No experience will ever be quite like the 24 hours I spent camped out on the floor of St. Ann’s Warehouse in October 2016, watching Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which received a Special Citation at this year’s Obie awards. The category recognizes extraordinary achievement outside the bounds of conventional theatrical structures, and Mac’s art has long defied categorization: He — or judy, Mac’s preferred gender pronoun — is a singer, drag performer, playwright, actor, and performance artist. And A 24-Decade History broke more than a few boundaries, even for Mac.
If his previous Obie-winning performance, 2010’s five-hour musical-theater piece The Lily’s Revenge, was epic, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is something else altogether — part fashion show, part political commentary, and part musical extravaganza. Under development since 2012, it consists of a concert featuring American popular music from every decade of the country’s existence, 1776 to 2016.
During the project’s development, Mac staged a few decades at once, leading up to a culminating run at St. Ann’s last fall, when he sang the entire 24 decades’ worth — initially in a series of concerts spread over two weeks, and finally all together in a virtuosic 24-hour show that began at noon on October 8 and ended at noon the following day. This fall, after a much-deserved break, Mac will bust out the 24-Decade History again, performing the work in six-hour segments in San Francisco; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and Tempe, Arizona, among other locations.
Touring was always the intention, Mac says. “It’s even a longer durational project than 24 hours,” he tells the Voice. “It’s multi-years, all about the serial aspects, the repeat visits. The only way you build the community for the work is if you hang out with them again and again.” The upcoming tour will bring the 24-Decade History back to several of its commissioning partners, like San Francisco’s Curran theater and UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance — institutions whose support helped build the project from the beginning.
For Mac, touring the 24-Decade History isn’t just about revisiting communities of adoring fans. It’s a way of radically shifting audiences’ relationship to performance. “Most theater in America, because we work in capitalism, is looking for a product,” he says. “The art is the tangible thing — a script that can be passed around to lots of people, or costumes and scenic designs that are finished. The experience for the audience is the ephemeral part. We’ve flipped that. The script is not given out, the costumes change constantly, so the art is the ephemeral thing and the audience’s experience is tangible because we make them do so much stuff and they build these relationships with each other.” Since many spectators attend multiple concerts over the course of many years, the project creates communities and leaves new relationships in its wake. (Mac notes he’s even received wedding invitations from people who met attending installments of 24-Decade History.)
This production strategy is particularly apt for a project that is, at its core, about American communities — their history, their destruction, their struggles to stay alive. Beginning with American independence in 1776, Mac sings songs about our relationships to our country and to one another — “Shenandoah,” “Auld Lang Syne” — and teases out the politics in everything from “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to Irving Berlin’s “All Alone.” He reminds us of all the ways our national community has excluded and marginalized people through racism, sexism, and homophobia, and of our national urge to forget rather than confront this history of trauma.
And then there’s the community that inspired the project in the first place: queer San Francisco, where Mac had an early, transformative experience attending an AIDS walk. This, as he has recounted at many concerts, was his first experience seeing even one openly gay person — and he saw thousands of them. “The reason they were all together was because they were dying, and their loved ones were dying,” he explained at the 24-hour concert. (It was 9 a.m. and we’d been up all night; most of us were crying.) “What I experienced was a community that was being built as it was being torn apart.” The 24-Decade History was born out of Mac’s desire to metaphorically re-create that community, one that was finding new life even as it faced destruction.
Putting that metaphorical community onstage was not a solo act, either — it required the talents of a wide array of collaborators. Music director Matt Ray worked with Mac on arrangements for the wildly expansive set lists, which dust off old ditties that deserve new attention while rethinking tunes we thought we knew: “Addicted to Love” becomes a heartbreaking statement about the AIDS crisis, and who knew “Born to Run” was about Stonewall? Complementing each concert is a fashion show orchestrated by costume designer Machine Dazzle, whose sartorial concoctions feature stunningly detailed gowns, headdresses, and props that creatively reflect each decade. And “Dandy Minions” — helpers in festive attire — circulate through the crowd, bringing snacks and orchestrating audience participation.
This participation takes many forms: We reenact significant historical interludes (for Western expansion, we “stake claims” on the theater floor; for World War I, we hurl ping-pong balls at each other). We test our empathy for others, imagining ourselves into different identities, or watching other spectators imagine themselves into ours. We celebrate the invention of Braille by listening to a section of the concert with our eyes closed. Mac stages a “queer junior high prom” for all audience members, queer and straight, and celebrates radical lesbianism by asking us all to imagine we’re radical lesbians, whether we are or not.
In the end, it’s important to Mac that the 24-Decade History has the queer community at its heart. He recalls a section of the performance in which he pulls an audience member onstage briefly to play his boyfriend, noting that he often challenges himself and the audience by selecting someone who’s shy about playing the role. One night, though, he chose a queer man with no inhibitions. “We just got to be queer,” says Mac. “I’m trying to make a work for everyone that bridges gaps — but sometimes you cross a line and make it for someone who isn’t part of your community, instead of making it for your community and inviting everyone else in. I’ve had constant reminders that this is a queer show and we’re inviting other people to it.” Luckily, that invitation will be issued — and receive an enthusiastic response — all over the country, this fall and beyond.