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Essay

Taylor Mac Artist Interview

WARNING: This interview contains spoilers. Do not read on if you do not wish to read about contents of Hir.

 

Tim Sanford: In your Playwright’s Perspective, you talked about growing up in Stockton, California, feeling like an outsider. So how did that consciousness of being different lead to you becoming an artist? What did you realize first: that you were gay, or that you were an artist? Or are the two simultaneous?

Taylor Mac: I was an artist, I realized, first, and the way that I thought about the world was different than the way other kids or people thought about the world. I was constantly the person that was pointing out something that was just slightly different than everybody else. It may have been that we were Christian Scientists, so there was this big, huge thing in my family where we were from a weird religion.

Were you practicing?

We were. The first time I went to a doctor I was 19. 

Wow.

And my father died when I was four, so that separated me a bit more from the kids with two parents. Then once I realized I was an artist and gay, the oddball contract was signed.

What kinds of outlets for self-expression did you find when you were a child?

I could stay in my room and play for hours by myself. My fingers were characters and I would talk to them for hours. I had friends, but I enjoyed my alone time.

Would you show that side of yourself to your friends?

When I was really young, yeah. My friend down the block had a lot more toys than I did so I would go over there and take over his room and create whole stories with the toys and he was always just kind of...  (Laughs.)  I was a weirdo to him, but I was the only other kid on the block that was his age, so we were friends. He was a tough kid who had some disdain for me for being odd and effeminate but I think, ultimately liked me a lot.

What was your first actual theatrical experience?

It was a Christmas pageant in kindergarten. I was a toy soldier. And I was good at it. 

And you kept doing it?

I did, yeah. Then it became children’s theater. When I was eight or nine I went to audition for Peter Pan, but my mom wouldn’t take me to the auditions ’cause she didn’t want to be a stage mother. (Laughs.) In Stockton, California. A “stage mom.” But it was very sweet. So she made me walk to the auditions but apparently she was secretly driving behind me in the car to make sure I was okay. So I went to the audition and I almost threw up — I wanted to be cast as Peter Pan so badly. And I didn’t actually get it but they cast me as an understudy to let me partake.  But it was children’s theater, so everyone got sick, and I ended up playing almost every role.

(Tim laughs.) 

So that ended up being a great thing. And I just kind of kept on like that. Whenever anyone needed a kid in an adult play they would call, and I’d end up doing it.  

Is Amos Alonzo Stagg High School still there?

Yeah, that’s the high school I went to. 

I lived in Stockton too for four years when I was a child. That’s where my brothers went. They had five valedictorians with perfect 4.0’s and their football team was almost state champions. I went to all the games. I was crushed when we moved.

Yeah, for me it was just awful. We moved to Stockton when my father’s job transferred him and, shortly after we moved, he was killed, driving drunk on his motorcycle, and we got stuck in Stockton. 

And so your mom’s plan was to find a way when you kids grew up to get you out of there as well?

Well her plan was not to be there for more than a couple years at the most. It was just a “for now” place while the family recovered from my dad dying and she figured out what she needed to do. And every year we talked about how we were going to move, and we just never did. Then she ended up marrying my stepfather and he had that same narrative; he had lived in Santa Cruz when he was a kid, and he always said, “I’m going back to Santa Cruz!” So then the whole family, we were going to “get to Santa Cruz! Get to the ocean!”  And of course we never did, as a family anyway. So my whole childhood, I grew up with the narrative that home was not the place we were supposed to be. 

With the ever-shifting Moscows that you were longing to go to.

Yeah. There was always a better place. And a lot of it had to do with the coast. The idea that we were so close to the coast and that was kind of a utopia. It was very Moscow. 

So how did you get out of there?

I turned 17 and I applied to some colleges.  And I had horrible SAT scores. No one in my family went to college. There was a narrative that my sister and I were always going to go to college. But nobody understood what that meant. They didn’t understand what you had to do in order to do it. You had to save money. And you had to go to SAT classes, and you had to plan. So there was no real concrete action to get us to take those steps. I ended up going to San Francisco State for a year because it was easy to get accepted there and the gays were in San Francisco.

How did you live?

The tuition was pretty cheap, something like thirteen hundred dollars a semester, so I paid for my first and only year there with my paper route money I’d saved. (Laughs.) I also had multiple jobs while I was going to school and the first semester I was lucky enough to have a grandmother who paid for the dormitory.

So talk about the evolution of the Taylor who was acting in plays to the Taylor who brought out into open the Taylor of the ten-fingered playlets in his room, and the impresario of his friends’ toys into a sort of a pre-Lily’s Revenge pageant of dolls.

