Is Taylor Mac’s Performance Art – or just a Drag?
Earlier this month, Marcus Hunter-Neil was in New York and we sent him to see Taylor Mac ahead of his Belfast Festival shows on 25th, 26th and 29th October. On the face of it, this seemed like a perfect match: Marcus, known as his alter-ego, Lady Portia, is familiar with the art of drag. But the flamboyant Taylor Mac, isn’t keen on the “drag” label, describing his work as music, acting and performance art. Marcus, it turns out, is not a huge fan of performance art. Here, we find out what happened when Marcus met Mac.
“If you’d told me I would be sitting for over three hours watching a performance artist, I’d have run a mile, but this… this is totally different and it has your attention from the very first minute and it is just such fun! It flies by – it felt more like a one hour show – and yes, it’s so much more than drag – it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
I’d say: brace yourself, Belfast. From the second the show starts, this is a visual blitz – from the incredible costumes, to the plants in the audience, there is something going on at all times and all around you – there’s never a dull moment and you’re totally in the midst of it all.
There is a lot of audience participation and I know this could put people in Belfast off – but it isn’t something to be worried about or afraid of – it’s actually what makes it work so well. It’s not done to embarrass or single anyone out, it’s so that the audience members become part of the performance. If you think about it, we already do this as part of an audience in, say, pantomime: “Oh no we don’t, oh yes, we do!” – this is just more intelligent, so please don’t let it put you off. It would be awful to miss this just because you’re feeling a bit shy and self-conscious!
As for Taylor’s costumes (designed by his side-kick and friend, Machine Dazzle) they are many, sparkling and fantastic, they’re outrageous and wonderful: Johnny Depp’s Alice in Wonderland meets the world of Willy Wonka in all its glorious technicolour. You can’t help but stare at the detail: – is that hooped skirt made out of circus bunting? Are those really sequin-encrusted champagne corks springing out of his headpiece? And, looking more closely… did I just spot multi-coloured toy soldiers in his wig?
You might imagine for a show like this (he’s gay, and flamboyantly dressed) that it would attract a largely gay audience – wrong. It’s really inclusive. In the show I attended, there were lots of couples and people of all ages, from old ladies in their 80’s to teenagers.
It’s also very clever – Taylor had everyone up on the stage at some point, almost always in big groups – he makes sure that everyone feels part of the piece. The show takes us on a journey through history and the war years. At one point, I was in a group of males aged 14-40 called up to the Great War. The muddy trenches were quickly recreated on stage with brown sequinned fabric and along with the others in my group, I was bandaged up, fed cups of tea and given a spoonful of whisky!
In his clever storytelling, Taylor also manages to surprise and shock the audience by, at times, switching the tone from something fun to something really chilling: like the story of a couple whose relationship broke down after WW1: one partner couldn’t come to terms with millions of people dying and the other wanted to move on and embrace the so-called Roaring Twenties. The whole audience recreated the sense of “forced enjoyment”- party streamers and a conga line – but through the one person who didn’t want to celebrate, it suddenly became starkly obvious that the Twenties were far from “roaring” for many people, with horrible injuries, PTSD and the aftermath of war. I had never thought about this before and it really touched me.
I’ve been at shows by performance artists before and, after twenty minutes, I’d be itching to leave. When I met him after the show, I wanted to ask Taylor how he manages to keep the audience engaged? He replied, “I am a performer first – anyone who puts on a self-indulgent show for themselves is likely to fail – they simply leave the audience behind. I need them with me the whole way, so I do everything to make sure I bring them all with me for the ride.
And I would agree – it works! I would say, embrace it, lay aside your inhibitions for a little while, you’ll have a much fuller experience. Nobody is singled out and people aren’t ridiculed – it’s all just to paint the pictures to go with the words and the songs – and the songs are really great –he is such a talent.
For anyone thinking about this – don’t think – just go. It’s like nothing you’ll ever have seen but overwhelmingly, you will be so glad that you did. I thoroughly loved it.
To sum it up, it was engaging, witty, energetic, fun, poignant – and a must-see.