By Taylor Mac, at Melbourne Festival
Wed 11 – Fri 20 October | Forum Melbourne
Notes on the notes:
- These are notes, not a review. I am not interested in writing a review.
- I’ve never used my blog for this kind of writing before. I’m giving it a try.
- Leave a comment if you like.
- I may write more after each part of the show. I might not. I might type this up into something more formal. Or not.
- Taylor Mac uses “judy”, lowercase, not as a name but as a gender pronoun.
There have been press reviews of the show already –after only 25% of the show has taken place. (Imagine how ridiculous it would be for another show to be reviewed a quarter of the way through without acknowledging such partiality.) This is one of the reasons I decided to publish these notes, which are not a review. I wanted to see how my understanding of the show, the people around me and my sense of self shifted over a 24 hour of exposure to Taylor Mac’s show. I want to remember the lacuna, the place between the installments where I have to try to decompress after six intense hours of riotous chaos and bravura performance. Right now it is three hours before the second installment will begin. I spent a lot of yesterday in a daze, the length of the show messed up my circadian rhythm, it infected my night’s dreams and held my day dreams to ransom. Did I really run my fingers along that person’s teeth when I fed them a grape when we were both blindfolded (or as least I was)? What was the name of the person I ended up next to again? Was the US founded on a hatred of the US, and loving black hair, and, and..? It is too much to process. But I’m giving it a try.
Chapter I: 1776-1836
Wow, this is the perfect venue for this show. Even going to the toilet feels like theatre. The show has already begun even before any of the performers are on stage. There are hundreds of people milling about. They look really cool. I’m sat at the back of the stalls, but right in the middle. I can see all the audience as well as the stage. I introduce myself to the person sat next to me. We are both seeing the whole 24 hours. Maybe we will become friends?
When Taylor gets on stage for Amazing Grace, the opening song, I have a surreal feeling of time standing still. I have seen judy perform many times before in Glasgow, London and Melbourne, and just got that strange feeling of being connected through performance to all those other moments and stages in my life, and all the emotions I felt, laughing heartily and crying my eyes out in the comfort of the audience surrounded by my beloved friends. But comparison is violence, so I decided not to equate those previous times with this.
There was an unorthodox acknowledgement of country followed by a meeting of Timothy White Eagle and Aunty Di Kerr. Aunty Di offered a welcome to country and acknowledged Taylor’s apology on behalf his ancestors, offering a possum skin wristband imbued with a creation story. She said she had only started making things recently. What a gift.
The first member of the audience on stage was told they were a verb not a noun. That is, like the rest of the audience and all present, in the act of becoming themselves, building their lives, and at the same moment creating this performance together. This struck me as a central theme in Taylor Mac’s work. An early show (The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac?) was based on judy’s creation story. As an artist, a person, a leader Taylor Mac has continued to create judy as consciously as possible over many years since then. This is the central queer gift that Taylor Mac embodies and promulgates: we are all in the process of creating ourselves, and it is possible to do some of that transforming consciously and mindfully. It is also key to understanding the politics of the performance space and the calamitous gel that holds the event together: the show is alive, and being made in the moment by all those present. Part is made, part makes itself. There was a plan, and now there are tactics. Ultimately, of course, this is why addressing the creation of USA as a nation over 24 hours of song is so well matched to Taylor Mac’s queer dramaturgy: while a country seems to have become an intransigent noun, it was always, despite what you may have been led to believe, always a transitive verb. As we rebuild ourselves out of calamity, so might we rebuild our communities, and if we must, a whole country, more mindfully.
This is an epic queer show happening in Melbourne at what feels like a calamitous time for LGBTQ+ individuals and communities. And yet, despite the ridiculous postal survey, and completely coincidentally, it has been the queerest of weeks for me (and maybe others like me, and maybe for the whole of the arts in Melbourne) and that is incredibly exciting. On Saturday at the Melbourne Town Hall just a few hundred meters from The Forum, the inaugural Coming Back Out Ball took place. The CBOB was a major event in the life of the city as well as for the senior queers who graced it. Likewise in another bastion of the establishment The Fairfax theatre, All The Sex I’ve Ever Had was a kind of queering of old age, a late-life outing of all the dirty little secrets, peccadillos and loves that dare not speak their name. I’m exhausted. It’s all happening at once, hour after hour of transformative performance that undoes perceptions of bodies, lives and love.
Obviously, I am in a rare and privileged position able to participate in all this great work. Many others are not. Like the man I interviewed at the Coming Back Out Ball, who came to Melbourne from regional Victoria alone and on-spec after reading an story in a local newspaper. He hadn’t booked in advance but turned up with his paper clipping and was not turned away. He was glad to be there but wondered why he had to come all the way to Melbourne to experience such an event. Things haven’t changed so much where he is from. And what would his old friends say, the five who died of AIDS in the ’80s? He remembered one lost friend in particular who would have loved the CBOB and we shed a tear together for him in the corner of the biggest party in town.
And what about cost? How could anyone but the extremely wealthy afford a $690 ticket for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music? Not many people. Of course the whole thing should be free and be taking place at MCG, but as it is not, what should be the cost? What value do you put on something that lasts 24 hours and features 150 professional performers? It’s a scale we are completely unaccustomed to in theatre. This show’s endeavour is in the same order as long-form TV series (and they cost a lot more). It could be performed as 24 one hour shows at $30 each. But no, it should be binge-watched, like we do TV (sometimes), in six-hour blocks, because of the (almost) physical impossibility of performing it in one 24 hour go, which has only happened once. In the end lots of tickets were released at lower rates, many paying $60 per night ($10 per hour). I’d hate for discussion of cost to become a legacy of this work in Melbourne. It’s obvious that a show of this scale is impossible without vast levels of funding, but this is why we have Melbourne Festival, to make extraordinary things happen. It’s a completely unprecedented kind of work and so its funding and ticketing scheme are equally novel but certainly not as interesting as the endeavour itself.
Even the six hour block was dizzying. I am still not sure how it is humanly possible to keep all those songs, monologues and gags so pristinely in one’s head, and to stay ‘on message’ so astutely and coherently. And then I remember that for judy, this is life, that is the message. It is not only a performance, but a lived experience, a part of life for someone who has already performed for thousands of hours all around the world. Judy wasn’t built in a day, but over many years through a life lived as consciously as possible. Machine Dazzle might make the frocks, but machine judy lives them. But the term ‘machine’ is too inhumane for Taylor Mac’s creation, which is wrought from the deepest humanity, and the most radical desire for us all to become the most fabulous, fair and forgiving version of ourselves.
There is so much more to say! About the queering of the space (I’ve said a little about time), by causing calamity, moving the front row around immediately (maybe the people who paid the most for their tickets), and allowing free movement throughout the show (I watched the last hour from row two). About the Dandy Minions constantly provoking transformation around you. From further back you could see them better, creating movement and colour throughout the audience, dragging the stage into the world. And of course, about what is actually happening on stage, you know, the entire history of USA in song. It is every show in one. But really, it is life on show, a series of possible lives. And over 24 hours, you might just have time to reconsider yours.
It is now one hour before Chapter II.