On Taylor Mac

By Nina Mankin (Dramaturg)

‘Drag Queens, Freaks, Queers, Mermaids, Shaman, Humanity, and the Art of Heterogeneity:
A View of Taylor Mac’

The Following essay was written for the book Out of Silence: on Censorship and Self-Censorship. The book, published by Manchester University Press, will be out in late 2009. Caridad Svich conceived of and edited the volume.

“I’m just trying to find ways to remind people that they’re human.” – Taylor Mac

Censorship, Taylor Mac will tell you, is everywhere: “We censor ourselves constantly, everywhere we go in life. Censorship is group-think (and group-think is censorship) – it’s about homogenization. To stand out, to express yourself, is to stand up against that force that wants to make everything the same.”
Taylor Mac doesn’t stand out when you see him walking down the street. This performer who has made a career decorating his often naked body with a creative assortment of found materials, giving his passionate (and sometimes shocking) insights into the workings of love and politics while wearing six inch stilettos, is, offstage, a soft spoken white guy in a t-shirt and jeans. “My performance is about turning myself inside out and putting my inside on the outside” he said recently. “It’s very common for someone to come up to me after a show, when I’m out of costume, and tell me that I’m actually good enough to perform without the trappings. I know then that I’ve made them uncomfortable, that they don’t want their understanding of what is ‘normal’ to be challenged. Because what they’re really saying is ‘you don’t have to be a drag queen! You’re good enough to just perform in your jeans and t-shirt because drag is cheap and you could be highbrow.’ And they’re right: I choose to be lowbrow and cheap and outrageous and shocking in order to surprise them into feeling and thinking - to get them to stop censoring themselves and their emotions, if just for right now.”
Taylor Mac grew up in suburban California in the 1980s. Not the California of organic food and the Internet boom, but the lower middle class and working class California; “Tract houses blending into nothing” he writes, lining endless expanses of malls and auto supply stores. Taylor’s mom started an art school for kids out of his childhood home. Taylor traces his own theatrical aesthetic, in which such crafty materials as thumb tacks, rubber gloves, soda cans, envelopes and rubber bands adorn his body in costumes that he calls “drag,” back to these days, as he says in the interview in this volume, “there was always a lot of collage going on.”
Taylor Mac is a drag artist who never dresses in what most people think of as drag. There are no fake breasts or traditional make-up or women’s clothing. And while his expressionistic costuming is at times extremely sexual, it isn’t about the traditional trappings of gender so much as it’s about the beauty (and ugliness) of disguise itself. Because, as Taylor is fond of saying, whatever role you play, “it’s all drag.” It would be a mistake to call Taylor a transvestite. The 2000 American College dictionary defines a transvestite as: “A person who dresses and acts in a style or manner traditionally associated with the opposite sex. ” Revealing some indication of cultural change, my 1987 edition defines transvestite as “A person who exhibits an abnormal desire to dress and act…” (emphasis mine.) While Taylor’s work pays homage to a history of cross-dressing that, in Taylor’s personal history, goes back to drag clubs in San Francisco and Provincetown in the ‘90s, Taylor never “cross” dresses. Still, Taylor Mac claims such drag queen/transvestite icons as Mother Flawless Sabrina and Ethyl Eichelberger as personal heroes and mentors. Along with Sam Shepard and Shakespeare.
In his plays and his solo performance work, (a differentiation that Taylor Mac himself has recently decided to reject, calling all his work “plays”), Taylor never plays the part of men or women so much as he plays with his audience’s insecurities (and pleasures) — about their own gender identification, sexuality and disguises — by revealing his own (or those of the character that is “Taylor Mac.”) It’s sometimes discomforting, but “comfort” is one of the things Taylor Mac has made it his life’s work to challenge:
If you express yourself really for who you are, it can make people really uncomfortable, which can be risky. You risk annihilation – literally, as physical violence, as well as emotionally as shame and rejection. And of course there’s the fear that if I say something truthful onstage no one will want to book me. Talking about the boyfriend who stuck crystal meth up my ass while I was sleeping is probably not going to get me booked at Lincoln Center! But that’s the role of the artist (or artists I admire). I have to choose to do that or not - not because I just want to say shocking things – and believe me I have no illusions that I am in the least ‘avant garde’ in that way — but because I believe that is what a play needs at that particular juncture in order to do what I want it to do which is, yes, push those boundaries that try to keep us all comfortable. …While also being very entertaining!