Yeah. Well interestingly enough...  I mean, I was a maker, right? That’s what I was ultimately interested in being, was a maker.  But I thought I wanted to be an actor, which I did, but I just didn’t know I wanted to be a certain kind of actor. So when I went to San Francisco State, they didn’t really have any kind of system. It was all just kind of hodgepodge, but they did give you space. You could just sign up and make things. So I did. Then I met some people, and we started making things together. But I was just there for a year and then I joined this walk across the U.S.

Wow.

And that’s why I wrote The Walk Across America.

It is?

I didn’t write it then, but the experience of that play was an actual walk that I went on. It took about a year of my life and then I came back to San Francisco and I just started auditing classes — I didn’t pay for tuition. That’s a little like Max. “Why pay when you can just come in and take the class?” So I started doing that for about six months and then I got my first professional job in Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. And I did that for eight months where I dressed up like a poodle and sang “Runaround Sue” eight times a week, which was a real eye-opener. I thought, “This is the opposite of the kind of thing I want to do.” I mean, it seems like maybe it would be the kind of thing I’d want because it’s theatrical and campy, but I’ve never really been interested in camp or theatrics for the simple fun of it. But I learned, in the show, how to sustain a performance over a long period, which has served me well.

But you had some realization you wanted to do something else.

Yes and the Walk was a real eye-opener, because I wanted to be political. But the Walk kind of crushed that in me a little bit. (Laughs.) 

Like it does in the play.

Like it does in the play. After the Walk I felt that the best way I could be of service socially and politically wasn’t civil disobedience but to make works of consequence. And I decided, “I want to go to New York. I’ve always wanted to go to New York.” So I applied to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and got in. It was a really nice foundation, fairly Method-based foundation. I learned a lot of craft. 

Two questions before we get to New York. Where did your political awareness come from? Was your mother very political?

No, my mom’s a Republican. I mean, I don’t know what she is now, but she was at that point. You know, the Orange County Republicans and Texans, those are the people I come from. People who vote against their interest. (Laughs.) I think the theater helped politicize me in a different way. I have these three friends I met in children’s theater that are still very dear to me, two of them I think of as my sisters and the other as a brother, and they were political and we were political together. We were all queer, but we didn’t know that at the time growing up. But then obviously we all figured out why we were attracted to each other, and they’re all still in my life and all doing really interesting things and making the world a better place. (Laughs.) We were lucky to find each other.

And did you volunteer for politicians or anything like that?

Nope. I didn’t do any of that, it was more the kind of the anarchist-punk route. You know, political actions, rallies, and protests.

And did you do any in Stockton or did you go the city?

Well I went to the first AIDS Walk in San Francisco in 19… I guess ’86 and that’s why I’m making the 24-Decade History of Popular Music because of that experience. That was the first time I had seen any out queers.

Tell me more about that, I didn’t know about that.

I was 14or15, and I had never met an out homosexual before. There were these two guys who lived three houses down and lived together, but they were never affectionate on the street with each other and they never talked to anybody. So they were “those men that lived together,” and people would say on my paper route, “Don’t talk to those guys, they’ll try to make you gay.” (Laughs.) And I’d go up to their door hoping they’d make me gay but they wouldn’t. They would just hand me the check for the paper and close the door. I think they were traumatized by being in Stockton at the time. But maybe that’s just from a kid’s perspective. In hindsight, there were other out homosexuals around me, but they weren’t out to me or to kids and nobody talked about it openly. Queers weren’t allowed to be role models for kids.

Were you out?

I was not out. I was 14, 15 years old. I mean everyone knew but nothing was spoken at that point. I wasn’t confused, I just thought it was something I couldn’t tell people. So we go to the AIDS walk. There were thousands of out queers and they were screaming, and unapologetically ferocious and full of power. And I was discovering that there was a queer history for the first time. I suspected it was there but I had no proof because my entire public school education, no mention of anything queer other than “faggot” on the playground. You know, we learned about suffragettes, and we learned about civil rights, and we learned immigration, and of course about all the wars but there was so much shame about queerness, especially in relation to children, that no one would talk about it. So to discover it all in one moment… it was life-altering. And also to see how the community was getting built at the same time it was falling apart, or because it was falling apart, because of the epidemic. I think that’s one of the major events of my life in terms of why I make the work I make. In some way every show I’ve made is an attempt to give the audience that same feeling I had as a kid when I discovered queer agency, history, and heterogeneity for the first time. The first two things I do when I sit down to write a play are to ask myself what don’t I want the audience to know about me and what I’m ignoring about myself and the world. Then I make the work about those things. And those techniques come as a direct result of being ashamed of my queerness and then discovering, in a moment of mass queer activism, I didn’t have to be.

So how did that inspire The Complete History of Popular Music?

Well I wanted to create a show where we’re building a community as a result of falling apart. So it had to be long enough that we could feel like we were deteriorating to some degree. It had to have an onslaught, an amount of excess to it, so it felt a little overwhelming.

