Taylor Mac is training for a marathon. But it's not the kind you run with your legs — this one is a marathon of the voice. In about a year and a half, Mac will perform a 24-hour concert in New York, in which he'll sing popular American songs from every decade starting from the 1770s. It's the planned culmination of Mac's current major project, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. There will be tents, cots, and food for the audience, while Mac, accompanied by dancers and a 24-piece orchestra, sings and changes costume (24 times, once for each decade) almost nonstop for a full day and night.
It will be epic, it will be grand, and it will be like nothing most people have seen before. But, Mac insists, it isn't new. "In some ways it's new to a lot of my audience members, because there aren't that many people doing this kind of thing, but the truth is that Tiny Tim did a 24-hour concert. The Greeks used to do four plays in one day — that was their festival. So durational work has been going on for quite some time."
This may be one of the most surprising things about this actor, playwright, singer, and visionary: Mac doesn't buy into the idea that he's creating anything new, despite being heralded for his intellectually and theatrically ambitious, violently unique performances (as well as his fabulous and flamboyant costumes).
Instead, he sees himself as one part of the larger theater community. "Theater is the most collaborative art form that there is, so you're not just collaborating with people that you're in direct connection to, but also with all your progenitors and everyone that you haven't met who is working," he says. "So I'm not really inventing anything. I'm pulling from the Greeks and the Elizabethans — people that are part of the classical canon — all the time but also the contemporaries. Anyone who tells you they're inventing something is not very clued in to how creation really happens."
For Mac, creation seems to happen endlessly, and when it does, it has no boundaries. He's written plays that (separately) incorporate ballet, performance art, and songs by everyone from Rodgers & Hammerstein to R.E.M. He's got a five-hour performance, The Lily's Revenge, that uses the Japanese Noh form, the musical, and several other forms to tell the story of a magical deity who has cursed the nation with a plague of nostalgia and the five-petaled lily who defeats it.
Then there are his concerts, including Comparison is Violence, or the Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook, and the one he'll be performing at Spoleto, Songs of the American Right. This show is one part of his 24-Decade History of Popular Music project, which he's been performing in segments around the country over the past three years. Each decade is its own show, although Mac has also put together themed versions — Songs of the American Right is an example of that. Who knew the American Right even had their own songs?
They apparently do, however, and Mac has uncovered a few and given them a glamorous new life — albeit a different one than the original songwriters had probably planned. "I thought, 'It's so easy for me to just sing the liberal songs from the past 24 decades, so why don't I pull together all the conservative ones?'" he says. "But I am a huge liberal, so the idea is to reframe and appropriate those songs, in the same way that we've seen conservative politics do to liberal politics over the years."
But that's not really the main point. He adds, "The show is really more about addressing the things that are holding us back from living in this present moment. Things that we're holding on to from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries that aren't really helping us live in this present moment."
Looking at these and other popular songs from the past 240 years has given Mac a much richer, more complicated view of American history than he got in school. One of his primary interests is exploring issues of gender and sexual identity — Mac identifies as queer — and so he was interested in digging into historical resources to see whether, and how, that group was represented. "I went to public school, and we didn't have very good world history, or even U.S. history, classes. It was all pretty basic — pretty racist, sexist, and with zero history of where the queer fits into American history. As if we didn't exist and haven't existed since the beginning of humanity," he says. "It's been fun to explore what other people have been unearthing. I don't feel like I'm becoming a historian, but I feel like I'm getting a better understanding of what America is about, and what its roots are ... I've been profoundly changed by this project."
But delving into American history, as interesting as it's been, is not why Mac created this project. His vision, for not only the 24-Decade History show but for all of his work, is much, much bigger. Mac has said many times that he believes his job as a theater artist is to be a "student of humanity," which means giving his audiences what they need, not just what they want. And what do we all need? There's plenty, Mac says, but there's one thing in particular that the 24 Decades project is intended to address. "I definitely think people need shared rituals in their lives right now. The only rituals that the mainstream culture is supporting are religious institutions and sporting events ... and they're all very homogenized. There's not a lot of room for variance and the full range of who we are," he says.
That's why Mac creates serial works like 24 Decades, to provide people with an alternative, more inclusive ritual. Since each concert includes audience participation, people end up meeting and talking to each other, even forming friendships that last beyond the performance. "Because I ask people to do things with their bodies and their voices in the room, they have to be brave with each other. They have to talk and share things," Mac says. "We have two people who got engaged who've met at shows, people who've started a business together who met at the shows. So we're creating a community that is tangible out of an ephemeral art form, and that's because of the ritual aspect of it. It's quite beautiful."
Even though Mac's intellect, thoughtfulness, and interest in exploring major philosophical ideas are evident in all of his work — that's a large part, of course, of what makes him the fine artist that he is — at the core, he still believes the work he makes should be entertaining. "I have a little shame about this, but ultimately I think I'm a populist," he says. "I'm a highbrow populist. I lean a little more toward wanting things to be challenging for an audience, but I always want to figure out how to invite that audience in."