Taylor Mac

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged)
Friday, May 4, 7 p.m.
The Wellmont Theater, 5 Seymour St.

Conversation with Taylor Mac
Saturday, May 5, 2:30 p.m.
Buzz Aldrin Middle School, 173 Bellevue Ave.


What do you ask a genius? Taylor Mac, who performs “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” on Friday, May 4, is a genius according to the MacArthur Fellowship. Mac won the 2017 MacArthur “Genius” grant, as well as the 2017 Kennedy Prize in Drama, the Guggenheim Award and Doris Duke Award in 2016. In addition to performing in Montclair this weekend, Mac will be in Philadelphia in June. The New York-based theater artist, cabaret performer, director and producer is unique which might be why the word “genius” applies. 

What would you be if you weren’t a performer?

I’d probably be an ecologist. I like how one thing affects another thing. I find that interesting. How a cow poops in a field, and the poop fertilizes the earth and the crops grow and toxins go into the water and they disturb the shore and that changes this and that changes that. I’m interested in how everything on the planet affects everything else on the planet. I don’t really know what an ecologist does, but hopefully they don’t just teach. Hopefully they go out into the field and study things and observe the wildlife and plant life.

You’d be a research ecologist. Do you think you do that in your works as well, you look at how one thing impacts another thing?

Yeah! (laughs) I definitely feel that way in the room with the audience. I say something, part of the audience laughs, the other side doesn’t laugh and I go “Ooh, do I need to hold until the other side starts to laugh?” and sometimes I will, and sometimes I’ll say, “Oh, this part of the audience didn’t find that funny. What’s going on over here?” All of those things are fascinating to me. As a craftsperson, the science of performing is fascinating to me, the kind of Meisner acting technique of in-the-moment, playing tennis with your partner on the stage is fascinating to me, and also from a musician’s point of view, and how we’re always playing tennis with each other. And it’s super fascinating how the audience is playing it with each other and I’m playing it with them as well. There’s something about the liveness and interaction and how people change each other that is one of the core values of why I do what I do.

I’m always encouraging the audience to get up and change seats. We hunker down so much in our ideologies. As somebody whose job is to be a nomad, it’s really useful to go to lots of different theaters, see things from different perspectives. I just think that that’s good for people. All the studies are saying that sitting is really bad for you. To look at a person sitting is such a sad posture to me, it’s so scrunch up. Let’s liberate the audience from sitting just for 30 seconds of the show. I’m always trying to figure out how we can get them standing; do something like throw ping pong balls at each other or something physical that brings blood to their brains, gets them thinking again. So much of our vision is so shallow now with all of our devices. How do we get them to just lift their heads a little bit, or change the direction of their heads a little bit. I just think it’s really good for our brains and all the science seems to suggest that that is true.

So should people not bring a lot of stuff so they can move around more easily?

Try to bring something you can’t pick up easily. Not a big backpack. You don’t need to bring snacks, unless you’re diabetic.

When did you know you wanted to perform? Was it a goal from early on?

It’s kind of pathetic in a way. When I was five, I did my first play in school, I was good at it, and I decided then and there that was what I wanted to do.

What was the play?

It was a Christmas pageant. I was a toy soldier. It seems silly to decide what you want to do when you’re five, but it also makes life less stressful.

If the job fairy came down from heaven, and you had one wish, what would it be? It can only be about your job. You cannot wish for world peace, or an end to hunger.

I don’t put a lot of stock in the job fairy. I used to, and nothing happened. I am my own job fairy. One of the great joys of my life has been that I could change the way I thought theater could be done. I changed the way I work in the theater and invent my own job, so that’s what’s happened for me. I don’t ask permission to be creative, and I don’t ask permission to work. A lot of people in my field do. Auditions or submissions for plays, all those kind of things, always ask for permission to be creative. It’s a really useful thing to consider in terms of our fear of the immigrant, all these people so afraid that immigrants are going to take their job. I stand on the stage, I’m dressed in drag, every single day, nobody’s coming to take my job. And you know why? Because I invented my job. You can’t convince me that all Americans aren’t capable of inventing their own jobs.

If some queen from Mexico came, and was dressed up, and was fabulous, and wanted to perform on the stage and a theater wanted to book them instead of me, I’d be like “fantastic! Work! I can’t wait to see your show! And while you’re performing at that theater, I’m going go build a theater over here and make a different show. There’s enough, space, there’s enough jobs, there’s enough creativity, we don’t have to live in fear.