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Dramaturg Shirley Fishman talks with playwright Taylor Mac about his bold and thought-provoking approach to theatre as an award-winning actor-director-producer-performance artist and his newest new play, Joy and Pandemic.


Shirley Fishman:  Your work has been called genre-bending.  What route did you take to becoming a storyteller and theatre maker who stretches the boundaries of theatre form and style? 

Taylor Mac: I don’t know. I think it’s two parts insecurity, three parts desire for adventure, three parts ignorance.

SF:  When you were growing up in Stockton, California, did you go to the theater?

TM:  My family took me to Stockton Civic Theater, which was a community theater. I have a vague memory of seeing productions of Arsenic and Old Lace and Cabaret. There was a children’s theater program in the summer and I auditioned for Peter Pan. I got cast as an understudy.  Kids got sick and I ended up playing all the roles and got a lot of positive response from the audiences.  So, then I was hooked.

SF:  Over the course of many conversations with you, I’ve learned that you’re a very serious student of theatre history and theory.

TM:  I’ve developed a skill of trying to learn every day, as opposed to when I was a kid and faking it.  My adult life has been about trying to catch up from my poor education.

SF: After leaving Stockton you spent some time in San Francisco.  Were you exposed to different performance styles while there?

TM:  I saw a show by trans performance artist Kate Bornstein and also Japanese butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku.  I was so moved by the theatricality of how they expressed pain, extreme pleasure and joy by way of a kind of serious clowning. I fell in love with the white paint they put on their bodies, and when I started doing drag performance that was the initial image I wanted to work with.  I also saw the San Francisco Mime Troupe and took a class taught by the artistic director on commedia dell’arte techniques– that was inspiring.  And my musical theater teacher introduced me to Method acting.

SF: What drew you to New York?

I got cast as an understudy in a show, Beach Blanket Babylon, which was a long-running cabaret.  I was bumped up to doing eight shows a week — I sang “Runaround Sue” dressed as a poodle and said to myself, “Oh, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.”  So, I came to New York and saw the work being done by downtown theatres and clubs and thought “Yes, here it is.  This is my scene. These are my people.”

I was an extra in a show of performance artist Karen Finley’s for about six months. I’d sit on stage dressed as my version of Liza Minelli and watch Karen perform every night, and I learned that you can treat your show like a jazz chart. You write your script and use it as a launching pad, rather than a Holy Grail that never changes.  She had a big influence on me.

SF: Were you making and performing your own work at that time 

TM: Oh yeah.  The Iraq War was gearing up, and I’d been making and performing five-minute performance art pieces all over town.  I hadn’t yet put them all together into a show.  I was at a political protest one day dressed up in drag and a liberal person shouted, “That is not the face of liberalism!” They were basically shaming me for being an artist in the movement.  I thought, “What’s the point of progressing if we’re censoring creative freedom in order to do it?”  So, I made a show called “The Face of Liberalism”, which was about the war on terror but from a queen’s perspective in New York City.

SF: When did you start writing plays?

TM: When I graduated from college in ’96, I couldn’t get auditions for a good seven years, couldn’t get an agent and no casting directors would call me in. I’m a creative person and I don’t do well if I’m not being creative. So, I just started writing plays so I could be creative, and fell in love with it.

SF: With what aspect of it?

TM:  Writing a play is a platform for wondering about the world. I have a lot of thoughts and they’re chaotic.  Plays allow me to wrangle all of that chaos into written words.  For me, plays are things that I bring to other people and say, “Look, I’ve made an offering!” Then they make their offering on top of my offering. It’s a little bit like a potluck — bring your dish called “acting,” bring your dish called “directing” or “design,” but don’t rewrite my dish.  (Laughing) You wouldn’t come to a potluck and take somebody’s mac and cheese and say, “Let me take this to the stove for a second and add some things to it.”

SF: What were you wondering when you sat down to write Joy and Pandemic?

TM:  My mom died, and I was wondering what she had been thinking.  She had such a strong belief in her religion, Christian Science, and her death was so disturbing to me. There was no acknowledging the reality of her illness.  Then I thought, “I need to write a play about this aspect of my mom — of faith trumping reality.”  I love my mom and I wanted to be in an ongoing meditation of understanding, of forgiveness. So much of the play is grappling with that.

SF:  Joy takes place in a turbulent period of time in American history and your characters are caught in the vortex of change.

TM: Well, reality is like that.  It’s never one thing. It’s not just a pandemic; it’s a pandemic and a war in Ukraine, and an environmental collapse and….   But luckily that’s useful for the theater where there’s usually a Passover Event (a moment of why today is unlike any other day).  I like to write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances, or extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

SF: There were also changing artistic ideas in that time period. Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House in the late 19th century and that changed everything in terms of plays.

TM: This play was very much Inspired by Ibsen. I’d been given the Ibsen award and, even though I’d seen A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler multiple times, and also Ghosts, I felt a little chagrined that I hadn’t really deconstructed the craft of his plays. So, when I got the award I did that, and I got inspired — especially by the form.  I had been looking for a form for the play about my mom — not really about her, but the theme of belief butting up against reality. The naturalism of Ibsen’s work hit home for that theme.  For me, content almost always dictates the form

SF: Speaking of form and structure, it’s very rare to see a three-act play in the American theater these days. Why was it necessary for you to create this three-act structure for Joy and Pandemic?

TM: The characters are struggling with big questions, and they need the time and the perspective of decades passing to further their understanding of the ideas.  So, the three-act structure worked best for the needs of the characters.  Having said that, it’s a three-act structure, but it’s under two hours.

SF: After you finished writing the first two acts, what inspired you to take a leap in time 1952 in the third act?

TMThe play has a lot to do with how our mothers occupy so much of our thinking, our hearts and our way of being in the world, so the kids in the play needed to grow up and have some perspective.  We’re not taught as children that our parent’s beliefs are not always reality.

SF: This production is the world premiere of Joy and Pandemic. What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?

TM: (Laughing) My hope in making a piece of art is that I break people out of the usual rhythm of their lives — to take a pause and wonder about things from a different perspective in terms of their considerations. By doing that, I hope we all become more inquisitive, more loving, and maybe slow down a little bit in our too-fast moving culture.

I long to write something that someone can examine now, and then in a few years examine again and then, after a time, again.  I wrote a play that I was hoping would have a life similar to Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s HouseDeath of a Salesman, a play that comes back into our lives periodically, in various forms, so that we can slow down with it — rather than have to decide about it in order to move on to the next consumption.


Taylor Mac, Shirley Fishman, and Loretta Greco; photo by Mike Ritter