Interview: Taylor Mac on Time-Travelling and Gender-Switching in Orlando

Mac discusses experience of starring in Sarah Ruhl’s show and the projects waiting in the wings.

Taylor Mac in Ordlando
Photo: Joan Marcus

It’s no surprise that playwright Sarah Ruhl would think of Taylor Mac, whose preferred gender pronoun is “judy” (with a lowercase “j”), to play the eponymous character in her stage adaptation of Orlando. In Virginia Woolf’s novel, written as a tribute to her lover Vita Sackville-West, a 16th-century English nobleman travels from the court of Queen Elizabeth I to Istanbul, where he changes gender and lives into the first quarter of the 20th century as a woman without aging beyond 30. In a program note for the production currently at the Signature Theater, Ruhl notes, “building an ensemble production around the divine center of Taylor Mac has been a profoundly happy experience.”

Mac is the performance artist and playwright best known for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. That epic extravaganza of music and cabaret received numerous critical citations and was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. It was also the subject of a recent documentary on HBO Max. As a playwright and performer, Mac has carved out a unique niche in the theater with singular works that are both playful and profound. In a recent conversation, Mac spoke to me about the experience of starring in Ruhl’s Orlando and the projects waiting in the wings.


It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen you perform in a work you haven’t written yourself. What drew you to this Orlando?

I haven’t been in somebody else’s play since I did Good Person of Szechwan, which was maybe 10 years ago. I often get asked to play accessories to other people—you know, like to be the sassy sales clerk or the straight girl’s best gay friend. But I never really get asked to do anything substantial. So I leap at the chance when I can, because I just love acting. It’s so much fun and so refreshing for me not to have all the jobs. Just having done Bark of Millions, where I was a writer and a director and a performer and a co-producer, it’s a lot to do. And without institutional support, it’s really very challenging. So to be able to take 90 percent of those jobs and set them aside and focus on one job is very healthy, I think.

Did you have to guard against turning your performance into a Taylor Mac creation?

I’m a playwright so I know how it feels when people try to put things on my plays. Plays are offerings you make to other artists, and if the artists don’t listen to the offering, it hurts. It’s like you’ve done all this work and you’ve made a big meal for people and offered it up to them and they just come in and throw some, you know, Cheez Whiz on it without taking a bite first. I just wanna listen to what Sarah and Virginia Wolf have done, and what [director] Will [Davis] wants to do with the production, and what the offering is of the other actors and the designers, and I try to find my way within that. Because what we can make as a collective is much better than what we make individually. Not better necessarily, but fuller. Also, this is the first time in my life where the entire cast has been queer, which is odd to say because I curate my own experiences all the time. It’s really been a great joy to be with this company of people working on this play.


Is there a different vibe working with a queer cast?

There was almost an immediate ensemble. The first read-through was like we’d all been working together for 10 years already. We just kind of understood certain things and rhythms that are unique, I guess, to our community. And there’s different ages in the show: old war horses, like me and Nathan [Lee Graham] and Lisa [Kron], and, to some degree, TL [Thompson], and then the younger ensemble members. But it just feels like we’re all of a piece. It’s not to say that I always want to be with just queer people, because I don’t. But it’s been a nice refreshing experience. I feel like I’m filling up the well after depleting it for many years. And when it’s beautiful material like Orlando, it teaches you something about yourself and about the world.

You’ve forged your own queer path, defining your gender as “performer.” Is it a coincidence that both Orlando and Good Person of Szechwan share themes of gender non-conformity and transgression with your own work?

It’s a little bit of the bias of the American theater that the roles that I’m offered are doing this gender thing. An Enemy of the People never comes to me! I wonder, hmm, am I just existing in other people’s biases? But I also think I have a unique perspective on it and can offer something to those roles that maybe other performers might not be able to. And the benefit is that I get to hang out with Brecht and Virginia Woolf and Sarah Ruhl. So that’s a good thing.