And why do that through popular song?

Because I’m a content-dictates-the-form type of person, so I thought, “What’s the form that best represents this thing that I want to talk about, how imperfection is fostering community?” And it seemed like the best form was popular song. In classical song the tradition is to try to reach god, the hem of god. But a popular song uses its imperfection, its imperfect rhyme, its simplicity, to reach the people. It uses its flaws to gather people together, to rally them to a cause, or to get them to mourn together or celebrate together, so the whole idea was to use these popular songs to do that over a 24-hour period.

I just have to ask...  What kind of musical training do you have? You have an amazing voice.

It wasn’t extensive, but I was in choir, and I got voice lessons. Even though we were living week-to-week my mom still figured out how to get me voice lessons. So I had that kind of support. And then when I went to college I took some music theory.

How have you built up your stamina? 

Well, I’ve been in training for a while. Once I started touring, that was the big change of my life. I guess in 2006 I started touring extensively. Up until that point I was trying to make things happen in New York, and I finally kind of broke through in the international market. “Market.” It’s so creepy, calling it that. But the presenting houses all around the world...

Okay we just leaped ahead. Let’s not leave New York yet; you just got there. What did you do after you got out of AADA?

I left acting school and I couldn’t get an audition for anything. I don’t audition anymore as a result because I put seven years of my life into trying to get auditions, and only got three auditions. In seven years.  So it was all that wasted time trying to participate in the industry that I knew I was supposed to be part of and just having no access to it.

Was that an impetus to your writing?

No. The playwriting was not about, “Well, no one’s going to cast me, I’m going to write parts for myself!” It was never was about that. I started writing my first play the last year I was at AADA. 

And what was it like?

It was called The Hot Month. And it had a lot of interlocked happenings where one scene’s happening in the desert, another scene’s happening simultaneously in a hospital. It was very metaphysical. Probably came from my Christian Science upbringing. And it was gay; it was very gay, rather than queer. And it was funny. I’m not quite sure I would ever let anyone do another production of it. But people liked it.

You got enough encouragement to keep doing it.

Yeah, well I started to work as a playwright, not as an actor, ’cause they wouldn’t let me audition. 

(Both laugh.) 

It was amazing! It was really amazing. I even had a casting director one time, who I paid to have a meeting with, if you can believe it...

Wow.

I paid him to give me advice. I said, “Well what can I do in order to get in the room with these people? To get an agent and get in the room and get myself submitted? No one will even see me.” And he said, “You should have gone to Yale or Juilliard.” That was the advice I paid for. There are so many bottom-feeders in our industry. Don’t get me started. 

Who first encouraged you as a playwright?

I started working with Circle Repertory Lab. Michael Warren Powell...  Do you know him? Yeah? He kind of mentored me as a playwright. I had done a play with somebody who was an actor in the company.

Who?

G.R. Johnson. We had done a play at the Florida Studio Theatre. That was one of the ones that I waited all day long in order to audition for. It was an open call. So I did this play out there, and...

Wait, you went to an open call and you got the part?

Yeah.

That’s a really nice story!

(Both laugh.) 

I guess so! I don’t know. 

I’m an optimist.

Are you? Is that true?

Sort of, it’s true.

Well that’s good.

Well you kind of have to...

You kind of have to be. 

We can discuss the conversation of the dichotomy of idealism and fatalism in your work… I mean you talked about The Walk Across America. The whole thing is so ferkakte but it’s an act of love, that play.

Yeah.

It’s crazy impossible, at the same time everyone is so determined.

I think the big thing for me is that I grew up in a place where you were supposed to be one thing and I was not one thing. I was many things, as was everyone around me. I was trying to express the multifaceted nature of things.

So how did your work develop and change in the Circle Rep Lab? Did you get inspired because you had some sort of official approval?

Well it still had its own kind of hierarchy, and even at that level where no one’s getting paid and no one’s actually producing anybody, there still was this system of “How do I get in? How do I have access to this thing?”

Yeah.

But luckily... Here’s the thing about being gay and being relatively cute: if there are other older gay guys in the room, they wanna spend time with you. So, honestly... it’s like… Lanford Wilson and Michael Warren Powell were like, “Hi!” 

(Both laugh.) 

You know? “Come on over and let me teach you about playwriting!” And it was lecherous in a fun way because it seemed, to me anyway, that it was more about the joy of the flirt. Besides I would gladly slap a hand off my ass for a little dramaturgy...

(Both laugh.) 

Honestly, that’s how it happened. It goes back to Socrates. 

(Both laugh.) 

But yeah, really, that’s how the playwriting got shaped, how it became more than just my ideas, but actually connected to some kind of craft. Those wonderful old queens mentored me. 

Did you get to see it? Did you have workshops?

