Taylor Mac performs in concert. Photo by Sarah Walker/Courtesy of Portland Ovations

Things you should know about Taylor Mac:

Mac uses the word “judy” as a pronoun; not as a name, but as a gender pronoun, lowercase, unless it starts a sentence.

Judy’s best known for “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” performed over 24 hours with 246 songs popular in America from 1776 to the present. It wasn’t a music lesson, but a history lesson for which Mac won a MacArthur genius grant in 2017. More accurately, it’s a retelling of American history, told from a queer perspective with a musical soundtrack that covers everything from Stephen Foster to Prince to Ted Nugent. The show ultimately is about communities in American history that have redefined themselves after suffering trauma.

Mac is an activist, drag artist, playwright, singer and songwriter, and one of the most daring artists working on the stage today, with work that is ambitious, maximalist, tragic, funny and poignant.

Taylor Mac

Mac is coming to Portland on Sept. 19 to perform, in drag, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged)” at the State Theatre. Portland Ovations presents the show in partnership with the State as part of its bicentennial series. It’s a perfect show for the bicentennial, because Mac’s music is about bringing people together, seeing those who are unseen and giving voice to those who are not heard, said Aimee Petrin, executive and artistic director of Portland Ovations.

“Taylor has a particularly ingenious way of tackling tough subject matters in a way that is meant to bring people together,” Petrin said. “He’s not afraid to go there, but doing so with compassion and kindness with the ultimate goal of bringing people together, which is what we want to do at Ovations. It’s a celebratory and thoughtful and energizing way to experience each other and art.”


Mac’s performance in Portland is part of a Northeast tour and precedes an irreverent holiday show called “Holiday Sauce” that also will tour across the Northeast. Mac performs with a band led by music director Matt Ray, and is accompanied by costume designer Machine Dazzle, who will be in residence at the Maine College of Art the week prior to the performance and will give a public lecture about his art on Sept. 17 at MECA.

Music, theater, dance and design students from MECA, Bates, Bowdoin and Harvard are coming to the show, which thrills Petrin. “I love that Taylor is not only an award-winning performer, but he is part of the scholarly pursuit of music, theater and dance students in this country and internationally,” she said.

Mac has edited the 24-hour performance down to a few hours and has organized the abridged show around a theme of resistance. “I will give you one guess why,” Mac said in a phone interview from New York. “People like me don’t get to represent America, especially these days. So I’m just supporting my troops. My troops just happen to be liberal. That’s not to say conservative people can’t come to the show and get something out of it. They can. But they’re just guests at the party.”

Mac recently brought the show to Phoenix, where “half the audience was conservative, and they had a great time. It’s the kind of show that says, ‘I want you in the room, but you’ve got to acknowledge that America is not just you.’ ”

As a drag queen, Mac isn’t used to being celebrated. “There’s a constant dismissal of what you do when you’re a drag queen,” Mac said. “People put you in the box of frivolity.”

Taylor Mac with costume by Machine Dazzle. Image courtesy of Portland Ovations

Mac’s enjoyed the spotlight, especially following the blitz of attention that followed the MacArthur grant. It’s given him the opportunity to talk about his life and lifestyle and spread his message, and his work, to more people. The grant has changed his life, because he doesn’t have to worry about money.


“Maybe that will change, but I have been responsible with the money. It’s given me a breather. I was doing OK before, but in this day and age, it’s hard to stay afloat with just OK,” he said. “That’s how it’s changed my life the most. I am able to take an entire month and just write. I don’t have to tour in order to pay my bills.”

To be sure, he likes touring, and is very much looking forward to coming to Maine. “I love it up there. I have never performed there and have not spent a lot of time there. But I fell in love with Maine when I was there. It’s so …,” he paused, searching for the right word. “Civilized. Why can’t we all live there? But then it would be ruined!”

Mac was born a long way from Maine, in Laguna Beach, California, and attributes his interest in art to his mother. She was an art teacher, and she encouraged her son, as she encouraged all her pupils, to embrace mistakes. He joined a children’s theater when he was 9. His art and activism evolved in the 1980s when he became inspired by AIDS activists.

He’s been in New York since the 1990s, and evolved his performance style by melding the influence of musical theater, improv, drag and the traditions of commedia dell’arte. Performing in drag allowed him to elaborate on everything, he said – bigger costumes, more outlandish makeup and the opportunity to address important topics in outrageous ways. He began performing, writing his own lyrics to popular songs and singing them in clubs.

Eventually, he folded theater into his routine, and a star was born.

His most ambitious piece is “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” which he has performed in full just once in New York in 2016. Generally, he performs it in chapters over a period of days or weeks. During the time of this interview, Mac was uncertain about what would be included in the abridged version that is coming to Portland. But we’re all-but-certain to get “Snakeskin Cowboys” by Ted Nugent, which Mac turns into a slow dance and requires, or strongly encourages, members of the audience to dance with someone of the same gender. It’s the dramatic event of the show, after which nothing is the same.

“I see that moment in some ways as the culmination of everything we are doing with the show,” he said. “It’s the moment that transforms the entire space.”

Just as Mac’s performance transforms the expectations of the audience, Petrin said.

“Everyone in that room will carry the performance with them,” promised Petrin, who saw Mac perform the show in New York. “The people who are there will have an experience that changes a little something inside of them.”

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