Onstage, wearing pancake makeup and a leopard print pillbox hat sized for a queen with a serious Oxy habit, theater artist Taylor Mac is training for a marathon. Next year, Mac will finally perform the entirety of the twenty-four-hour, 248-song cycle A 24-Decade History of Popular Music – a work that puts the “magnum” in magnum opus. By comparison, tonight’s fragment is barely a sprint: Over the course of the next three hours, Mac and co. will musically guide the audience from the shtetls of Russia to the tenements of the Lower East Side, dragging us deep into the foxholes of World War I before launching us like champagne corks into the frenetic nightlife of the Roaring Twenties.
“Everything you’re feeling is appropriate!” Mac shouts repeatedly over the evening, as the audience sits, stands, and dances on command. At one point, a volunteer moons the house while Mac sweetly croons “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” Later, Mac commands everyone in the audience over fifty to teach everyone under fifty a dance move of their choosing. After some mumbled introductions, a soft butch with short brown hair has me swaying my hips in lopsided figure eights.
Each decade gets an hour, an outfit, and ten songs (give or take), which were popular among the specific segment of America that Mac has focused on for that span: ‘90’s alternative lesbians, say, or turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants. It is a queer, feminist, anti-racist version of American history, and judy (Mac’s stage gender pronoun) tells it with sequins, balloons, and plastic toys.
Mac is very clear about not being transgender, but gender play is an integral part of his work – to such a degree that he’s adopted “judy” as an answer to the audience members who demand to know just “what” he is.
“I wanted this pronoun that would make them ridiculous as they were trying to make me ridiculous,” Mac laughed. “If you say ‘judy’ and roll your eyes at the same time, you’re immediately camp.”
The Decades show emerged from a seminal moment in Mac’s life. As a young person growing up in Stockton, California in the ‘80s, the first time he ever saw out queer people, he saw thousands of them, gathered together at an AIDS protest that he stumbled upon accidentally. The mood was joyous and grim, angry and tender, sexual and political. The AIDS crisis is by no means over, but those who were engaged in that first wave will forever be bonded as veterans of a war that most Americans refused to acknowledge was happening.
“I wanted to make a show that was a metaphor for that experience of building community as a result of it falling apart,”Mac told me over coffee, out of drag.
It is through shared experience that we form community at all, he believes. By putting his audience through twenty-four-hours of non-stop performance – through the decay, stress, and strangeness that comes with sitting together as your deodorant wears off and your mask comes down – Mac hopes to create a kind of temporary, art-based community that eradicates the walls between audience and performer, and audience and audience. Indeed, by the end of just the three hours I saw, I’d laughed, cried, met my neighbors on all sides, and recontextualized flappers as a response to World War I.
“When was the last time you went to the theater and actually felt something authentic?” Mac asked me rhetorically as we discussed the show. By this, he meant something more than the reflected glow of the emotions of the actors. When was I made to feel something in my body? When was I moved? More than his song and dance on the stage – beautiful though those are – this is his true art: Breaking down the walls that keep us from feeling genuine emotion. The audience participation in the Decades show is a series of goads designed to keep us off-balance, uncertain, and in the moment. Only when we are fully present, when the detached superiority of being a spectator is taken from us, can we reach something real.
“I work in catharsis,” Mac stated matter-of-factly, as though “catharsis” were a kind of paint, like oil or watercolor. “You have to go through something in order to change. That’s the job of the artist: To incite change.”
At first glance, Mac’s work might appear slapdash or improvised, but don’t be tricked. For all his manic energy and fantabulous visions, Mac is a rare contradiction: The earnest drag queen, the serious fool. For years, he’s successfully plied his absurd blend of performance art, drag, and theater in New York City’s downtown scene. Yet despite glowing reviews in The New York Times (which called his 2009 Obie-Award winning show The Lily’s Revenge “a romantic odyssey spanning realms human and horticultural, spiritual and worldly, raunchy and academic”), Mac’s work has never made it above 14th Street and onto the bigger Broadway and Off-Broadway stages.
But all that will change tonight, November 8, when his kitchen-sink drama "Hir" opens at Playwrights Horizons. Hir is Mac’s first formally conventional play, as well as the first of his works that doesn’t feature him in it. Yet in Hir, Mac has found a way to blend all the elements that make his personal performances so captivating – the tenderness, the brilliance, the absurdity, the unease, the pain – without having to act them out himself.
“Hir,” the part of speech, is a gender-neutral singular pronoun, usually paired with “ze” (as in “Ze would like hir cake now.”) Hir, the play, is a two-act family drama done in an aesthetic that the rehearsal script describes as “absurd realism…. Realistic characters in a realistic circumstance that is so extreme it is absurd.”
