You Can Lie Down or Get Up and Play: An Interview with Taylor Mac on judy’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music: Film Screening & Discussion with Taylor Mac” event at Boston’s 2023 Raising Voices Festival

Taylor Mac (Photo courtesy HBO Max)

Event: 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Film Screening & Discussion with Taylor Mac
Presented as part of the Raising Voices Festival: A Celebration of Music, Art, and the Power of Protest
Saturday, September 23, 2023 @ 7:30pm EDT
Old South Meeting House
Boston, MA

More about the Raising Voices Festival 
Presented by Revolutionary Spaces
September 23 & 24, 2023
Downtown Boston: Various Locations
Performance Schedule & Map 
Admission is free. 
Registration is highly encouraged.

About the documentary film Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music
Filmed on Saturday, October 8th, 2016 
@ St. Ann’s Warehouse
Brooklyn, NY 11202
Written and created by Taylor Mac 
Music direction by Matt Ray
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman 
Costume designs by Machine Dazzle 
Makeup artistry by Anastasia Durasova
Produced by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Joel Stillerman, Linda Brumbach, Alisa Regas, Taylor Mac, and Mari Rivera
HBO Documentary Films in association with Content Superba, a Telling Pictures and Pomegranate Arts Production in association with Fifth Season and Nature’s Darlings
Streamed on HBO Max

Interview by Kitty Drexel

BOSTON, Mass. — Taylor Mac graciously met the New England Theatre Geek’s Queen Kitty for an interview on Wednesday afternoon to discuss judy’s HBO documentary Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music and the Raising Voices event 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Documentary & Discussion with Taylor Mac on Saturday, Sep 23, 2023, 7:30pm EDT. 

Mac regularly contributes to the Boston theatre-ecology. Mac’s stage play, Joy and Pandemic played at the Huntington in April of this year.  Mac’s 2012 essay “A Culture of Trust” was published in the 2022 publication of HowlRound Anthology: Essays and Conversations from the First Ten Years. Judy’s Hir was produced by Apollinaire Theatre in February 2020. (One of the last, lucky productions before the lockdown). And, of course, The Lily’s Revenge at Club Oberon (RIP) in 2012.

We thank Taylor Mac for their time and judy’s team for setting up the interview.

Mac was full of laughter. It was truly a pleasure to meet with judy. 

(The below interview is edited for grammar and clarity.)


Queen Kitty: Your Decade History of Popular Music History, you’ve described it as a radical fairy realness ritual.

Taylor Mac: Yes.

QK: It spans 24 decades with a 24-piece orchestra for 24 hours, singing 246 songs. What was your dramaturgical research process like? It’s just so much. It must have been so intense for you.

TM: It was a constant reminder that I’m not a historian. I’m not trying to be a historian, and I don’t want to be a historian. Part of the dramaturgy was to make sure that was clear to the audience. In all of the stage shows, in one form or another, that this was expressed to the audience.

In the movie, you see a bit of that. I’m not so much interested in the show being history. We have all this history on our backs. We’re trying to figure out what to do with it. 

I’m an artist, not a historian. I needed to give myself a little leeway, to not know the history exactly. Saying, this is the history I was raised to believe. This is the history that I discovered later in life. It’s a potpourri of consideration. The dramaturgy ended up more relaxed than if we were really trying to teach the audience about the history of the United States.

I say the content dictates the form. I would say, I want the decades to be centered on this particular theme or a particular community that’s built itself as a result of being torn apart. Then, I would go on to hunt for songs that were written in that decade, were premiered in that decade, or were mainly popular in that decade. 

It’s very hard with some of these songs – especially the traditionals – to pin down a date (of composition). I gave myself a decade or two leeway. I was able to find enough songs in every decade to figure out how to support the story that I wanted to tell. So, it was a little bit like making 24 Jukebox musicals.

QK: If you could relive one of those 24 hours – Not do over,  but re-live. 

TM: I just don’t choose to. *laughs* I could if I wanted to! 

QK: Sure! But, specifically during the 24 hours (documentary), there must have been some moments that were just ethereal and community-building and had an intense connection. If you could relive one of them, whether good, bad, topsy-turvy. Is there an hour in particular that you’d relive?

TM: If you mean “do better,” then I definitely would. 

It was a living, breathing show. Every show we performed wasn’t the same as the previous show. There was a lot of improv. 

There was also a lot of discussion after about what worked and what didn’t work. I would go on, meditate, and think, okay, I’m gonna change this for tomorrow night. Sometimes that would mean whole new songs. It would mean an entirely different approach to the decade. That would be an extreme example. 

A less extreme example would be just like cutting a bridge or cutting a repeated chorus.  Every show was different. We also had different guest performers who would come in and duet with me. 

In every city we went to we would create an all-female acrobatic troupe. Except for New York, where there actually was one. When we went to other cities, we realized that there wasn’t an all-female acrobatic troupe so we’d have to create one. There would be brand new choreography for them, and new numbers in the show. 

Every show took a lot of reimagining. It was like, every time we performed it, we’d have to start not from scratch but really, really, really new. That made it unique for the audiences who came and saw multiple versions of things. Everyone was always surprised by how the show would grow and change. 

I guess the answer to the question is: all of them. Not to pick a favorite but, yeah, they’re my babies. They were all alive and different and changing. That’s what I most appreciated about working on the project for 10 years. It was a living performance play rather than something repeated in a factory.

