Taylor Macs monumentale Show „A 24-Decade History of Popular Music“ erzählt über vier Abende hinweg eine alternative Geschichte der USA. Thomas Oberender hat vorab ein Gespräch mit dem künstlerischen Team – Taylor Mac (Regie, Autor & Performer), Machine Dazzle (Kostüme), Matt Ray (Musikalische Leitung & Arrangement) und Niegel Smith (Co-Regie) – geführt. Wir geben es hier in einer gekürzten Fassung wieder.

Thomas Oberender [TO]: The way you produce this piece is very specific. When did the idea come up to do something like this?

Taylor Mac [TM]: I had been working on a piece in New York City called “The Lily’s Revenge”, which is a five-hour-play and the longest thing I’ve done at that point. I realised in the process that what I’d been doing was subconsciously trying to make a piece about how communities are built as a result of being torn apart. It took us about six years to make the entire thing and then we’d been performing it as a whole for the last three years.
It started because in 1987 I went to the first Aids-walk in San Francisco, which was raising money to help people who were dying of Aids – dying and living with Aids. I was 14 years old and it was the first time I discovered queer history, queer pride, queer agency. In the US there is no education about anything queer through our entire upbringings and educations. That was a revelation, and the reason the community was together was because they were being torn apart by the epidemic. Fast forward, years later, I wanted to make a show that was a metaphorical representation of that. And that’s what we’ve done. (laughs)

TO: One of the specific characters of the show is that every performance is a kind of encounter with the audience, but also with the people of the city you are performing in. When did this concept start? 

TM: It’s partially about my activist youth that came from that Aids-walk, where there is so many people around making this event together. You have the organisers of the event, but they offer things up to the community to do. So you see people singing, chanting, marching and screaming, pushing the loved ones in wheelchairs. There is lots of different kinds of performances all happening at the same time, it’s very Egyptian in a way that the Egyptian’s theater was more like a kind of parade. I think it comes a little bit from that, from wanting to make work for the people, by the people, of the people.

Niegel Smith [NS]: I also remember you saying this is going to be a community event and the community has to put themselves on the line. Machine, do you have a kind of activist youth?

Machine Dazzle [MD]: Yes (laughs). Something that I like to do is take my art to the streets. Whenever there is a public event, I would get dressed up and I would go to these events. Often, my costume would have a story attached to it. That was my sign in sort of carrying a sign, my costume was the sign. That’s my activism, I still participate in that.

TO: You said “Glitter rhymes to litter”. What does it mean?

MD: (laughs) That’s part of my aesthetics, I love shiny, very refined things. But I also love garbage, unrefined things. I love erosion, things that have a lot of wear, I love old costumes that look like they’ve been worn a million times, you’re like, “Oh wow, look like they kept repairing it, you can see the thread.”

TO: Matt, is it your influence that brings some songs in the concept? Or is it that the songs are proposed to you and you start to work with them?

Matt Ray [MR]: Most of the songs were suggested by Taylor, I probably suggested 12 to 15. Taylor would come to me with a list of songs that were from the time period that were interesting, and maybe applied to the historical aspect of the story we were trying to tell for each hour. I’d make sheet music for them if there wasn’t existing sheet music, we played through them to see what worked and what felt good. It was really a matter of discovering which ones resonated with us, but also with the project itself, and would best tell the story of the hour we were working on.

TO: Would you say that it’s possible to create a protest that is expressed by music? I think about the song “Snakeskin Cowboys”. Can you describe what you have done with this song?

MR: When we were making this project we created different shows to try to learn the songs. Taylor had created an idea called “Songs of the American right”, like right-wing songs. So we were gonna do a show of all right-wing songs that were popular… just to learn to get some different ideas into the show. We didn’t have enough songs, so I said “Let’s do a Ted Nugent song because what’s worse than Ted Nugent?” (laughs) If we can do something with a Ted Nugent song, then we can do anything.

TM: Ted Nugent is a very right-wing, very conservative rocker, very homophobic, all of the -isms.

MR: We found this song “Snakeskin Cowboys” which is a song about queer-bashing, about hating someone who dressed fancy on the dance floor and wanting to hurt them, what we undermined by creating a junior high school prom dance. We never got to experience gay prom – dancing with the people we wanted to dance with. What’s the best way to undermine this song? It’s to actually make the whole audience to … I’m not supposed to give away things from the show (laughs).