Including Taylor Mac in a volume about resisting censorship, makes sense. His work often contains graphic descriptions of gay sex, told as personal stories in his solo work. There is usually nudity: in his apocalyptic high-jinx musical about the imminent “revitalisation” (real estate euphemism for obliteration) of Coney Island, Red Tide Blooming (or R.T.B, which premiered at PS122 in 2006) everyone gets naked at one point or another. All of his work challenges conventional norms of gender: Taylor’s fantasmagorical characters largely identify both as masculine and feminine (the hero of R.T.B. is a hermaphrodite sea creature) and even his more “conventional” heroes, like the central character in his yet-to-be-produced play Blue Grotto, struggle with issues of gender identification. And Taylor’s main political bête noire – already alluded to in this piece: “the homogenisation of culture,” (or “dwindling down to same”) is often represented in his work by the evils of the religious and political right. So, rich subject matter for any hungry arbiter of culture and taste.
Long before Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Alan Ginsberg’s Howl (1957), and further back even than 19th century drag salons and cabarets, this kind of “radical” content has been associated with what many queer studies scholars have called "world making.” This is what Shane Vogel, writing about drag cabaret performers “Kiki and Herb,” calls “the mapping of commonly accessible [queer] worlds that allow for the creation of counterpublics ” – alternate “norms” that can exist independent of (oppressive) societal norms. This kind of performance, then, is as much about the creation of an insider outsider community as it is about the material itself. But while Kiki and Herb, and the writer/performer Charles Busch before them, have taken this kind of queer community building all the way to Broadway, Taylor Mac is very consciously not trying to project this sort of insider culture onto his work and his audience: “I’m not interested in all these distinctions: who’s inside, who’s outside” Taylor said to me recently noting his desire to play to all variety of audiences. “Having people want to book me in gay venues only – assuming that only a certain kind of person is going to get what I do or, more importantly, will get something from what I do—that’s a kind of censorship that happens to me all the time. I don’t think of what I do as gay theatre.”
Taylor Mac realised he would be an actor about the same time he became a political activist. In high school he snuck off to the San Francisco AIDS Walk, to the horror of his teachers who asked him to remove his ACT UP! button on his return (he didn’t.) And he was very involved in the environmental movement. Taylor left San Francisco State after one year of actor training to walk across the country in protest of nuclear energy. He credits that year of communal living (and dumpster diving) as the basis for much of his artistic ethic. Taylor eventually continued his actor training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York City and worked off and off-off Broadway, acting in other people’s plays, throughout the late ‘90s and into the ‘00s.
Even while Taylor was performing in other writers’ work, he was developing his own writing and performance in the world of Downtown clubs and impromptu performance spaces where new vaudeville and burlesque flourished from the late 1980s. Five years ago, Taylor Mac was presenting his drag performance and plays almost exclusively at these downtown parties and burlesque/vaudeville clubs. Though this is still very much Taylor Mac’s world, something has been changing. Now he’s invoked by theatre and performance curators as one of the leading lights of a new generation of theatre artists. Taylor was named one of ten New York playwrights to watch in 2005 by Improper Magazine and one of fifteen nytheatre.com’s people of the year in 2006. In 2007 he received the James Hammerstein award for playwriting and he recently received very competitive (and highly prestigious) grants from both the Rockefeller Map Fund (2008) and Creative Capital (2009). And, in a testament to Taylor’s success at blurring the boundaries between performance and playwriting, he was recently elected into the exclusive theatre community of New York’s New Dramatists.
