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.