Well, they weren’t doing them, but I would put on my own. Then I acted with the Jean Cocteau Repertory for a year and put on a reading there and it was really successful. I got the whole place packed and everyone loved the play, so that was encouraging. But then that was a situation where they were never going to do the play. I would just keep having reading after reading after reading, kind of learning that the new barrier of being a playwright was, “Oh, we want to do a reading of your play!” So I probably had 20 readings of that play. And they all were great. Really I haven’t had such good readings since. 

And did you do that play?

Boomerange Theater Company did the play in an off-off-off-Equity showcase. 

What’s the third “off?” “Off-off...  off!” (Laughs.) 

Well you know, “off-off” is like La Mama, and the HERE Arts Center, and PS122 and Dixon Place, and then there’s what I call the “off-off-off” level which is people that are just really under... Not underground experimental, just...  

Under the under the radar.

Under the under the radar! Yes. (Laughs.) By the time I was in the Under the Radar Festival, I wasn’t under the radar anymore.

(Both laugh.) 

Would you say the evolutions of your performance and your writing were integrated, were happening at the same rate? 

Well, the performance art hadn’t really started yet. I was still trying to get an under-five on “Law and Order” as a way to make my life complete. (Laughs.) Which is so lame! I’m so happy that things changed for me. I’m so glad I couldn’t get those auditions because I would probably be pretty miserable right now. Eventually I was so frustrated I said, “I’m going to leave the city. I’m going to go live in Provincetown and write plays for a year and then see how I feel.” And I went there for a summer and at the end of the summer I said, “Get me the fuck out of here.” And do you know the Bloolips? So Lavinia Co-op was moving back to London for six months, so she was subletting her East Village apartment. So I moved in to her apartment room, and it was basically a giant drag closet. And I wasn’t supposed to wear her drag, but one night this tower of lingerie fell on me. (Laughs.) Literally, a tower of it. And there was drag everywhere, and I said, “Well, fuck it. If I have to live in this, I’m gonna wear it.” So I started wearing her clothes out. 

Was that the first time you wore drag?

No, I’d done it in Provincetown before that and a little bit here and there my whole life. So I was finding it interesting. But I’d also auditioned for Hedwig when it first came out, and they were replacing John [Cameron Mitchell] in the role and, at another one of those open calls, I got a few callbacks and then they got me a ticket to the show. And when I saw the show I said, “Oh, that’s my calling.” And then they cast Michael Cerveris.

Then Ally Sheedy for chrissakes.

And then Ally Sheedy, yeah. But what happened as a result, it opened me up to thinking... I mean I was actually weeping at the end of the show... 

I was weeping too.

Yeah, it’s emotional! And it was that same experience of seeing all the queers at the AIDS Walk, where I discovered a whole other world that I was unaware of. Because I’d moved to New York and Ethyl Eichelberger had just died, Harry Kondoleon had just died, Charles Ludlam had just died… You know, all the kind of drag queen performance artists from the Pyramid Club, they were calling it quits or taking a break or I simply wasn’t aware of them, and so it just was this whole...  The people who would have been there to say “Look! Look at this thing you could do!”… There was a little pause in that lineage. Plus I still had all my suburban crap going on in me.

Self-censorship?

Self-censorship, but also I’d been trained about what theater is supposed to be. There was that real divide between uptown and downtown. Twenty years ago it was pretty strong. Still is but a little less so. For someone who grew up in suburbia, where musical theater and things that won the Tony are the only thing that are considered theater… it takes some major exposure to new things to break you out of that middle-brow dictate. 

When did you start performing in drag? 

I started going to the clubs every single night. And the amazing thing about the clubs is you don’t have to ask permission to be creative. You just show up and then they let you in for free. And then you say, “I want to do a number.” And nine times out of ten they’ll say, “Sure.” And if you’re good, they’ll ask you to come back. So I quit my survival job. I said, “I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent but all I’m going to do is this.” 

Were you paid in tips?

You get paid 50 or a hundred bucks every time...

Oh, when they invited you.

Yeah. So I would do it for free the first time, or the first few times at various clubs, and then they would say, “Well come back and we’ll pay you.” 

And did you start developing an act?

I was doing these performance art numbers where I’d sing to tracks, but I would sing other lyrics to the tracks. So they’d be popular songs that people were hearing, but I’d sing different melodies and my own lyrics to them. Because I wasn’t playing an instrument at that time. It was a club, so you want to be louder and bigger than anything else in the room, so I couldn’t bring out a ukulele and be like, “a-dink-a-dink-a-dink-a-dink.” 

(Both laugh.) 

It wasn’t all like the Pyramid Club where people would stop to watch the little number. So I started doing that and pretty soon people would pay attention enough that I could do monologue-type numbers and what ended up happening is, I started bringing the theater into the clubs. Then once I started to kind of get a name for myself in that world the theaters started calling, and then I started bringing the clubs into the theater.