Hir’s subject is the Connors, a family that is approaching either total breakdown or total breakthrough. The aging, abusive patriarch has had a stroke that has left him nearly incapacitated, and he spends much of the play incoherent and in a diaper. The younger child, Max, has recently come out as transgender, and together, ze and hir mother, Paige, have been on a voyage of self-discovery through densely academic queer theory. While some humor in the play is derived from the obtuse jargon of gender, we also see its usefulness: For Paige and Max, this deep dive into trans academia has helped them free themselves from a lifetime of misogynistic and transphobic expectations and abuse. When the older, straight son comes home from the marines – stricken with a case of PTSD that (among other things) makes him vomit when stressed – he finds a family he barely recognizes and cannot save. Moreover, it’s a family who may not want or need his version of salvation. There is a woundedness at the heart of each of these characters, and they take that hurt out on each other in unexpected and terrible ways.
“It's an endlessly surprising, generous, scary, funny, insightful play,” said Tim Sanford, the Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons, who programmed Hir into their season. “There's a world of hurt indicated in it, and it's transformed, as Taylor's work often is, through extremity into a kind of absurd comedy, but it doesn't stay there. It evolves.”
“I wanted to write a play where all the characters are vying for the central position,” Mac explained. “Because that’s what’s happening in America right now: The former central character, the straight white male, is being evicted slowly.”
One of the things that makes Hir so surprising is that Mac manages to find some tenderness for its patriarch, without falling victim to the tedious trope of the straight white man who learns and grows through the work of the fill-in-the-blank minorities around him. Instead, we see what happens to those who fail to change. Without power, the petty tyrant becomes the petulant child, raging uselessly against a world that he doesn’t even understand he had a hand in creating. In the end, you feel as much for him as you do the other characters.
When I brought up this generosity of spirit, Mac quoted Warhol superstar and performance art legend Penny Arcade, saying “a queer is someone who was ostracized as a young person to such a degree that they don't want to ostracize anyone else” – whether that “anyone” is a young genderqueer teen or an aging straight guy.
Director Rachel Chavkin, who founded the experimental theater company The TEAM and who worked with Mac on The Lily’s Revenge, characterized his approach as being a tent big enough to fit even those he disagrees with, which requires writing all of his characters (even the antagonists and fools) with humanity and nuance.
By so doing, “Taylor gets all these straight white men laughing and taking part in their own destruction,” Chavkin told me. Aside from being a sort of kindness, this approach is eminently practical: If the job of the artist is to incite change, then the folks you want to change have to be in the room. That means depicting them as real people, not just foils to your main characters or one-dimensional villains.
Perforce, this also requires that Mac’s heroes and protagonists have real flaws. While Max is sometimes the voice of reason in the play, ze’s still a teenager, prone to bursts of petulance and slammed doors. Isaac’s actions often seem reasonable, but we see how this “logical” behavior is leading directly to becoming like his abusive father. And despite Paige’s self-liberation through trans theory, she still enacts a kind of forced feminization as a means of degrading her formerly-abusive husband, putting him in clown-like makeup and dresses to humiliate him. Their relationship of dominance has been inverted, a purposeful move on Mac’s part, but one that makes Paige the most difficult character to sit with on the stage. Much like the Decades show, Hir moves rapidly between hilarious send-up and this kind of unsettling drama, keeping the audience engaged and emotionally present. Its text is so dense and surprising, audience members may have to return more than once to get the full meaning.
Cisgender people writing substantively about trans people has become more common in mainstream entertainment over the last few years, from Jill Soloway’s Emmy-dominating TV show Transparent to Sean Baker’s award-winning independent film Tangerine. While this is an improvement over transgender characters being non-existent or relegated to the role of “dead prostitute” in an episode of Law & Order, it’s not without problems: Transgender writers aren’t being given the tools to tell their own stories, while storylines involving trans characters are often short-lived and more about the cisgender people around them then they are about the authentic experiences of trans people. This is not a knock on Mac or Playwrights Horizons, but I find it unsurprising that Playwrights’ first major show with transgender content was written by a cisgender man. And they’re not alone in this. During their winter season, The Public Theater will stage a production of Southern Comfort, a musical based on the documentary about Robert Eads, a transgender man with cancer. It, too, has been written and directed by cis people.