TM: We turn a rock song, we slow it down, we make it sentimental, make it pretty and overtly romantic. It’s a revenge on Ted Nugent, but it’s also our liberation for ourselves, it becomes more about manifesting the world we want, rather than just commenting on the world.

TO: Niegel, if you are working so long directing, creating and performing a show like that, how did this change your awareness of the history of the US?

NS: One of the things that is so satisfying about the piece is the heterogeneity of it, There is not one singular story in each hour, but its multiple stories. Each hour focuses on a different community that is forming through a difficult moment, and the music that is popular in that community. We have one section called “The Underground Railroad” in which we have been working with artists along the way, in which they bring their own vision to the hour. “The Underground Railroad” in America was a system and a series of homes and locations from the south stretching all the way up to Canada, in which escaped slaves were given help or shelter, or were hidden away from the authorities. We call it an abolitionist area. We invited Urban Bush Women, who have taken that hour and made it their own. Here in Germany we are working with this fantastic choreographer Jana Korb. And I think back to Melbourne, where we did this number “Don’t fence me in”, in which a didgeridoo-player and an aboriginal artist were invited to be part of the project. It just sort of swelled us over and bawled over the entire audience. I mean, that’s the work.

TM: This is a conversation with heterogeneity. We come from a country which pretends to be multi…, and it is. I think that all of our work is a little bit about how we can rebel against the idea that we are all one thing. In the US they often say “One nation under one God”, or “We are the melting pot”, which means “We are all melting down into one thing”, instead of being able to express as much as the US is about individualism, that individualism is curtailed and expected to adhere to very standard ideas of beauty and everything. So, the work becomes about wanting to see if we can add everything in, if we can make space for everything, and how does that change our understanding of our relationship with history, with facts, with fantasy, with the way we sing, with the way we dress, all of it.

TO: Can you explain in five sentences the essence of the first part?

MD: Well, first we start with the American revolution and how America is built on a graveyard. And then… my god, it’s so loaded … Immigrants coming to America … The women’s liberation movement … We talk about the Trail of Tears … There is so much information in each chapter.

TM: We start with 24 musicians, so there is a whole orchestra at the very beginning of the play – I call it a play, it’s a performance-concert, but I just call everything a play. We start with 24 musicians and every hour we lose a musician, so by the end it’s just me. But at the very beginning of the show there is this huge, huge sound. It’s so delightful, Matt has done incredible arrangements for 246 songs. And there is also a decade where we blindfold the entire audience for an hour of a six hour show.

MD: It’s in the story, you’ll see. Oh, you won’t! (laughs)

TO: The second part is from the period 1836 to 1896. In this period it’s more about the Underground Railroad, the poems of Walt Whitman and Steven Foster Woods. What are you doing with this poems?

TM: Steven Foster who primarily wrote a lot of minstrel songs and created this practice of reducing a very rich culture down to an idea that he had that was sweet and cute, and how to perpetuate slavery in the US, even though he called himself an abolitionist. He is considered the father of American song. I thought the person who should really be the father of American song is Walt Whitman, he called his poems “Songs”. We do this whole mash-up for an hour, where we play Walt Whitman poems against Steven Foster songs, we’ll see who is gonna win the battle. We kind of do it like a giant wrestling match, it’s a lot of fun.

TO: At the same time it’s about the Civil War, about an opera.

TM: Every decade is about a different community in the US that was building itself as the result of being torn apart. Sometimes it’s a large community, the entire country, sometimes it’s a small community like the people that were on the Trail of Tears. Or a large community like the Civil War, people in the North and people in the South. So we deal with people during the reconstruction period, in Chapter 2 with the Civil War and Steven Foster and Walt Whitman, with the abolitionists and people who were trying to escape slavery. And then Taylorism – not to be confused with me –, that’s our final hour in that particular chapter, which is maybe the most horrible thing that happened to the 20th century, it was his invention of a scientific method of work that he invented in the 1890s.

TO: In the third part one of the elements is World War I. What are “speakeasies”?

TM: It’s Jewish immigration, people who are escaping the pogroms, coming to New York. This is the first hour. Then the second hour we deal with World War I, people building themselves as the result of being torn apart, but in the trenches. And then we go to the speakeasies, how do you build yourself when you are being torn apart. And then we move on and sing songs during the Great Depression, and then after that is World War II, From there we move on to the 1950s, which is the “White Flight”, as we call it in the US, where all the white people moved to the suburbs to (ironic voice) escape from urban life – which meant people of colour.

TO: And finally Chapter 4. How was it to deal with the chapters of history that are so close to our own lifetime?  