And so what theaters were calling you?

Off-off-Broadway theaters. HERE Arts Center, Dixon Place, PS122. Kristin Marting and Mark Russell were big supporters. 

For someone who didn’t really go to college, your work is often pretty heady. There are lots of literary references and theory. Were you just reading that stuff on your own?

Yeah, I read a lot. What I say is, “I’m not an intellectual, but I want to be one.” So I’m always trying to make myself smarter, if I can. It’s probably partially because of insecurity, but I also think curiosity is part of it. I’m just interested in the way things work. And I had a lot of mentorship. It wasn’t just Michael and Lanford, but Elizabeth Swados took me under her wing, Morgan Jenness, my friend Nina Mankin, Romulus Linney.

Were you reading or seeing things that influenced your playwriting? I’ve heard you mention Aristotle before, which surprised me. Reading your plays, it really feels like the dynamic of how your voice finds its form feels organic.

I think a lot of the early plays—and maybe even still—were a little bit about wanting to learn the craft of playwriting. So I would say, “What do I want to talk about?” Then, “What’s the form that would best represent that topic or idea?” If it turned out it was an existential form I’d say, “Okay I’ve got to learn about how to write an existential play.” And I’d read up on Chekhov and read all these essays about existentialism. And so then I would write that play and through the process of writing it, I’d learn about the form and the craft of it.

Is there an existential play in your canon?

Well The Walk Across America isExistential-Commedia. This is the other thing I started doing; I started pastiching genres and forms. The Walk Across America is about a bunch of political activist anarchists who are going across the U.S. And that to me represented pageantry, and it represented ridiculousness as stock characters, because anarchists are always kind of playing stock characters in a way. (Laughs.) And the walk was an existential experience for me, so what I decided is I would squish three different forms together...  So it had the form of a beauty pageant, the form of a Commedia play, and then also The Three Sisters. And the same thing happened with Lily, where I said, “It’s this play about the traditions, the social dictates, and social etiquettes, and tropes, and storytelling that are part of our lives and are holding us back and aren’t serving us now, so it’s about breaking free of that.” So I wanted use as many genres, forms, and styles that I could squish in to one play.

I was at the Obies when you got your Obie for that. I hadn’t seen anything of yours yet. And when I read it I thought, “I wonder if Taylor’s read Genet.” Because the way you use the flowers just seems...

Oh yeah. Well there’s Genet in there, there’s Beckett, there’s all those Noh plays in it. There are so many influences in that play. (Laughs.)  You know, there’s the American musical, silent film…

It’s such a huge play, you must have had a lot of support to develop it.

I had a HERE Arts Residency. They have this great program where they teach you how to write grants and we would have monthly meetings and you could show things. It was all self-produced. If you wanted to work with actors, then you either had to get them to work for free or raise money and pay them some kind of stipend. So I worked on Lily for four years in that program, and every year I would apply for grants, and every year I wouldn’t get them, and then the final year I got every single thing I applied for. So it was this kind of delightful and odd thing that all the money came in right at the moment I needed it. I mean, we would have done it anyways, but it wouldn’t have been the vision that I had for it. I would have probably had to do it with five people.

I really wanted to go into all of your previous work in some depth so the audience member who doesn’t know you that well can have a better idea of where Hir came from. I was blown away by Hir, that you decided to write a “play play” like this.

Yeah.

And how does this play recreate that sense of the festival you talked about before, from the AIDS Walk when you were a teenager?

Well just the discovery of yourself through the discovery of history, the discovery of community — remove the veil and see something that’s actually better behind it. Usually they say we remove the veil and see that the Great Oz is just a man. Well instead it’s the man standing there and when we pull the veil down we see the Great Oz! (Laughs.) That’s what Paige and Max are trying to do; they’re trying to remove the veil so that you can see the Great Oz. They have that shadow puppetry show, and they’re basically saying, “Look, we can solve our problems with shadow puppetry!” And then Isaac just brings them back down. His response is essentially, “No. You won’t have joy, you won’t solve your problems through artistic process, you will be real!” That moment is very tragic for me. And I feel like that’s a little bit where we’re at as a culture right now: pressed up against the fourth wall. Trying to break away into something new, and we’re just not there. We’re kind of suffocating against the fourth wall.

That’s a trope in The Lily’s Revenge that the flowers grow out of the muck. The dirt is even a character. It’s very Our Lady of the Flowers. You often juxtapose the muck and shit and vomit up against the exultation.

I just want us to pay attention to how varied we are and all the details instead of this kind of reductive participation in the marketplace. It’s just really about: if you can reduce it to one thing then you can sell it. So we all practice reducing ourselves to one thing so we can understand ourselves and be summed up by others easily. I’m more interested in what happens when somebody’s muddy and there’s glitter all over them at the same time. What happens when someone’s filthy as a slutty pig, and at the same time they’re taking care of a kid in the most beautiful way, like in my play The Fre? What is that dichotomy? 

