Taylor Mac’s Melbourne Festival performance was an unparalleled experience
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Taylor Mac’s Melbourne Festival performance was an unparalleled experience

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It would not be uncommon for me to spend 24 hours watching shows during any given festival, meaning, on average, I’m engaging with two dozen different ones. That’s multiple performers with all kinds of takes on all types of subjects, expressed in all manner of ways. So to spend 24 hours in the company of one performer, and by default then to the exclusion of so many others, is the show-going equivalent of a long-term relationship.

And just like any other enduring relationship, Taylor Mac took me through the gamut of emotions in our time together. Darling of the NYC queer theatre set, Mac came sashaying into town on platform heels in full drag regalia as headline act for the Melbourne Festival.

First performed in the US as a marathon 24-hour piece, Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music was delivered at the Forum in four, six-hour instalments (without an interval) across a fortnight. 

Starting from 1776, Mac tackled a decade per hour, reinterpreting songs from each period, focusing on the rebels and revolutionaries and those whose stories need to be retold. “This is my subjective take on history,” we were told. Each decade also brought a costume change – inspired works of conceptual sartorial art, worthy of their own exhibition, created by Machine Dazzle – and a loss of a band member, until, in the final hour, Mac was alone on stage, singing original compositions playing piano, banjo or ukulele.

After a deeply moving Welcome to Country, Mac asked at the very start of the first chapter, “How do you build yourself while being torn apart?” That was the question of the show. “Spoiler alert: I don’t have the answer. I just ask it for 24 hours,” and the audience roared with laughter, as they often did, for Mac also possesses the comedy chops of a stand-up. We came full circle with that question, where towards the very end of Chapter 4 we learned how the origin for this show was seeded when “the little white queer in the suburbs” – who had never met another out homosexual – saw “thousands of them in one place” at an AIDS walk “rallying together because they were being torn apart”. Mac was intent on breaking us down so we could build something together.

“You don’t have to agree with me. It’s not Oprah. It’s a performance art concert which means everything you are feeling is appropriate at all times,” Mac said in Chapter 3, echoing similar statements from preceding shows. Like the most intimate of relationships, I felt all the feels and Mac had me traversing the full terrain from love to seething resentment; between ‘this is meh’ to ‘this is magic’. There were times when I wanted out, especially early on, and other times where I wanted to hit rewind and live the moment over and over again. 

I went from genuinely admiring the ambition and scale of the vision for this grand undertaking (Mac enlisted over 100 hundred local queer, burlesque and circus performers) to having fleeting moments of deep snarkiness about the level of narcissism required to demand my attention for this long. An interactive show, audience participation was woven throughout and had me originally going for Olympic gold in the eye-rolling stakes, grumbling about the fact I made an active choice to not work in the corporate world to be spared these kinds of nightmare team-bonding exercises to then be enamoured with the joy I saw it bringing to others. Mac’s open-hearted insistence that strangers play and engage in ways we rarely do in adult life melted my cold, dark heart and I slow danced with a woman considerably older than myself who confessed that she was now going to think about sexuality in a whole new way as a direct result of seeing this show. Mac was, indeed, breaking us all down and something beautiful was emerging in its place. 

By the end, I had been fully converted. It’s over now, we had our time and our festival romance must end. But charmed by Mac’s abundant charisma, a contagious sense of fun and the compassion which underpinned the work, I look forward to our next rendezvous. And until then, will always look back with love.