Being able to play with gender is a privilege mostly enjoyed by cisgender people, for whom the stakes of gender-transgression are generally much lower. Rudy Giuliani can safely go out wearing a dress in a way many trans women cannot. To some trans people, Mac’s use of "judy" as a performative gender pronoun might seem the height of oblivious privilege – making a mockery of something that, for them, is all too often deadly serious. However, gender play can also be dangerous for gay men, for whom stereotypically feminine behaviors are often met with assault or other kinds of violence. So "judy" can be read as an act of solidarity — a pushback against the gender-policing that various queer and gender-nonconforming people all face.
As a large (and growing) community, it’s impossible to expect all trans people will have the same response to anything. Much like the pronoun “judy,” Hir balances on the knife’s edge of sincerity and absurdity, and it’s bound to have its detractors and its boosters. But as part of Mac’s goal is to not ostracize the transgender community, it’s worth asking the question: How do cisgender performers make work about gender that isn’t transphobic?
Joshua Bastian Cole is a PhD candidate at Cornell University, where he studies Performing and Media Arts, and specifically, trans men as actors. Last year, he made a list of “excellent plays by trans-identified and trans-ally-identified playwrights,“ which he called The Killjoys lisT. In it, he included a rubric to try and define ally work, so I asked him his thoughts about Hir. While he was unfamiliar with the play, he said “Taylor is fantastic and a major talent worth giving attention to.” Yet like me, he was still troubled by the ways in which transgender plays and playwrights are kept out of institutions. Where are the plays authored and produced by trans people themselves?
“They exist,” Cole told me flatly. “They're just not getting produced.” And when they are produced, it’s on a much smaller level. Cole believes that this truth complicates, but does not negate, the ability of cisgender playwrights to write trans stories. “I respect the folks who are aware of the space they are taking up,” he told me, “and the privilege they have, and how they use that.”
Privilege is a form of social capital, and some of us have more than others. But how we spend that capital is our choice — and Mac is actively using his to promote trans people in the world of American theater, another way in which he is living his dictum that the work of the artist is to incite change. In Mac’s case, that work goes far beyond just his writing. Chavkin, the director, characterized Mac as “a leading voice in this field [of] artists who are being the change they want to see in the world.”
Take the casting process for Hir. As written in the rehearsal script, the description of the character Max ends “It is important to me that the actor playing Max be someone who was a biological female and now identifies as transgender or genderqueer.” Playwrights Horizons was enthusiastically on board with this requirement. But when it came time for casting, they ran into unexpected resistance from Backstage, the largest site for casting notices on the Internet, who said their electronic system required that listings be male or female.
“We said ‘this is not appropriate,’” said Sanford, Playwrights’ artistic director. “But when they printed it, they just picked one.”
To Mac, this was unacceptable. “I thought, ‘well this is going to turn off the entire transgender community,’” he told me. Mac was well aware that when you’re a trans actor, “the culture of American theater has its door shut to you so much.” This was his attempt to “crack the door open.”
After some public shaming, he succeeded in having a transgender tick box added to Backstage’s gender options. Southern Comfort, the forthcoming trans musical at The Public Theater, will presumably take advantage of this, as they’ve announced that they are actively looking for trans singers and actors in their casting (a 2013 staging in Boston featured cisgender performers). But Mac demurs credit for the change.
“It had to happen eventually,” he shrugged. “We were just the people who asked for it first.”
Once the casting notice for Hir was up, the show read with a series of trans actors, and eventually cast Tom Phelan, who currently plays Cole on the ABC Family show The Fosters. Phelan had read the play when it was published in American Theater Magazine, and had wanted to play Max ever since.
“It feels like it was written for me,” he told me over the phone. “Which speaks to the immense compassion, empathy, and talent Taylor has.”
More than gender, more than political correctness, more than almost anything, empathy is Mac’s guiding principle, and the reason he is a thought leader in the world of American theater. It’s also what makes him a great artist, because empathy is the ability to look at the world from the point of view of another person, be it an actor who can’t get gigs because they are trans, an aging straight white guy who rages in fear at a world he can’t understand, or a Jewish immigrant living in a tenement in the Lower East Side in 1900. But being empathic doesn’t always mean being gentle or pulling punches.
“Part of the job of the artist is to care for people.” Mac smiled at me as he spoke. Then a mischievous glint appeared in his eyes. “But the other part is to mess them up.”
In different ways, Hir and the Decades show highlight Mac’s ability to do both these things at once. Indeed, his continual pairing of supposed opposites is what makes Mac’s work so powerful. He is absurd and authentic, caregiver and truth-teller, comic and tragic. If in one moment he has us laughing, and the next he has us embarrassed by that laughter, then his method is working. Contradiction, like audience participation, is a tool he uses to bring the viewer to a place of genuine emotion. And once we’re there, well, quoth Mac – “Everything you’re feeling is appropriate.”