I think people have given me the flag of gender to carry and I’m a little, like, I’ve carried this flag for 30 years, so let me give it to the kids because they really want it and I’m so bored with it. But I guess the gender aspects of it just feel kind of natural for me. And new things are popping up in my understanding. When I hear myself say that line of Orlando’s to the queen at the end of the play, “I would like Your Highness, at the present moment, to feel as though I’m only one thing,” and the queen responds, “Poppycock!,” it really does bring up lots of gender-queer affirmation in me. I don’t have to just be one thing. There’s this idea that we do have to be one thing all the time in order to truly be seen and understood and felt—and that’s poppycock!


What is it that specifically speaks to you in Orlando?

Well, it’s so much for me about time, about inherited understandings, and how we’re many things at all times. I think a lot of my own personal work has been about heterogeneity and how to be multifaceted in a multifaceted world that’s trying, under a system of capitalism, to make it just be one thing. I think Virginia Wolf and Vita Sackville-West were progenitors of this kind of thinking—expanding our understanding of who we are, who we can be, and who we can be with. I like sitting in the thoughts of somebody who had them, you know, a good 70 years before I did.

I’m a little bit of a unicorn in the American theater and I don’t always feel like other people are engaging in the conversations I’m engaging in. And [the play] is expansive. It’s, like, how am I relating to the Elizabethans, and to the 18th and the 19th century? There’s this line in the play in which Orlando says she listened for the sound of gunfire at sea and then says, “There’s no war today,” and she continues to write. That was going on all through Wolf’s life, and also through her fictional character of Orlando’s life. But it’s going on through my life right now too.

Your next project is a musical adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which premieres in Chicago this summer. Did the novel have an impact on you when it came out in 1994?

I only wrote the book for the musical, so it’s using a different part of my brain, which is nice, you know, especially coming out of Orlando. [Composer] Jason [Robert Brown] needs to write a couple more songs and then I have to go back and rewrite things around that. But, essentially, my part of it is done. The novel came out, I guess, the first year I was away from home, pretty early on in my adult life. I’d just never seen America embrace something queer before. I mean, other than disco. It had a lot of queer people in it and was on the bestseller list for weeks, and was really fun to read. And the Lady Chablis was a great inspiration. So I always had this emotional connection to it—that there’s room in America for something different, which doesn’t have to be this thing I was raised with, where it was all shame. Instead, it can be a celebration of our eccentricity. So when they asked, it took me two seconds to say yes. I’d also never written a Broadway musical. I mean, the hope is that it will go to Broadway. I’d never written a commercial project, but I was raised going to them and always had a love for them.


What about your original work?

The documentary Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music is on HBO Max right now and they’re doing some kind of campaign to get people to watch it more and I’m trying to help out. It’s its own beautiful art piece, especially in relation to [directors] Rob Eppstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s filmmaking careers. If you go through their documentaries, like The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, and watch this film in that context, you see what’s happening in a much more profound, deep way than just thinking of it as, oh, they filmed my show. It’s actually quite moving. I’m so proud of that film.

We’re also continuing with Bark of Millions and taking that to Berlin. That’s an ongoing project that I don’t think will ever be finished. We now have 55 songs and it’s four hours long with an ensemble of 21. Every year I add a new song—one for each year after the first queer pride parade. Essentially, every song was inspired by a different queer person from world history. Tongue in cheek, I say it’s a reverse conversion therapy session, because we’re trying to make everybody more queer! But really what’s going on is, though we haven’t had a lack of queer songwriters, we’ve had a lack of queer songs in the canon specifically about queer people.

So after 24-Decade, after singing 240 songs that were all basically about straight people and queering those songs, Matt [Ray] and I [decided to] write a bunch of songs and see if we can add to what the Daughters of Bilitis would call the “Living Library of the Deviant Theme.” And what happens is, it starts to become more than just a concert. It becomes this unearthing of a lot of history to be found, and history oppressed. It becomes a very cathartic, emotional experience for a lot of people. Some people maybe don’t connect to it so well, but I think those are the people that have never really considered, or had to consider, that there’s been a loss.

Gerard Raymond

Gerard Raymond is a travel and arts writer based in New York City. His writing has appeared in Broadway Direct, TDF Stages, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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