What was the starting point for Hir for you? Was it certain characters? Was it an idea? Was it a world? 

I think the world of Stockton was the starting point.

The starter home you were talking about?

Yeah, I think that was it. It was being in Stockton and actually having these three friends who were a window to something outside of Stockton for me and seeing that it could actually be better. I think that was the catalyst, whether or not that’s what ultimately the play became about is... Well it didn’t actually become about that. I mean, a little bit.

What did it become about?

Well. (Laughs.)  I mean, it becomes about harm, radical healing, and how to grapple with the fallout of both. It’s about progressive and radical left responsibility. You know, if we’re going to break the fourth wall, because we need to in order to heal ourselves from all these years of harm, what are we going to do with the people who get cut by the pieces of it? Or who don’t know how to process it? You know, you can have your shadow puppetry show, but if the people are shut down and aren’t able to watch it, because it’s too much for them, then what’s the point? There’s a point of celebration, of community building for yourself, but if there are casualties that are a result of you having your liberation, then... I guess some people would say, “Well fuck ’em.” And I always feel like, “No, I want to bring them along!” I’m like Paige, I want to bring Isaac along, but eventually Paige says, “I am more important. Max is more important. This new thing that we’re doing is more important.” And there’s validity in that point of view. You do have to create boundaries to heal. But I still ache and think actual healing comes when we can figure out how to invite everybody to the party. 

Did you always conceive of it as a piece with no roles for you in it?

Yeah.

And you said once that your original character population was, I guess a Paige figure, and then a Max/Isaac character...

Three generations of women with the youngest one being transgender. 

And how did that come to change?

You know, Phyllis Somerville was Arnold. (Laughs.) And Marylouise Burke was Arnold in my brain. And there was a lot more dialogue for Arnold.

But they were grandmothers...

They were grandmothers, yeah.

It seems like the decision to lose the grandmother and to make Arnold a man was an important one.

Huge. Yeah, it was huge. It’s kind of everything actually in the play. The play cuts this line between performance and realism. I don’t want it to be a performance art piece about realism. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was trying to work this other thing under the surface, a post-modern deconstruction of the family drama. It’s a eulogy to the family kitchen sink drama, basically, and it’s saying, “We’re done with this. Can we agree we’re done with this?” And whether or not we actually are is for the audience and other people to decide, but that’s kind of what the play is proposing, and whether or not we should be done with it is something it’s asking as well. And I think that changing Arnold to a man brought that element into the room.If you have three women on a stage, then it’s a play about the generations of three women, which is not the prototypical family drama. But if you have a mother and father and two kids, it’s a family drama.

Had you made that shift when Loretta [Greco] entered the picture? Didn’t the Magic commission or develop the piece before they premiered it?

They developed it with two workshops. The Magic and I first worked with each other in 2010 on a production of my 36-cast member play The Lily’s Revenge and Loretta did something I’ve always dreamed an artistic director would do; the day before the critics came to Lily, she asked me what I wanted to work on next and when I wanted to premiere it. I told Loretta I had a play I’d been working on for a number of years that I was having a hard time finishing because I needed a performance date to motivate me. She said, “Great,” gave me a date, and the workshops I needed to help my process. The play would still be in my drawer if it weren’t for her and the Magic Theater. Luckily it all worked out because both the production of Lily and Hir were big hits but she had no idea they would be before making that commitment. I owe a lot to Loretta.

I see how it plays off the archetypal family play, but it also feels personal, as I said in my bulletin letter. Even though you were never to be in the play, it is about a brother and a sister (pre-transition) growing up in Stockton. Your father died when you were four, and the father is there in the play, but sort of like the shadow of a father. And he’s clownish, and kind of buffoonishly cross-dressed, and at the same time it’s really sad.

