decisions about showing and suggesting versus telling and literally doing? When is it ok to tell and not show and where do these tactics tend to find a middle ground in your work? Sorry, that’s a long question…

TM: I’ll tackle show and tell first. All the drama teachers and all the playwriting teachers I’ve worked with are always saying, “show don’t tell, show don’t tell” and I think that it’s sound advice. But at the same time I think, “OR TELL WITH VERVE”. You know what I mean? It’s okay to tell, just tell with verve. Maybe there are some times ways where you can show and tell at the same time. I’m pretty sure there are.

For example, in my most recent play, “The Walk Across America”, there is a scene where the two lover characters, Angie and Kelly, are talking about this other character, Flower. I wanted to tell the audience about Flower, give them the information and show the relationship between Kelly and Angie, they’re good friends that like to gossip. So there I showed and told at the same time. That’s something I like to do. If I have this position in my play, and all plays need them, especially plays like “The Walk Across America” that are so crazy, with so much information the audience needs in order to understand the context of what is happening; What is this walk etc.? There are so many questions! So you have to give them some answers and that means you have to show and tell at the same time. Give information while you are showing other things so that the play is active and not dragging.


What were the other questions?

MP: I think you answered all of them?

TM: (LAUGHING) Did I?

MP: Yeah. Sorry the next question is also really long… and we kind of touched on it earlier but I really like it so I’m just going to read it to you and ask it anyways ok?

TM: (LAUGHING) Ok.

MP: In “The Lilies Revenge” you tie in a metaphor about the dangers of institutionalized, nostalgic, “museum theater” to the dangers of institutionalized marriage. You engage this as an element of the play’s plot, and also as a justification for the first act’s theatrical style, which is performed in a traditional proscenium set up. In the second act, when I walked back into the theater and you had broken that proscenium and had thrust the audience physically into the play by setting up the set all around them, I had a very intense emotional experience. That was the moment I was like, “Shit, he really knows his craft.”

TM: It was your moment….


MP: Yes…Anyway, you break away from the proscenium set up and from that point on theatrical conventions are challenged again and again. The main characters journey and the progression of the plot however, continue in a linear manner. In “The Walk Across America” you similarly play with theatricality while telling a story that’s emotionally compelling and easy to follow. The question really is, why do you favor linear theater and stories with a traditional arch as opposed to plays with an abstract one? Also, why do you favor abstracting in terms of style as opposed to abstracting in terms of plot?

TM: Um, I don’t think I do favor that, but that is what I’ve been doing. I wrote this play called “Red Tide Blooming” and it was my first time working on a “Hero’s Journey” kind of structure. I wrote it and I thought, “Okay, I got it. I figured it out”. Then I wrote another “Hero’s Journey” play, which was “Lily”, and because “Lily” was so much about the narratives we tell and hold dear to ourselves, and the hero’s journey is so much apart of those ideas, I felt like it was the right choice for structuring the play… “Content dictates form.” That’s a Sondheim quote… I’m sure someone said it before him and I don’t know if that will always be the case, but I do like to make my plays so that the content dictates the plot, so I tend to say, “What is this play about?” In the case of Lily’s I said to myself, “It’s about narratives that we hold on to and how we break free from those things.” Then I thought; “What are all the various narratives I can use to tell this story?”

With the “Walk” play, the characters are a bunch of anarchists and activists, so I felt the form should be kind of hodge podge, because that’s how activists are. Activists also have a goal, so I knew there needed to be a point at the end of it. All along the way though, it needed to shift and shift and shift.

I don’t know if I’m answering the question but that’s the “Hero’s Journey” part for me. It was about learning that style. I really wanted to learn it. I love myself some Joseph Campbell and I felt like I really wanted to understand how to write that kind of play. With The Walk Across America I wanted to write an existential play because I had never done that before and then I got onto this new thing where I was wondering how to go about writing a play in which nothing happens. I wanted to write a play that didn’t really have a central character. You can argue that it does but it doesn’t really. I started to think, “What plays are like that?” and I realized its really just Chekhov plays, “The Three Sisters” is one of the better examples. I examined “The Three Sisters” and tried to figure it out because I kept thinking “This is not Aristotelian structure at all! There’s no central character and there is no dramatic event. There’s no reason why today is different from any other day. It doesn’t all come to a head. It basically ends where it starts!” The three sisters do go on a journey kind of…but they are long for Moscow in the beginning and they are longing for Moscow in the end. The only thing that really changes is maybe their knowing they will never get there, whereas in the beginning you think maybe they will. there is that difference but the action they are doing throughout is longing, so it’s more an existential play than an Aristotelian structured play where something happens and then nothing is ever the same again. That’s what I’m interested in right now. I don’t know if my next play will be like that or not. I do know it won’t be a “Hero’s Journey” though because I’m done with that. You can’t learn about these things until you do them.

MP: It’s interesting that you use a “Hero’s Journey” to tell a queer story because I feel like so much of queer art is about rejecting conventions.

TM: I keep saying I’m a traditionalist! They’ve tried to convince us that the Greeks wore regular clothes and talked plainly and were so sweet in their plays when really…

MP: They were onstage eating each other out and getting in fights and waving giant penises around…

TM: Yeah, they were like, really doing it in front of a huge gigantic stadium full of people. How did they come up with that idea!? You see these productions of Shakespeare and everyone’s acting so blasé.

MP: Life is not like that.

TM: It’s true. When Shakespeare was being staged the actors were competing with crowded markets where everyone was yelling and you had to be damn good just to get people to notice you up there! They were jumping off the stage, grabbing people, using them, making them apart of the show. So many actors have no clue what to do if someone in the audience says something. They get really tense. The world I come from (LAUGHS) I learned how to do my shows with people giving blow jobs in the audience. If you are competing with a blow job you better be damn good!


Thank you again to Taylor for sitting down with us and talking to us. It was a truly wonderful experience. The Lily’s Revenge plays San Francisco’s Magic Theater from April 21st through May 22nd. See you all there!

2 thoughts on “Reminding us of Our Humanity: An Inclusive Interview with Taylor Mac

  1. Taylor Mac sounds brilliant and it’s great to see you people all excited about someone and something. I live in San Francisco and you’ve really got me interested in his play, The Lily’s Revenge/ Could you describe it briefly so I can tell what it’s about?

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