I first met Taylor in 2004 while working on the HERE Arts Center adaptation of the Orpheus myth (directed and co-conceived by Kristin Marting.) I started working with him as a dramaturg, and also as a singer/performer, shortly thereafter. In Orpheus, Taylor played the (very straight) pop rock star title role. Halfway into the run, Taylor brought in a publicity postcard for his show Live Patriot Acts (2004, PS122). The piece, a cabaret-styled performance of Downtown artists responding to the current political climate, was a follow-up to his The Face of Liberalism (2004, The Marquee), which was Taylor’s solo response to the War On Terror. Taylor had been doing performance pieces at bars and clubs while also pursuing a career as an actor. It was in Liberalism that Taylor first put together the “mish mash” of rants, original songs, stories and wild costuming that would become his signature: theatre in which Taylor “brings the party” to his audience, while doing fundamentally political work. The Face of Liberalism featured such songs as the raucous “The Revolution will not be Masculized” and the beautifully poignant a cappella “Fear Itself” (“We’ve nothing to fear but fear itself/I’m afraid of fear itself.” which Mandy Patinkin, one of Taylor’s increasingly diverse array of collaborators has recently been adding to his own solo show.) This solo-performance piece ran for six-months, once a week, to sold-out audiences in a basement bar on the Bowery.
The postcard for Live Patriot Acts shows Taylor standing, back toward the camera, wearing only a g-string and stilettos, his red white and blue painted face turned provocatively back toward us. I was stunned: Taylor Mac never hides; he’s just completely unassuming. And his salt-of-the-earth, poised and unobtrusive persona hardly suggests the political and aesthetic extremes of his performance credo and idiom.
Toward the beginning of his solo show The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac (2007, The Public Theatre) Taylor goes into a characteristic rant. Theatre artists, he complains, want their work to be seen as universal, not “gay” or “political” or “black” “Latino” “feminist” “Filipino” “Asian” (“Ak ak ak ak ak ak!!”) It’s a dizzying explosion of labels that ends with Taylor taking a deep breath and declaring that he is, in fact, a homosexual theatre artist and, if you’re straight, you can just, well…listen (big audience laugh). He then proceeds to go into a very moving, very funny, story-song (of his own – most of the songs Taylor performs are original) in which he juxtaposes his own empty attempts at sexual connection with the birth of a (heterosexual) friend’s baby. The piece ends quietly, the audience too moved to applaud. These pieces perform a humanism that is at the heart of Taylor’s concept of “heterogeneity.” Humanism: a belief in the potential for human goodness and transformation through the search for truth, morality and human commonality. “Secular Humanism,” a philosophy that was declared super un-cool by the post-sixties generation of academics steeped in post-structuralism and identity politics…. My partner, who has never seen Taylor Mac before, and whose discomfort I could sense during the earlier rant, turns to me at the end of this pair of theatrical pieces and whispers, “He’s a shaman!”
I’ve heard Taylor use the word shaman to talk about what artists do, particularly queer artists who he says (admittedly citing one of his friends and mentors Penny Arcade) are “not gay or straight: queer is a person who was ostracized by society to such a degree that they could never ostracize anyone else.” Adding “For Joseph Campbell that’s the definition of a shaman: someone who had a profound experience at a young age that separated him/her from society and so they are in a unique position to help society heal.”
I do think Taylor communicates with the spirit world in his theatrical flights of human transformation. At times he is most certainly channeling the seminal performance artist/writer/filmmaker Jack Smith (or maybe Smith is just whispering into his ear saying things like “use what you’ve got” “dirtier” “get angry here” “now talk straight at them.”) The night of the first PS122 “Ethyl” Eichelberger awards I was stunned when I realised that Taylor was dressed in a costume (Taylor makes most of his own) that was almost identical to one of the self-styled outfits the writer/performer wore in the documentary screened that night. Taylor, who was awarded the first ever “Ethyl,” had never seen Ethyl before. Taylor now says that his work is perhaps closest to Ethyl’s amalgamation of classical story telling and wild revelry (interestingly, they both studied at AADA). If Jack Smith is whispering in one of his ears, I do believe Ethyl now whispers in his other. I think, at times, like all good shaman, Taylor is able to cure human suffering. And, like all good trickster/shaman, sometimes he cures folks by making them suffer — following one of his rants can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating.
Taylor embraces his role as societal clown. He has recently taken to referring to himself as a Shakespearean fool – a highbrow shaman. Even his most “naturalistic” writing contains extremes of corporality and theatricality that make one feel like the drama could blow apart into comedic insanity at any moment. Or go someplace emotionally devastating – both of which are true.
