Taylor Mac on Making of HBO Documentary 24 Decade History of Music

Taylor Mac, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated performance artist and playwright, once spent 24 hours on a Brooklyn stage reexamining the American songbook while wearing ornate drag. Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music devoted one hour to each 10-year span since 1776, tracing U.S. history — particularly that of marginalized groups — through a glittering series of vignettes including “Yankee Doodle,” minstrel numbers, the Carousel aria “Soliloquy,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” lesbian anthems from the ’90s and much, much more. Mac spent six years performing the show in small chunks around the world before mounting it as a one-time endurance test that ranked among 2016’s most acclaimed cultural events. 

A mere 650 people got to witness Mac’s feat live, but thanks to Oscar-winning directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt, about the large-scale project that memorialized AIDS victims), it’s been condensed and preserved via HBO. Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music is both a stylish highlight reel and a moving testimonial from the lucky audience that became participants in Mac’s experiment. Epstein and Friedman blend performance footage and interviews with Mac’s collaborators to chronicle the ingenuity that would otherwise be lost to time. Their doc is eligible for an outstanding variety special (prerecorded) Emmy, and Mac tells THR how it came together. 

If you’re going to do something this singular and ambitious, how could you not film it and release it?

I’m a theater artist, so I make an ephemeral thing every time. It’s so much about the moment. We did have to ask ourselves questions: Why would it be important to film it? And how can the film be its own piece of art? 

What ultimately made you decide to showcase it this way then?

Because the 24-hour show was only being done once, part of the art of the show wasn’t the show itself but the idea that we did it. That’s because throughout our history, queerness has not always been acknowledged. So it was a little bit like demanding that it’d be a historical event. I really wanted the film to be its own art. Why I chose Rob and Jeff, and why they chose me, I think, is because of their legacy. I wanted it to be in conversation with their documentation of queer existence. 

You first started performing the show in 90-minute chunks, then three hours, six hours. Had you perfected the whole 24 hours before staging those excerpts? 

No, we didn’t really rehearse. I wouldn’t say anything I was going to say or do for the audience until I actually had an audience. We would just make sure that all the musicians’ charts were in the right order and that there wasn’t anything that was going to lead the orchestra or band astray. We would perform and then I would talk with Niegel Smith, my co-director of the stage show, and Matt Ray, the musical director and arranger, about what happened during the performances. I really tried to think of the audience as part of the process. Also, it was not about perfection. Leaning into our imperfections is how we often make human connections.

Part of what makes the film its own piece is the way the audience is incorporated. Onstage, you can only soak in so much of what they’re doing. Once you saw the footage, what surprised you?

I don’t think it was actually the audience stuff because I am so connected to that audience, and I am a creature of the moment. My training was all Meisner, and as a club performer, the club’s demand is that you stay in the moment.

What surprised me about the film was how beautifully shot it is. Onstage, I can’t really see the lighting. For my aesthetics, this takes drag out of capitalism. Most of the time, when we see drag in mass media, it’s very shiny, it’s very glossy. This is softer and calmer. There’s a gentle queerness to its extravagance, and it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to sell you anything. That, to me, is refreshing. I see it as an art film. That was true of the stage show, but you have so much distance from the show when you’re in a live performance, whereas the film is right there. All the big, extravagant things we do are still allowed to feel calm, like they’re leading with their heart rather than overpowering you. 

Does it bother you that drag culture has become so glossy and mainstream?

It doesn’t bother me. I think in some ways drag is a giant performance-art piece about capitalism more than anything. You go to a club and all the girls are lip-syncing and grabbing dollars. What is that, other than either a conscious or unconscious performance about capitalism? I see it as part of that journey, but it’s not what I’m particularly drawn to. If you’re selling, then that’s your main story all the time. It can be artistic, but is it art? I don’t know. That will sound really snobby to some people, but I think there’s a distinction between commerce and art. Throughout my life, a lot of the drag I’ve seen on TV and in clubs has been about bringing the audience to some kind of easy consumption or escapism. That’s just not my kink. 

You don’t want people to escape — you want them to engage.

Yeah. And I would say engaging happens in all those clubs as well in a deeply community way, but I just like ideas. Hearing Sasha Velour apologize for being smart on RuPaul was so painful to me. She has to do that in order to make herself seem human to everyone to win the prize of capitalism. But she was smart about her performance, and RuPaul is one of the smartest queens around, so why is the message that we’re just silly and fun, when actually there’s this deep intellect happening? I just prefer to dig right into the intellect and the poetry. I love poetry! 

Were there numbers or moments from the show that you felt were essential to include in the film?

“Snakeskin Cowboy” was really essential because that is kind of the example of what the show is doing: taking these things that have harmed us and twisting them. The activism of the show is “We can transform the world,” like this homophobic song that Ted Nugent wrote. You can turn it into a gay prom song and use it to bring us all together. I just love seeing the audience slow-dance together with someone of the same gender. It’s the first time a lot of queer people saw straight people stretch toward them to center queerness. That’s revolutionary. 

Onstage, did you feel that? Obviously, straight people embracing queerness at a theater venue in Brooklyn is not that shocking.

Sure, but you haven’t seen it in the Bible Belt and the Rust Belt. 

How did that feel? 

Sometimes it’s easier in some of these conservative towns and cities to get people do it than it is in progressive New England, where they have such a puritan dominance of expression. They would never slow-dance with somebody of their same gender, whereas in the South, they’re game for the party. But then there are times when the cliché just hits you. People stand up in the crowd and scream at you. I’ve had people throw things at me. I’ve had people cursing at me from the audience. Even in progressive Los Angeles or Brooklyn, some people are awkward with it. And it’s not just the straights — it’s also the homosexuals. When people say, “You’re preaching to the converted,” I don’t think I am. I’m preaching to my kids about how we can be better as a community. 

Do you find yourself missing the show?

Sometimes, but that’s also what’s so great about having this film. You know, the thing that I’m saying is often not actually the thing that I’m saying. You need the full 24 hours and the full breadth of the work to understand what I’m doing, but the film communicates slyly and in other ways, like which audience member it shows at which moment. I find that exciting to watch. The more time I spend with it, the more beautiful those moments become for me. I love how the audience responds. They’re all so brave. The longer it lives in the world, the more it becomes a community project. 

This story first appeared in a May standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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