Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Some thoughts on Taylor Mac and judy's audience

If you happened upon my Twitter feed, you saw my episodic reports on Taylor Mac's epic show, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, under the #Macathon hashtag. There's a lot to unpack about that event, from the song choices to the costumes to the selection of themes for the various acts, but here I want to focus on the audience participation.

Taylor (I don't know him but writing just "Mac" feels a bit weird) has always had an amazing command over audiences, but what he did over the weekend was something else: He fully made us part of the show. Sometimes he picked individual volunteers, and believe me there was no turning him down. (Being the timid kind, I moved around the house to spots that felt safe, ie unlikely to draw attention from our roaming MC.) My personal favorites were the man who played Yum-Yum in The Marskado segment (Taylor's dinner-theater version of The Mikado, but set on Mars to deflect Gilbert and Sullivan's now-uncomfortable take on Japan), and his melancholy, electronically altered wailing of "Tit-Willow"; the man who played Stephen Foster in a match-up against Taylor's Walt Whitman; and the 80-year-old gentleman who was so good that he was invited onstage twice, and turned out to be the father of guitarist Viva DeConcini. Taylor had a sixth sense to pick people who were a little awkward, a little shy — he mostly steered clear from the many performers or would-be performers in the audience. He is not afraid to create discomfort but he doesn't make people feel under attack; audience terror this is not. The awkwardness enriches the performance.

But the ways in which Taylor used the entire room of 600+ people were even better. One tactic was to create subgroups, as when he asked all the bearded men to stand on their chairs, when he split drinkers and non-drinkers during the temperance era (leading to a gigantic game of beer pong, or rather root beer pong), or when he summoned the straight men to the stage. Another was to divide the room in sections, which he would then pit against each other. This was a fantastic way to illustrate one of the leading ideas in the show, which he expressed at least a couple of times: "Every decade is about a community that's building itself as a result of being torn apart," he said by way of explaining both his show and his show's take on American history.

And so he created theatrical antagonisms among audience members, pitting them against each other.

He had one side of the room playing Confederates to the other side's Union.

He divided the floor into groups that loudly made the cacophonous noises one would hear in a crowded tenement as he sang Irving Berlin's "All Alone."

Later the pro-war half of the room was set up against the pacifist side, the two camps hectoring each other — the pacifist one kept shrinking, though, until it was down to a couple of people drowned by the vociferous bellicose yahoos (ie the majority).

A tribute to Tiny Tim became a battle between 12 ukulele players and 12 Ulysses.

In the 1950s, he made the middle section vacate their seats and crowd over to the side to emulate the white flight from the cities to the suburbs. (Black audience members could stay in the middle, and since there weren't many of them at the show — something Taylor acknowledged — they had plenty of chairs to themselves.)

In the late 1960s (I think, it was a bit of blur by then), Taylor was the lone Queer of America and the audience was homophobes pelting him with ping-pong balls.

So: America, built on conflict, pillage, murder, oppression of the other and the weak. But also built on communities brought together by those very scourges and, at best, making art out of it. How to make this come to life over the course of a show? By forcing the audience to reenact that theater of conflict and appropriation — we were performing the making of Americans, to borrow from Gertrude Stein.

Each member of the audience brought their own baggage, their own history to St Ann's Warehouse. Me, I couldn't help grinning when Taylor wondered why America was still infatuated with its former colonial masters, the British, while it was the French who came to their aid during the revolution (I'm paraphrasing). I watched the show as someone who became a U.S. citizen ten years ago, enamored of the country's spirit but not blind to its shortcomings. What we experienced this weekend reminded us, through extraordinary artistry, that America is deeply, deeply troubled, to put it mildly, but we're all in it together. Or at least some of us are in it together. And maybe that's good enough.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Songs of Lear

I'm always up for a company taking a drastic approach to Shakespeare, but I wish Songs of Lear had a bit more diversity in tone and style. Still, the score was co-written by a Corsican so props to the homeland! My NYT review can be found here.


A little goes a long way in Helder Guimaraes' new show, Verso. My review for the New York Times is here.

Interview with Romeo Castellucci

It's safe to say that nobody does what director Romeo Castellucci does. Nobody. And now New Yorkers won't have to go to Montclair or Philadelphia to see one of this shows — at long last! I chatted with him a few days ago, and here is some of what transpired.

Interview with Peter Brook

For my first piece in The Wall Street Journal, I interviewed director Peter Brook. What a thrill and honor! Click here for the Q&A.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Empathitrax and Lewis Black

Big news on the Dilettante front: I've started contributing to the New Yorker's Goings On About Town section. Can you spot the theater capsules I wrote? OK, so I'm not quite pulling a reverse Janet Flanner in scope (ie, a French woman writing from the US as opposed to an American reporting from France) but still, I'm counting this as a win for ESL!

And there's more -- that is, more reviews for the New York Times! Earlier this week there was the new Colt Coeur production, Empathitrax, then I checked out Lewis Black's latest show, Black to the Future. Click on those links, why don't you?

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Jamb

I liked The Jamb, warts and all. At least it didn't feel overpasteurized by a lengthy workshop process. My NYT review is here.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Fringe roundup

I saw a few shows at this year's Fringe (including four on Wednesday alone, which isn't even competitive compared to what hardcore Fringe goers can do) and lived to tell the tale in the NYT. Click here for the lowdown.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Quiet, Comfort

Alec Duffy and the Hoi Polloi company gave Toshiki Okada's Quiet, Comfort a gem of a production at Jack. My review for the NYT is here.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Karen Finley's Unicorn Gratitude Mystery

By golly, Karen Finley still has it! My review of her new triptych, at the Laurie Beechman every Sunday, is here.