Taylor Mac described The Inauguration, which helped launch the 2017 Melbourne Festival, as “a Radical Faerie realness ritual”. The Inauguration was a 90-minute show featuring selections from Mac’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which spans 241 years (1776-2017) of American popular music across 24 hours. In 2016 Mac performed the full 24-hour marathon in New York City.
The durational aspects of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music were necessarily lost in The Inauguration’s whistlestop tour. But Mac’s six headliner performances across 27 hours this October incorporate the festival itself into a durational Radical Faerie realness ritual. I left The Inauguration wanting to attend all 27 hours.
Mac, who uses lowercase “judy” as a gender pronoun, joined performance art, drag, cabaret and audience participation, backed by a five-member onstage band. Song selections, which were not chronological, included the Pete Seeger song (later sung by the Byrds) “Turn! Turn! Turn”; Tori Amos’s “Precious Things”; the country/western classic “Ghost Riders in the Sky”; Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria”; and Irving Berlin’s “All Alone”. Matt Ray’s beautiful and surprising musical arrangements, which often seemed to position harmonies as melodies, rendered familiar songs strange.
Mac wore gorgeous costumes and headpieces designed by longtime collaborator Machine Dazzle. At some points during the show, Machine Dazzle appeared on stage, also in avant-garde drag, to oversee a costume change. The designer’s presence emphasised collaboration and production: the show is made anew during each performance.
The show is about the ways communities are created from disaster. In line with this aim, Mac’s performance philosophy involves “incorporating the calamity”. For instance, early in the show, Mac fell while descending stairs from the stage to the orchestra. For the next few minutes, Mac worked a series of pratfalls into the performance.
Mac’s most premeditated calamity was audience participation. Over the course of the show we were instructed to applaud an arts administrator, shame each other and ourselves for (and then celebrate) having multiple sexual partners, speak on cue, and dance. Everyone hates audience participation, Mac explained, which was the point: our discomfort and our failures as participants were the disaster from which our community would be built.
A number of audience members were brought up on stage. In one instance, Mac invited the oldest and youngest audience members — a man over 75 and children under 10 — on stage and instructed the children to copy the older man’s dance moves. This moment honoured elders while exploding the idea that a show about queering American history was not for children.
Mac’s rendition of the song “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, from the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, rendered white supremacy ridiculous by making it cuddly. Mac invited three blonde men on stage and dressed two of them in armbands with swastikas on them. Sitting beside them, with the third man on all fours in front of them playing the surrey-pulling horse, Mac sang.
As the song went on, Mac positioned the blondes so that one was lying in judy’s lap while the other leaned against judy’s shoulder. Mac suggested that we could think back to these cuddly Nazis the next time we were confronted by white supremacists in the news.
A challenge of Mac’s performances in Melbourne is performing a show about American history in an Australian context. Mac was well informed, frequently referencing the same-sex marriage postal survey and the offshore detention of refugees. The audience was receptive and supportive, applauding and sometimes calling out affirmations: it was a left-wing crowd. But, perhaps inevitably, the commentary on Australia struck me as more analogous than integral.
The Inauguration’s final number, a camp appropriation of a homophobic Ted Nugent song, exemplified the way Mac framed audience participation as queer ritual. Mac instructed audience members to dance with a person of their same gender during the song (specifying that non-binary and genderqueer people could dance with whomever they wished). Our dance, Mac explained, would metaphorically kill Ted Nugent.
We complied, but there was a great deal of talking and laughing. Mac let this go on for a while and then stopped the music. Mac explained that we’d had our fun and now we were going to dance seriously. Pulling a male audience member up on stage, Mac demonstrated how we should dance: arms around each other, body to body, without speaking.
The audience member moved his hands to Mac’s behind, and Mac issued a gentle correction: “That’s fine if it’s consensual,” but it wasn’t how we were being instructed to dance. Moving the man’s hands up to waist level, Mac told us this was how to be good participants. We danced, holding each other.
Mac’s instruction in queer public intimacy pushed our boundaries while caring for us. For me, this final song felt like a taste of what the durational versions of the performance could do: the first step toward a community built on calamity.
Taylor Mac will perform all 24 hours of the show in four six-hour chapters, and close out the festival with The Wrap, a 90-minute reprise of songs from the 24 decades with contributions from local artists.
Authors: Sarah Balkin, Lecturer, English and Theatre Studies, University of Melbourne