Taylor mostly acts in his own plays and he is always IN the audience. At times he demands audience complicity through direct participation. In the workshop production of The Young Ladies Of, Taylor’s epistolary exploration into desire, loss and cultural obsession with fathers, (which premierd at Taylor’s artistic home, HERE, in the Fall of 2007 and is now touring extensively), the audience wrote letters that were used in the piece. For a while he played with the idea of having audience members act as assistants throughout. In R.T.B. he wanted the audience to have flash cameras so that they become creative soul-snatchers. Taylor believes in audience participation (in whatever form it takes.) He sees participation as part of his own duty, both as a theatre artist, and as a citizen.
Taylor Mac’s clownish corporeality is often confrontational, as when his actors do naked gymnastics down center stage, under the noses of a stunned front row. It is sometimes arresting, like when he talks about the dried semen flaking off his chest following a vacuous sexual encounter. And sometimes it’s terrifying, like when he wrenches off the duct tape that has been securing his penis to his butt in R.T.B. (“It really doesn’t hurt that much” he’ll tell anyone who asks afterward “it depends on how well I shave.”) But, once again, Taylor doesn’t see this as characteristically “avant-garde” (and he’s not interested in shock value) so much as it’s his way of giving his audience a good time – bringing them together, finding collective human commonality, in the wildness of the event.
Taylor moves between theatrical genres with an excessive disregard for continuity but that doesn’t ever mean that his work disregards theatrical structure. Structurally, Taylor Mac’s work has embraced the conventions and principles of classical western narrative — whether Aristotle or Joseph Campbell (with whom he has an ongoing obsession).
When we first got together to work on R.T.B., the script was a bunch of half-written scenes and possible songs with a few strong characters. I asked Taylor what he thought it was about and he said, “It’s about one lonely freak looking for other freaks in a world that rejects difference” and he added, revealingly, “Actually, I think it’s ‘The Last Unicorn.’” And so, a story that features Lynne Cheney as a cut-throat lesbian pulp fiction writer in love with Saddam Hussein; a has-been performance artist desperate not to grow old; and a hermaphrodite sea creature who finally has the bravery to stand up to the Collective Conscious, is actually structured very much like a traditional fairy tale.
“God is in the detail” – a Taylorism (he says it’s an “expression” but the only version I’ve ever heard invokes the devil, not god….) I’ve come to understand this phrase to mean that the challenge, the radicalness, of a thing is in its specificity (the more uniquely individual you can make a dramatic experience, the more universal, the more humanist, it becomes.) I think this is one of the reasons Taylor categorically rejects using any brand names or references to celebrities in his work: branding is cultural whitewash. It’s part of the homogeneity, the “dwindling down to same” that Taylor has taken on as his global antagonist. Brand names obliterate details and it’s in the details that Taylor finds heterogeneity, what Taylor says he strives to achieve in his art. To continue with this logic, then, God (and Taylor Mac does not refer to himself as a religious person) is in the inherent variety of human existence.
Much of the work Taylor Mac does with a dramaturg is very traditional: breaking work down into a classical three act structure, delineating arcs, beats and turning points (some of which may not yet be written.) Taylor is not afraid of re-writing and he often comes back with a completely rewritten play. The biggest challenge, working dramaturgically with Taylor, is to not pull him back. Taylor’s style is to overwrite and there are inevitably moments in his work when words spill out in an excess of meaning and emotion that cries out for revision because it just doesn’t work. But allowing himself to fail is part of Taylor’s methodology. It’s a slippery line, but when he hits it just right, I do believe it’s that failure that allows for a kind of numinous opening in his audience, maybe because of their giddy surrender or exhaustion or some other kind of ineffable alchemy; you can feel the audience move in toward him in the potential train wreck, and the next moment pays off like crazy.
"My dramaturg says…" Taylor declared to my infinite discomfort at the 2007 No Passport ‘Dreaming the Americas’ conference at the Martin E. Segal Center at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, "that I am an artist working in the genre of pastiche." The term came up over one of Taylor’s and my marathon breakfast meetings when he was struggling with how to label himself. “You embrace discontinuity,” I suggested, “You enjoy stylistic collisions; your work is excessive; you don’t care if you’re cool and, in fact, you would rather be kitsch than cool; you’re a pastiche artist.” Taylor now says that he is a theatre artist working “in the genre of pastiche.”