QK: From the articles and interviews that you’ve given, each of the performances sounded like they were a marathon performance. The arts, specifically theater, have a “create or obsolete yourself” mindset. 

TM: Mmmmm… 

KQ: When it came to doing these marathon performances, what was your recovery process like? How long did you give yourself to recover?

TM: A lot of times, it was schedule and economics that led to that decision. We did four six-hour shows in San Francisco over the course of two weeks. [Queen’s note: Holy cats!]

It sounds like, okay, four shows. [QN: No, it doesn’t; Holy. Cats.] But, when you think about all the rehearsals and all the technical rehearsals, and everything that goes into that, you’re putting in 12-hour days for two weeks. It’s quite exhausting and really challenging on my voice. 

We immediately had to go from San Francisco to Palo Alto and do a two-hour version of the show. Literally, the next day that we’d finished. 

From there, we had to fly to Melbourne. Open their festival with a two-hour show that was two days later. 

A couple of days after that, we started doing the four six-hour shows in Melbourne. At the end of that show, we did a whole ‘nother closing-of-the-festival performance.

That was about the schedule, the economics of keeping the whole team together, and being able to pay everybody in as short an amount of time as possible so you don’t have to restart the whole machine up again. It costs a lot of money.

There was no recovery time. By the end of that, I was pretty beat. I thought I couldn’t ever do it again. 

I think a few months later we did it in Philadelphia as two 12-hour shows. Maybe six months after that, we did it in Berlin as four six-hour shows. 

It was dependent on who booked us and when. But, in between all those months, we would do these two-hour performances nonstop. It was about 10 years of constantly performing some version of the show. 

There was only one 24-hour performance. That was in New York.

QK: How did you take care of yourself after that one?

TM: I think I had I had a week off, and then we went to Belfast and performed a two-hour version in Belfast. That was right when the (2016) election was happening. Donald Trump won. There was no time off to recover. 

I think the longest break I had was about six months. It was remarkable how much better my voice was at the end of the six-month break. I was singing like a baby again!

QK: Oh boy.

TM: It was a very challenging show. Usually, you need about 48 hours for your vocal cords to de-swell. There was often never enough time to recover.

QK: In the documentary, you sound very earthy.

TM: I’m sounding a little earthy now because I just finished a four-week rehearsal period of a four-hour show (called Bark of Millions, a rock opera meditation on queerness). Totally different show. It’s not 24-decade, but the vocal challenge is always present. 

That’s the same for people who do two-hour concerts as well. It’s something that you’re juggling, trying to figure out. 

Opera singers only do a couple of shows a week. Broadway performers do eight shows a week, but they’re only really singing four or five songs. It’s not as taxing as what we were doing which was singing all those songs for hours and hours.

QK: Going to a different tack. In June’s Rolling Stone article, you say that America is queer. You say it twice. This being inarguably true, what would you say to the supporters of the unconstitutional drag bans?

TM: It’s hard to be in conversation with people who are lying. It’s hard to debate people who are lying.

That’s how you learn to debate as a kid, you learn to take the side that you don’t agree with and debate it, regardless. 

I think there’s something messed up in the way that we teach conversation and debate in this country. Their objective is “winning is the most important thing;” I don’t think that’s true. 

I think, if you can’t have an honest conversation with somebody, then no forward movement can happen. The first thing you have to do is have an honest conversation, and they’re not being honest. 

They don’t care about drag. They don’t care about the health of children in relation to drag. It’s all just fodder for anger: rallying their bases, utilizing deep-seated homophobia, queerphobia, and sexism.  

Until we can have honest conversations, it’s pointless. What I would say is, when you’re ready to have an honest conversation, come talk to me. 

QK: I have one more question. I see that you have a lot of books behind you. Books are delicious. What are you reading for yourself right now?

TM: The last one I just finished was by Jeanette Winterson, (said in a vaguely Carpathian accent) Frankissstein. It was delicious as all Jeanette Winterson novels are. 

The one that I picked up to read next is called I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai. 

I’m reading a lot of poetry of late. I’ve been reading a lot of Marie Howe and Henri Cole.

QK: I am looking forward to reading Mona Awad’s Rouge. She writes black humor horror that pushes your mental boundaries. (Rouge) is about the beauty industry and spa cults.

…Thank you so much. I greatly appreciate your time, and I’m excited for the event on Saturday night. Break all of the legs! 

TM: Thank you so much.

More information about the Revolutionary Space’s Raising Voices Festival and Taylor Mac’s event, 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Documentary & Discussion with Taylor Mac is HERE.

Mac’s event is ticketed. Tickets prices to 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Film Screening & Discussion with Taylor Mac range between $35 – $10 for students. 

About the HBO documentary:

Rich with stunning musical performances, the HBO-original documentary Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music captures the 24-hour immersive theatrical experience that Taylor Mac performed in 2016. The concert offered an alternative take on United States history, narrated through popular music performed by Mac, and accompanied by a 24-piece orchestra, in elaborate, decade-specific costumes by longtime-collaborator Machine Dazzle.  Audiences will view the documentary about Taylor Mac’s one-time-only, 24-hour immersive theatrical experience followed by an engaging conversation with the MacArthur Genius Fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist.

About Taylor Mac:

If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a donation. Every cent earned goes towards the upkeep and continuation of the New England Theatre Geek.
Become a patron at Patreon!

Comments are closed.