It’s sad, but I was watching it and I think what’s sad is that Isaac doesn’t come home and go, “Oh. This is better. He used to break my fingers. And he used to beat up my sibling, and my mom. And send us to the emergency room.” And he doesn’t come home and go, “This is better.” That yes, humiliating him is not the thing that we need to do, but he’s actually not unhappy. Arnold is not unhappy in the play, except for when...  I mean, yes, he gets cold, and he doesn’t want to do things, and he doesn’t want to take his meds, and so there’s that element of cruelty that Paige is working. But things are actually better. That post-modern messiness doesn’t necessarily mean that the world is worse, you know? He can get over the fact that it’s okay for Max to become more masculine, but it’s not okay for Dad to become more feminine. And that is really where it all falls apart, you know. It’s so sad, and I watch the audience, they’re more prone to forgive Isaac time and time and time again in the play. He’ll say things in the play, he’s got this line where he says, “I don’t write. I don’t do that kind of thing, you do that kind of thing.” Suddenly he’s off the hook, and the whole audience goes, “Yeah, he doesn’t do that kind of thing. That’s okay, he’s a guy. Guys don’t do that kind of thing.” And then Max says, “Well, I didn’t write because you didn’t write, and also because I’m in transition so I’m allowed to be selfish.” And everybody laughs. And they laugh because I wrote it to be funny, but it’s also they’re laughing because they agree that Max is being selfish. So they all let Isaac off the hook, and they put the blame on to the trans kid. And I’m not saying that one should have the blame more than the other, but it’s interesting. Time and time again people will say things about Paige like, “Oh, she’s so cruel.” And yeah, we’re seeing her cruelty in the room, but we’re hearing about Arnold’s cruelty, and they’re willing to let go of the fact that Arnold was cruel, because he’s a guy, that’s what guys do. 

Do you think people come in because of the title of the play, and maybe there’s pre-publicity about the trans character...  I don’t know how many people know about our search for a real trans actor and all of that...  And yet in the play, it’s not the screaming, central motif of the play at all.

No. Thank god. (Laughs.) Somebody else can write that play, I don’t want to write that play. I would like to see that play, but I don’t want to write it.

So why title it Hir?

I like the homophone and the metaphor. The two words, here and hir, sound the same and mean different things and connecting them thematically felt delightful. This present moment in history and the characters’ lives, to me, is about transition. So to think of America and the present moment as a transgender character, as someone going through transition and redefining its language and understanding of itself, simply felt right. To think of the American family and the American family drama as transgender was, as Paige would say, a paradigm shift.

I like the expectations it sets up. And to me it allows the incredible speech that Paige has about inclusiveness and our multi-sexuality and how I think we read that into all the characters… And what you said about Isaac, how he doesn’t see if his father could have more femininity and embrace that, it’d be a better world.

Yeah...  Was there a question in that? (Laughs.) 

Oh, I just find myself interested in my own relationship to the play.

Uh huh.

Because when I read it I will admit there’s this pedantic side of me, I narrowly avoided a career in academia, and the pedant in me had a prissy reaction to all the fucking with pronouns in the play.

I know! I’ve often been interviewed by people, and they say “It’s so hard for me! So hard for me!” When we did Hir in San Francisco, some interviewer for an LGBT paper said, “These pronouns are so hard. It’s so hard for me!” And I said, “Well how do you think the trans kid feels about it? Get over it, queen.” 

(Both laugh.) 

It’s so hard for you! I’m sorry. It’s not really that hard, and that’s kind of what Max says. Just get over it. And that’s why I wrote that speech, so that audience members that were having a hard time with the “gender thing,” you know, calm down, get over it, it’s not that big a deal. It’s all around you. Gender is all around you. It’s not that big a deal. And then hopefully we can move on and focus on the play.

Yeah. I appreciate that, because I try to be aware of my reactions to things and if I notice I’m having a have a tic, I ask myself, “Why am I twitching?”

(Both laugh.) 

“You’re afraid of this! Don’t be afraid of this! Go into it.” And I find myself thinking a lot about the speeches and what we give to each other and you’re talking about opening the tent. You know, there’s a lot of straight white-male bashing that happens...

In the play or in general?

No, in the world. And a lot of it is deserved, but on the other hand...

A lot of it’s easy.

And I count myself lucky to work in a field that has such an open tent. The play says, “We’re all a little black and a little gay and a little feminine and masculine… etcetera.” And how lucky I am to have so many gay friends and what they have given me by example, the kind of fearlessness, and joy, the freedom of camp and…sexuality, and that’s primary.

That’s huge.

There’s such shame about sex for heterosexuals too.

So much shame. There’s so much shame!

There’s so, SO much shame. So much repression, and to feel permission to be fully alive without apology...  I’m grateful for that exposure.

Yeah.

To me that’s what the play gives me... In a weird way, even though (Whispering.) it’s depressing. 

It’s depressing. It’s a sad play.

“So there’s no hope?” [Tim is quoting an audience member who approached Taylor with this rhetorical question after an early preview.] 

It’s a sad play!  What I wish I had said to that lady is, “The hope lies in your question. That’s what catharsis does, it makes you want to look for the hope.”

Talk a little about Max’s coming to life as a character.

The big change with this character happened maybe 10 years ago when I was hanging out with my friend Marcy and her girlfriend at the time, Miller, and Miller’s friends who were all transmen, and they were using different pronouns. They were using ze and hir. And they were young and they were angry, and they were offended by everything. It was amazing. I went, “Wow! They’re offended by everything! It’s amazing! They’re so cool!”

(Tim laughs.) 

And from the last 10 years that community has grown and grown and grown even more so. So I really wanted to put a character on stage that is a young person who’s with-it, who’s actually more with-it than everyone that’s around them, but still is young, and still is flawed, and certainly is not the “magic negro” in the sense of representing the trans community and having to be perfect, you know? Max can be selfish and unreasonable sometimes and has some anger, but is ultimately fucking with-it! That kid is together in a lot of ways for a 17-year-old. A lot of queers grow up really fast because they have to take care of themselves in the culture...  I don’t know how it is now, now it seems like maybe they’re not growing up so fast because parents are so hovering, but certainly my generation did, and I think the generation right under me was growing up fast. And so I just wanted to put that kind of person on the stage. There’s a lot of potential in Max.

There’s also more of a symbiotic relationship with Paige probably by virtue of Max being younger.

Yeah, Paige used to be a little bit more of the audience stand-in. Max was the transgender person we followed into the story. And Paige was the crazy, eccentric mother who also represented the way that most of the audience feels about transgender people, at least 12 years ago. And that shifted...  She was taking on a lot of what Isaac was feeling, and doing, both Max and her.  All the characters got put into each other, which made it better, made it more of a family instead of these three characters who come at the world from different perspectives. Instead they all have a little bit of each other in them. 

There’s a dynamic between them where Paige keeps investing Max with the role of, “You’re the leader, and I’m going to come along with you!” And Max is like, “Well, not necessarily...”

“You’re going to save us!” Just like we do with our heroes and idols. “You have to represent the entire trans community! All queerness! You have to represent everything that’s good in the world!” (Laughs.) And this person just wants to exist, maybe do a little good in the world, enjoy life, think about things, belong to a community.

Right.

But there’s the other tension between them that comes from Isaac about Arnold: “Don’t give him empathy, he doesn’t deserve it.”

Yeah. Isaac is hung up on restoring his dominion and we see that that’s problematic, I hope we do. On the other hand, his trying to urge empathy is something that we probably agree with. We don’t see him as he was.

Yeah, Isaac thought home was bad, and then he went to the war and it was a lot worse. So he’s coming with a different perspective than everybody else. He’s saying, “Yep, it was bad. It can be a lot worse. And when things are bad, the only way to solve them is to care for the situation. You have to care for it. You don’t destroy it.” I don’t actually know which one I believe. I probably believe a little bit of both. But I feel like they’re coming from different perspectives because their experiences are different. 

In a talkback you called the play a tragedy.

Yeah.

Frame the end in terms of its tragic nature.

Well, first I would say that in order to see tragedy you have to have a little bit of hope at the end. In order to see comedy you have to see a little tragedy. So there is a little bit of hope there, with Max, not necessarily committing to taking care of his father for the rest of ze’s life, but certainly taking care of this moment. It was important to me to have tragedy because I work a lot in catharsis of a different kind. I work in inspirational catharsis. And laughter catharsis. A lot of my work is about laughter. And we ground it often times and it can be sorrowful, but I never leave people there, really. And I think we don’t have a lot of tragic catharsis in our lives. And I think as a result, people get let off the hook. We’re always trying to make everything comfortable for everybody. Everyone takes painkillers. Everyone’s on painkillers, everyone’s on some kind of numbing thing, or something to ease the pain, but then we don’t actually deal with the pain...

So is the tragedy in the loss in this play?

The tragedy is absolutely that this boy cannot come along with them, that Isaac can’t come along with them. 

And when Isaac gets kicked out, he actually has to embrace his banishment. It’s still Arnold’s house...

Yeah, it’s not his house. It’s not anybody’s house anymore. It doesn’t exist anymore. They’re going to bulldoze it and turn it into farmland. This thing that he wants so badly doesn’t exist. The question is whether or not he was going to come with Max and Paige into a new way of thinking and a new world. And whether he was going to accompany them on a journey into a different way of living and being, or was he just going to hold on to this Willy Loman desire for the middle class! (Laughs.) That everyone’s holding on to! Instead they’re saying, “Let’s just get rid of things. Let’s figure out what’s going to happen.” I actually think that everything’s actually going to work out for Max, because they worked out for me. So I have that hope. But they’re not going to work out for Isaac. Isaac’s probably going to kill himself. I mean they’re doing it every day. Every day there are soldiers killing themselves. That don’t know where they exist in this world anymore. And it’s partially because we sent them there, and it’s partially because whatever’s happened to them before they went there, broke them, and it’s partially because we are afraid to deal with the problem, we don’t see it as our problem, and we see it as hopeless.

How can we bring that broken person into our tent? That’s a question you shouldn’t ask of a playwright. But you do want the audience to consider that question, don’t you.

Yeah, I do. I want that woman who said, “So it’s hopeless?” to be so mad at me that she goes out there and does something about it. That’s my hope.