TM: The whole thing for us is all very joyful. It doesn’t mean that the history isn’t horrible, but we are not history teachers. What I’m trying to do is remind people of the history, or sometimes let people know about the history for the first time. But the real goal is to say, we have all this history on our backs right now and what do we do with that? We have to understand that little bit to understand what we don’t wanna do. But also what our patterns are over many years.
The last chapter goes all the way up to the present. One interesting thing I discovered during working on the show is that the 1780s was when the women’s liberation movement started in the US. And the same tactics that people used to try to stop women from getting a quality in the 1780s were used to stop Hillary Clinton from getting elected in 2016. And it’s being used right now to stop Elisabeth Warren – if you don’t know her, she is a candidate for the presidency. What they will say about her, even if they like her: “Oh, she’s good, she’s sneaky.” They use misogynist words to make her seem like she’s underhanded, that she’s evil, that she’s playing a game. They don’t use the same words that they would use for a man. It’s the same thing that happened in the 1780s. Those types of things are still being used, so we have this patterns in the history, so the hope is that we can recognize the pattern and then do something different with it, transform it into something better, in the room with everybody. It’s also a ritual, we call it a ritual sacrifice, we are repeating things again and again and again, as a way to understand how to progress.

Question from the audience: You go to Melbourne, you go to Berlin, so your show is totally different. You can export your show to another country, because it’s your country’s history?

TM: There’s so many different answers to that question. We work in two different ways. One is that virtuosity is helpful, I’ve memorized 246 songs, we are working with some of the best musicians in New York and we are meeting a bunch of musicians in Berlin that are fantastic. We’ve got the virtuosity in the room, we’ve got incredible designers, everything is on point. The other angle is that perfection is for assholes. That means, you can’t do it without inviting the chaos into the room, changing it every single performance. We juggle both of those things, and I think that’s why it translates everywhere we go. The other answer to that is that there is no expectation that you will understand everything. I don’t go to the theatre to see myself reflected back at me. I know, some people go to the theatre for that reason, but I don’t tend to make work that the goal is that the audience recognises himself – if they do, great, I think that’s wonderful, and that’s partially in this piece. But a lot of the reasons that I make theatre is that I want to give the audience something new to experience. Yes, we’re representing a part of the US that you never get to see, because the best of us is maybe Maya Angelou, and the worst of us is Donald Trump. Neither one of those are what we are, we are doing something different. And you never get to see what we do, unless you come to us. We are not represented in the culture at large, and that’s exciting.

Question from the audience: Are there seats? Or is there a dance floor? How will it work?

NS: It’s the theatre as you know it and then we screw it up (laughs). From the very first moment we say “No, no, no, no, no, this is happening from a very different vantage point.” It might happen from behind you, it might happen from above you, you might have to shift your space, you might have to dance in the aisles, you might get invited up to the stage to participate with us on the stage.

Question from the audience: How do you costume a 24-hour-show?

MD: (laughs) I’m still costuming it, because I keep changing and adding things, making them better. You do one costume at a time. They start to grow, then they keep growing. My understanding of the show keeps growing, too. I’m growing as an artist and a designer, just because I’m a participant in the show. That is an opportunity for me to take the costumes further. And as long as we do the show, I will continue to make them bigger.

TM: Machine and I have always worked with the understanding that if he wants to put something on me that I’ve never worn before a minute before I walk on stage, that’s game. So we just play. Nothing is frozen in place, it’s always shifting and changing.

Question from the audience: You said you are going to work with a Berlin community and with musicians from Berlin. I also heard that there will be special guests for each chapter. Can you name them or are they a surprise?

TM: Peaches is gonna join us for Chapter 2, that’s the show on 12 October. We have a Syrian singer who is joining us, his name is Abdallah Rahhal, he sings beautifully. We’ve got a female acrobatic troop, we have a choir that’s coming to hang out with us. We have a lesbian activist who is joining us for a moment. It just goes on and on and on, there’s so many. We have 24 “dandy minions”, they are not minions to us, but to the great spirit of the dandy. If we have somebody who juggles while they are riding a unicycle, we never had that before, but that’s gonna be in the show now. It’s that kind of thing.

Die Europapremiere von Taylor Macs „A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Chapter 1 – 4“ ist vom 10. – 20. Oktober im Haus der Berliner Festspiele zu sehen: Chapter 1 am 10. Oktober, Chapter 2 am 12. Oktober, Chapter 3 am 18. Oktober und Chapter 4 am 20. Oktober.