I recently turned to that bastion of contemporary culture, Wikipedia, and was delighted to find the advisement that, in architecture, the “mere invocation” of the word pastiche can be enough to condemn a piece as “unworthy of further consideration” and that writers should “use the term with caution”(!) In fact, one of the coolest things about pastiche is just how historically uncool it is. The modernist idea of pastiche (Rococo being the most recognised genre) infers that the artist doesn’t know what he is doing – that he’s just arbitrarily taking things (ornament, iconography, historical and structural components) out of context and throwing them together: collision for effect, not for meaning.
But postmodernists know that there is no such thing as content without meaning. Which brings us back to this ineffable open place Taylor Mac sometimes manages to win from his audience. Pastiche, to postmodernists, infers a void; before the pastiche, there was a place that desired filling. The interesting question then becomes, not so much what is the pastiche, but rather what is the void that this excess (because pastiche implies excess) reveals?
Taylor’s work does seem to be filling a void, at least for many of the audience members and theatre artists with whom I talk about his work. He says that it’s the pastiche, the heterogeneity and variation he presents that opens up his audience to feel they are in the presence of something new. The audience has space to experience the void because the work doesn’t reinforce the easy labeling that is inherent to “homogeneity” (which is what makes something “insider art.”) So Taylor’s pastiche is a kind of anti-genre (or perhaps it is a post-genre in which the exclusivity of genre itself is criticised). “I believe people are trained to think of themselves and art, politics, feelings, etc. as being one thing.” Taylor emails me, “I'm trying to show that we are more than just one thing (which of course includes being one thing at the same time as we are many). I'm using [pastiche] as a way to emphasis the various things that we are.”
Inviting his audience to experience the variety of being human is Taylor Mac’s theatrical mission. Taylor sees himself, and his cohort of “freaks” (an accolade he gives to anyone who consciously lives outside the homogeneous world of “same” – public nudity being a shoe-in for nomination) as emissaries of heterogeneity. And this work takes place wherever they choose to don their drag – whether it’s in a theatre, on the street, or at a cultural event like the Coney Island Mermaid Parade.
The Mermaid Parade: Taylor Mac is dressed (or not depending on your point of view) in a hoola-skirt of multi-colored hand-painted six-pack plastic rings (that do actually look something like seaweed). His shaved head is half covered by a fraying blond wig. His large sand-covered feet sport six-inch pumps. Sky blue grease paint covers his entire face. His green-painted cheekbones float like tropical islands in the blue, while the glued-on seashells arcing above his eyebrows create the effect of some kind of weird African mask. Taylor is also sporting a long strand of pretty white seashells that descends down from the blond wig all the way across his bare torso to his gold-emblazoned nipples. He looks like some androgynously lusty Neptune who has been dressed up by a group of nine-year-old girls at a birthday party. We’re on the boardwalk at Coney Island just after the Mermaid Parade. This is one of the most important yearly performances for Taylor and his community of freaks, missionaries, as Taylor sees it, of all that is good in the world: missionaries of heterogeneity.
Taylor and his post-parade cohort (most of whom also work in the club and new vaudeville circuit) are on the boardwalk in a Fellini-esque mélange. Most of the others are dressed more conventionally "mermaid" than Taylor. “Tigger” (James) Ferguson has on a long shimmering white fishtail cut so low it exposes his red pubic hair. He drops the tail to reveal a large plastic octopus covering his sex. Taylor’s friend Darrell is all pink and pastel blue with a luxurious tetra head-fin and enormous fake eyelashes. His gorgeous airbrushed tail is poised, impossibly, half way down his butt. Dirty Martini, the definition of voluptuous, her gorgeously large bare belly and breasts defying any contemporary notion of "fit," has her mouth stretched wide in a happy guffaw. It is, as Taylor writes in Red Tide Blooming (which, not coincidentally, ends at the mermaid parade), a “freaky conglomeration…a divine picture.”
Taylor Mac likes classical act structure. This time on the boardwalk is the second act in a three- act day that will end in a tranquil post-parade languor on the beach (the bitter-sweet ending of R.T.B.) The first act in the day has been the parade. All the freaks (straight, gay, transsexual, kids, grown-ups, families) danced down the middle of Coney Island’s Surf Avenue between throngs of gawking onlookers. They danced past the judges and out, in a glorious “messy mass of divergence” (also from R.T.B.), onto the boardwalk. This is when the second act begins: when the freaks seminally mingle with the onlookers who take millions of picture while the freaks accommodate by smiling and posing with mom.
In R.T.B. the Collective Conscious (the villain, represented by a bright green Gap-like sweater puppet) wants to eradicate all things that make it uncomfortable. Hermaphrodite sea creatures, and freaks generally, make the C.C. particularly uncomfortable because they challenge the rationality of the “Collective Conscious visualisation of the Armageddon” that has all the “cool kids” and other posers mesmerised into a state of passive homogeneity. At the climax of R.T.B., The Collective Conscious finally taunts the otherwise timid hermaphrodite sea creature (Olokun, played by Taylor Mac) into taking heroic action. It is a moment that makes the Collective Conscious (and the audience) genuinely, climactically, and sublimely, uncomfortable.
On the boardwalk, this moment of sublime uncomfortability happens when a group of young Hispanic men stumble into the mayhem. The young men strut up to the now tail-less and almost naked Tigger (remember the plastic octopus…) and stop dead in collective amazement. They are at once horrified, furious, disgusted and completely intrigued. They stammer and chortle words like “gross!” and “faggot,” and make exclamations to Jesus as they skirt around the freaks who smile congenially, seemingly without fear. It’s unclear what the young men will do. They could beat someone up or strip off their own clothes and join in; it looks like they don’t quite know themselves. What is totally clear is that this is a moment they won’t quickly forget; maybe it’s even changed their lives.
There is a section in The Young Ladies Of when Taylor writes a letter to his Vietnam War lieutenant dad who died when he was still very young. He asks his father about the nature of bravery and pride and then he tells him about himself: “I have learned that bravery comes in all kinds of forms, as does fear. I like to think I’m a brave person although sometimes I falter.” And he continues, “Bravery comes from overcoming fear in the need to make a change.” This is the bravery Taylor Mac is celebrating when Olokun stands up to the Collective Conscious, it is this bravery he is celebrating when Taylor crows “Work!” to the transvestite strutting proudly down Second Avenue. And it is this bravery that is exhibited as one of the mermaid comrades drops her tail, smiles, and puts her arm around a confused looking young Hispanic man.
This is the good that freaks – queers, shaman, artists (as defined earlier in this essay) — do for society; they create discomfort, they shake things up. They bring joy and anxiety and sheer “what the fuck!” amazement at what Taylor Mac sees as the best of humanity: our continual variation, our homogeneity; our humanity. These moments, these “interventions” (my word) are what Taylor Mac relishes in his work. In a group email Taylor sent out from a recent tour of the U.K., he recounted an interaction he had with “a three-toothed old macho man in the audience for one of the shows.” “He kept talking back to me all through — he was either drunk or crazy or a little bit of both. At one point I called him ‘darling’ and he said, in an offended way, ‘You call me darling!’ I'm not sure what brought him to the show, but by the end of it I had him up on stage dressed up in mylar and posing feminine with me. When I bowed, he came up on stage and shook my hand saying ‘Well done.’” And Taylor concludes, “Some of you do this on a daily basis, and I am in awe.” Indeed.

[Nina Mankin is a performer, writer and dramaturg. She was the dramaturg for Taylor Mac’s Red Tide Blooming (performed at PS122 in Spring of ’06) as well as The Young Ladies of (performed at Here Arts Center in ’07). She is currently working (as dramaturg and muse-wrangler) with Ricky Ian Gordon on his upcoming musical, Sycamore Trees. Nina has recorded two albums of original songs and is currently working on her third album. She has worked with numerous theatre artists and musicians as a performer and as a dramaturg. Nina has an M.A. in Performance Studies from NYU. ]

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