Bertolt Brecht wrote plays that are gigantic in scale, plays that seemingly mock performance and people while somehow honoring their most precious parts. Brecht’s plays came to me when I found a copy of The Visions of Simone Machard (1942) on one of those book tables near Broadway and 72nd street. I had just moved to the city. I was barely 20. I didn’t know anyone. I was auditioning for a dancing chorus part in every musical I could, not fitting in there, and sort of hating the theater. So one day, I stepped out of my morning ballet class to go for a walk and this play stopped me. With the few dollars I had, I bought the play, sat on a bench, and read the thing. Very quickly, this play made me fall in love again with the theater and with the fabulosity of the human heart.
As a performer, writer, and potential activist, Taylor Mac is able to make us all fall in love again with one sweet nod to an audience member during a set on his ukulele, or in one of his short videos of himself questioning America on a walk through Tompkins Square Park, or in his own colossal plays. I believe I was not alone in feeling like putting him in the middle of a Brecht play (particularly this one) was, well, a match.
I’ve known about Taylor Mac for a long time as a sort of floating spirit in the global theater of my mind. I kept finding myself in conversations where folks were echoing back to me, “Taylor Mac talks about that same thing in…” But I didn’t really start to know him until a dear friend sat me down to me watch his “But I Loved Him,” which he performed at the Soho Theatre in London in 2007.
It stopped my heart, which felt good because it was in a lot of pain at the time.
Without knowing him or meeting him, I’ve taken him on as a spiritual mentor. Watching him perform or listening to him talk about theater has become a touchstone. Seeing an artist who’s come from a small town (as I have, as many of us have), who speaks frankly about his beliefs about the theater, and watching him mold his path out of his own clay is, well, inspiring. And based on a ton of conversations with peers and fellow theater makers, I’m not alone. Taylor Mac might just well be our spirit animal.
Maybe you’re aware of this, maybe you’re not. But we all thank you Mr. Mac, for your honesty, grace, and fierce humanity.
All these circuitous words are in honor and vibrant promotion of the exciting re-mount of the Foundry Theatre’s Good Person of Szechwan, opening this October 18th at the Public Theater. Lear deBessonet is leading the entire original team from last year’s production at La MaMa, which features Mac as the Good Person him/herself.
In between his scheduled performances last week (the beginning of the week was in Dublin, the next in Chicago) he took a moment to rap with me about his work, his influences, and the excitingly anticipated remount of Good Person of Szechwan at the Public.
Diana Stahl (Rail): What formed you as a theater artist? What’s kept you going?
Taylor Mac: After the first play I was in, when I was five years old, I was hooked. I often think it’s rather wonderful and sad at the same time that I’ve based my entire life on a decision I made when I was five. What has formed me as a theater artist is such a long conversation. I was formed by my mother who always encouraged creativity in the home; a man named Mark McLelland who ran the children’s theater company in Stockton, California; by my many teachers over the years; by the remnants of the Circle Repertory Company who mentored me when I first moved to New York City 20 years ago; by the variety show performers and performance artists like Tigger, the World Famous * BOB *, Karen Finley, Penny Arcade, John Cameron Mitchell, and of course Kenny Mellman and Justin Vivian Bond, who liberated my understanding of theater; by the dramaturges Morgan Jenness and Nina Mankin who essentially taught me Aristotelian structure; and by the arts administrators, producers, managers, and booking agents who helped make it all happen for me. Most recently I’ve been learning what it’s like to be a real musician from Matt Ray, Lance Horne, and all the various band members I’ve been playing with. Underneath all of that is the silly truth that I have always been a little odd and was raised in violently homogenous suburbia, where oddities were eradicated. The combination of all the love, support, and privilege I’ve gotten in my life, mixed with a fair share of adversity, turned me into a theater artist—for better or worse.
Rail: You’re in Dublin right now performing in your own A 20th Century Concert: Abridged in the Fringe Festival before heading to Chicago to perform An Abridged Concert of The History of Political Popular Music at the Museum of Contemporary Art. How do the many levels of performance you do feed one another? Do you find a connection through your concerts to the plays you write to the characters you play?
Mac: Well they literally feed me. I don’t know how a performance artist lives in this world without also being a playwright and an actor. Likewise, to try to live off just of a theater actor salary or just a playwright salary would be very difficult. Doing all three means I don’t have to live week-to-week and paycheck-to-paycheck. Somehow they balance each other out (the grants help). It’s not like I’m raking in the dough but I do have a much easier life than a lot of my peers who have to take on jobs they’d rather not to pay the bills. More interesting though, to me, is that when I finally went to the clubs in order to do the work, because the theater for whatever reason in my younger days wouldn’t have me (and the club world will have anyone), I learned that what excited me most was to combine performance art, acting, and playwriting together. When I brought the theater into the clubs and the clubs into the theater, that’s when the work got unique and deep. It’s also, ironically, when I felt the most connected to the theatricality of the Greeks and Elizabethans and Commedia artists of old.
Rail: It’s hard to think of your work and Brecht’s and not find a ton of parallels. You both pull from a variety of theater traditions to talk about the state of the world in a sometimes tongue-and-cheek and often a heartbreakingly powerful way. Is Brecht an artist you’ve been influenced or inspired by? If so, what struck you (or strikes you) about his work?
Mac: I’m ashamed to say I knew very little about Brecht before I did this production of Good Person of Szechwan. I’d read a couple of the plays but I’d never studied them.
It was exciting to discover how similar my work is to Brecht’s work. I had a similar reaction when I learned about the performance artist/drag queen/theater maker/playwright/musician Ethyl Eichelberger. I’d been creating work for a number of years before I found out about Ethyl, but once I found her I understood where my work was coming from.
Rail: How did you get involved with this collaboration of Good Person? Anything about the character, and/or the team, that particularly excites or strikes you?
Mac: Lear deBessonet, our director, was responsible for bringing me into this production. She’d always wanted to do a production of Good Person but needed to know who her Shen Tei would be. She decided it would be me and convinced me to do it. I had hesitations, as I don’t usually like to do gender confluence roles in the work of others, but thank the theater gods that I said yes. I suppose what strikes me about this production is how it reaches profundity through its joy and authenticity. That’s really a tribute to the entire team, Lear, and the vision of the Foundry.
Rail: The production at La MaMa was super exciting and there’s a lot of welcoming excitement around its remount at the Public. What do you think, or hope, to offer the audience this time around?
Mac: I’m not sure the hope has changed from the first time, but I know I’d really like to live in the skin of this story and its ideas a little bit longer. Off-Off-Broadway runs are so short and you barely scrape the surface of the work, so I’m excited the Foundry and Public Theater worked so hard to give us more life. I want to get in there and see what we missed.
The Foundry Theatre’s Good Person of Szechwan remounts at the Public Theater October 18th – December 8th, with an October 29 opening. Translated by John Willet. Directed by Lear deBessonet with the entire original cast: Kate Benson, Ephraim Birney, Vinie Burrows, Clifton Duncan, Jack Allen Greenfield, Annie Golden, Brooke Ishibashi, Paul Juhn, Mia Katigbak, David Turner, Darryl Winslow, Lisa Kron, and Taylor Mac. Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps.