Performing Possibility: 24 Hours with Taylor Mac

A photograph looking up at Taylor Mac singing from a theater box overlooking the stage.

At the beginning of June, Rachel and I each went to Philadelphia to spend some time in another world. Months later, it continues to resonate personally and professionally. This is our attempt to think through why.

Let me back up. In the fall of 2016, I’d attended two evenings of Taylor Mac’s magnificent opus, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY. If this project is new to you, I will give it the very briefest of summaries by saying that Mac has selected songs that were popular in each of the 24 decades of the United States of America’s existence and masterfully woven them together into a powerful, poignant, gloriously queering-of-history reminder of how much this country has gotten wrong, along with many of the things it’s gotten so very right.

At St. Ann’s, I saw a total of six of those hours, and when I saw that Mac (who uses lowercase-j-judy as in Garland, as a gender pronoun) was performing the whole thing in two 12-hour marathons for the 2018 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, I immediately bought a ticket to Part I, the only one I could attend.

When I came back from Philadelphia, basking in the glow of a full twelve hours of magic from a team of musicians, dancers, singers, aerialists, and knitters led by Mac, I waxed rhapsodic at Miriam (my frequent theater buddy), who then snapped up a ticket to Part II, performed a week later.

So between the two of us, we saw the whole thing. And when we compared notes, we realized we have some common interests that made it feel powerfully relevant to both of us.

  • We’re both people whose jobs involve making space for and fostering difficult conversations, and we both admired Mac’s ability to lean into complexity in an era when public discourse seems to be getting dangerously oversimplified.
  • We both focus professional energy on the power of having an ephemeral experience in a space that will never be repeated in exactly the same way again, and as far as I’m concerned, Mac’s 2017 MacArthur Fellowship (aka “The MacArthur Genius Grant”) could have been bestowed for judy’s ability in this arena alone.
  • We’re both interested in how cultural experiences can build community. This, in fact, is the reasoning behind Mac’s MacArthur Fellowship: “Engaging audiences as active participants in works that dramatize the power of theater as a space for building community.”

When Miriam and I shared our experiences of these two 12-hour performance extravaganzas, we thought some of the ideas and inspiration we found were worth writing down to share across more than just our lunch table for two. We know we can’t capture in writing what it was like to be in that room, but here are a few insights into (some of) this indescribable work of theater and (some of) the nuggets of gold it contains that we’re attempting to apply to our own professional and personal lives.

[A note to readers: some of this was written by Miriam. Some of this was written by Rachel. We use “I” and “we” and “us” and even “you” interchangeably. In Taylor Mac fashion, I suggest you take your assumptions about first/second person and question why you have them and whether, in fact, they’re doing you any good. Here, we’ll be a common authorial voice, and if you’re not quite comfortable being uncertain which of us has written which elements, then that’s OK. You’re still welcome here or here.]

make the audience do stuff

A purple-toned photograph of a theater full of audience-tossed balloons as part of a post WW1 victory celebrations.

Audience is essential to Mac’s design of an immersive experience. Even our need for food over a 12-hour period was ingeniously built into the narrative, from a soup kitchen line during the Great Depression to a bagged lunch prepared for the March on Washington, the audience’s need for refreshment contributed to building an immersive story that literally touched your heart and mind and hands and stomach.

Mac encourages you to engage with the inherent awkwardness of stepping out of your comfort zone — and guides you through it. Judy reminds you of the safe word “EXIT” which is listed all around the room in bright red signage and also calls on others to help you engage. “Is there someone not dancing with someone near you,” Mac called out during a section where we were asked to dance with strangers, poignantly reminding each of us that we have the individual power to welcome others into our embrace. As we looked around and invited others into our slow dance, our small gestures took on epic proportions. This collective engagement transforms the experience, creating a magical place of possibility where harsh truths and awkwardness mingle with triumph.

In this way, the participation both implicated and championed us, overwhelmingly rooting for us to do better.

Even when we were being called out on our assumptions and perceptions, Mac constantly reminded us that we had someone on our side. The mastermind of this entire experience was looking out for us all, reminding us to martial our energy for the long run of the performance, acknowledging that any discomfort we might be feeling was valid, and providing us clear framing and explanations for what we were being asked to do. Even now, weeks later, as I write this, I’m still impressed by Mac’s ability to watch over the population of that theater in addition to martialing judy’s own stamina–no mean feat.

challenge the status quo

L: A photograph looking up at Taylor Mac, perched at the edge of a theater box, wearing a large faux mohawk and holding a microphone. /R: A dark photograph of Mac, wearing the same ensemble, seated in the theater, surrounded by seated audience members.

“I’m trying to remind you of what you forgot, or dismissed, or someone else dismissed,” Mac asserts. Throughout the work, judy challenged me, making me question my expectations, assumptions, and norms.

From the opening curtain of Part II of the second half, I found myself looking around for the star. Ultimately I discovered the voice from above — from the upper balcony where the cheap seats are located. With that little gesture, I became aware that this show would surprise and confuse and make me question. Are some seats really worth more? Why do we think shows should only be an hour or two? Why do we think only the performer belongs on the stage and audience members in the seats? By making us move around as part of the performance, and by moving around the theater from the stage to the floor to the seats and the aisles, Mac challenged us to gain different perspectives, wrestle with assumptions, and see alternate truths.

Even the costumes–a new one for every decade– echo this theme of discovery and alternate realities. Costume wizard extraordinaire, Machine Dazzle, created silhouettes like I had never seen — layers that transformed and created new motifs and told stories through their material, structure, and visual drama. So much so that I continue to struggle to find the words to describe the ideas they communicated — as if their larger than life architecture requires its own novel vocabulary. There were exaggerations and fabulousness and a willingness to push boundaries. What makes an outfit? Why is clothing generally made of fabric? How can the next decade’s ensemble possibly measure up? Even the costume change itself was part of the show — challenging what belongs behind the curtain and what has rightful place front and center on the main stage.

embrace uncomfortable truths

Within an overwhelming amount of creative material, there were any number of moments that challenged people in that room. Here’s one example: in the last few hours of my show, Mac called out the goal of creating a safe space for queer folks and received a round of applause. Judy immediately followed it up with a pointed reminder that such a place is mythical. It’s a false construct that is its own form of oppressive, singular-viewpoint control, judy called. If you just cheered, you felt like you’d gotten it wrong. It was time for some self-examination. Of course, true to Mac’s particular performance genius, you didn’t have to stew in that discomfort alone. There’d been a whole room full of cheerers who were right there with you. Even if you’d not thought about safe spaces as a dangerous thing until that very moment, you now had a kernel of a new idea to ponder.

You also weren’t stewing in your discomfort for long. Maybe in the next moment you were caught up in a beautiful rendition of a song you’d never heard or a facet of United States history you’d never known. You might be suddenly amazed by a new costume or laugh at a saucy joke or be called upon to throw ping pong balls at someone. And, when you were ready to remember the safe-space discomfort, you could reflect further.

It is this balancing act that I find so incredibly masterful. Throughout the twelve hours that I spent in that theater, Mac was able to hold up the viscerally ugly truths of our country’s foundations in a way that called us all to recognize our own participation in them, even as judy simultaneously entertained us. There was joy and laughter and solidarity in that room, just as much as there was sorrow and disgust and the desire to look away from how badly we’ve treated each other over the past 240 years. More than many other things, I felt implicated. There was no “getting off the hook”.

“Everything you are feeling is appropriate” was the refrain Mac kept up throughout both halves of this marathon performance.

Feeling implicated didn’t mean I felt like tuning out. Anytime I wanted to question or cheer or join in or protest, there was Mac, eagerly reminding all of us that no matter what we were feeling, it was appropriate. We were doing it right, even if it made us feel we were in the wrong.

offer the spotlight

A photograph of Taylor Mac onstage in front of four black-and-white abolitionist posters held up to face the audience.

In a performance of history full of colonization, oppression, segregation, and war, there was, of course, plenty of problematic material. Some stories were personal and told through judy’s personal life experience and some belonged to others. By not simply appropriating and re-performing the whole thing solo, the story unfolded through a multiplicity of voices.

While chatting with the women sitting in front of me before the second show began, I learned that I could look forward to a performance by Philadelphia’s own queen, Martha Graham Cracker. She was featured along with the Dandy Minions: a cadre of local performers of all ages, shapes, and sizes. This engagement with the local community and bringing in a range of voices and people to the show was dazzling. It was a celebration of community that went beyond a surface nod. Mac was honest about needing the support of others in a way that made judy’s epic performance all the more astonishing and approachable. I found myself continuously amazed how judy referred to each by name, often sharing a fun fact and a spotlight on their talent. It was personal and genuine and just one example of the way Mac modeled excellence.

Another prime example came during the 1850s/60s section, which Mac focused on abolition. Judy began with some nonsensically uplifting abolitionist songs, performing them with an exaggerated, sing-song energy, then stopping to call out the fact that the white abolitionists made it sound like slavery would be ended by going on a picnic. Judy then left the stage to sing from the wings songs written by enslaved people while three dancer-activists from Urban Bush Women (UBW) performed. That hour proceeded to alternate between the “picnic abolitionist” songs — with Mac clowning onstage — and those written by enslaved people — with the UBW dancers performing. The power of the performance shone brightest because Mac chose to literally share the spotlight.

And when Part II comes to an end, it is just Mac on the stage, playing the piano and singing original work. It is quieter, yet still larger than life. A triumph and a tribute to the exhausting nature of existence — of being — and of deciding who you will sing with — who you will stand up for — and who you will see next time you look in the mirror.

Perhaps the greatest feat that Mac achieved is that several months later we are still reflecting on the experience. In a world with front pages that change in a hot second, judy created something to remember — an ephemeral experience so powerful and immersive it opened up alternate possibilities and perspectives for the audience.

As designers of experiences in our own work, we both found Mac to be a revelation. A reminder that the hard conversations are not impossible and that brave spaces can be intentionally designed to champion introspection and conversation. Mac’s lessons on audience engagement, inclusion, embrace of complexity and vulnerability are best practices that extend well beyond the theater.

At one point in Part I, Mac pointed out that the great thing about a performance art concert (as good a way to summarize this experience as anything I’ve heard) is that no matter what the audience feels, the performer has succeeded. Of course, that rang true for the audience, as well. We were encouraged toward complexity over simplistic responses, and it was the combination of feeling by turns implicated by and in solidarity with what was happening in the room that we wish more experiences could borrow from.

While at times, it was hard to be inside the experience, it was also hard to leave the magic of possibility that Mac created. Judy’s provocations still feel unresolved. Like the country’s past and present, they demand mining.

A photograph of Taylor Mac, suspended in the air in front of two large “finger gun” cardboard cut-outs with a comic book style word BANG between them, over Taylor’s head.
Like what you read? Give Miriam Bader a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.