When I took my seat next to a quiet, slightly older gentleman in Hamer Hall, I had no idea that by the end of the night we’d be slow-dancing, our bodies pressed together as shards of light from a disco ball caressed our features.
This was the level of audience participation that actor, playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac demanded from the audience at The Inauguration, a concert teaser for Mac’s 24-hour-long A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
Taylor Mac’s The Inauguration at the Melbourne Festival. Photo © Jim Lee
Mac, whose play Hir wowed audiences at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre this year (and whose preferred gender pronoun is “judy”), was both host and performer in what judy described as a “whistle-stop tour” of the larger epic, which will be presented in four slightly-more-than-bite-sized six-hour chunks later in the Melbourne Festival.
Dressed in a sparkling rainbow frock, with a tendrilous coral pink collar, glittering high heels and a magnificant rainbow headdress (which the Festival’s AD Jonathan Holloway previewed during his welcome speech) Mac and the band (Matt Ray on piano, Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks on drums, Viva Deconcini on guitar, Greg Glassman on trumpet and Gary Wang on bass) opened proceedings with Pete Seeger’s biblically-inspired hit Turn! Turn! Turn!, judy’s hands writhing slowly as if conjuring arcane magic.
While Mac’s stage-presence managed to be both flamboyantly theatrical and charmingly laid-back, judy brought a sense of ritual and ceremony to the performance, that – while often tongue-in-cheek – was intensified by judy’s involvement of the audience in the rites, creating a charged atmosphere.
The congregation was called upon to supply a breathy ostinato to Tori Amos’ Precious Things, breathing in unison while Glassman’s plaintive muted trumpet hung in the air above. An audience member was plucked from her seat by Mac to stand in the centre of the stage and “look awkward” while judy sang a guttural Gloria from the darkened hall.
Mac’s performance took us through a series of hits, all given a unique twist by the performer and Music Director/Arranger Matt Ray, from a gentle rendition of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall to a Shake That Thing that had one of the eldest audience members dancing on stage with several of the youngest, and a soft-toned performance of The Surrey with the Fringe on Top from Oklahoma! that had a would-be heckler standing (or crawling) in for the horse.
Mac interwove the music with plenty of humour and biting social commentary – much of it crafted to the locale, referring to both the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey and this country’s treatment of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru – but the music itself was by no means apolitical, Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam a particularly powerful number.
But the climax of the evening was Mac’s reimagining of right-wing singer-songwriter and NRA board member Ted Nugent’s Snakeskin Cowboys – which is full of not-so-subtle homophobic dog-whistling – into a same-sex prom-night slow-dance, which saw the entire hall coupling up.
If the audience was a little reluctant to participate early in the evening – Mac seemed to relish and play off the squirming moments of discomfort – it is a testament to judy’s skill and charisma as a performer that by the end of the show people were much more involved and there was an incredible sense of community in the hall.
The Inauguration was only a brief taste of what Taylor Mac has in store for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, and only a tantalising glimpse of the myriad of costume changes – designed by Machine Dazzle (who made a few brief, glittering appearances on stage during The Inauguration) – that will span the epic journey through 240 years. But it was nonetheless a bold, challenging performance and a powerful experience for the audience, who seemed to leave with an aura of catharsis and euphoria, including my dance partner, who gave me a sheepish smile on the way out.
Taylor Mac performs A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at Forum Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival October 11 – 20.
To enter a raffle to win Machine Dazzle’s custom made headpiece (pictured above), make a donation of $10 or more to Switchboard, a community based not for profit organisation that provides a peer based, volunteer run support service for LGBTQI people and their friends, families and allies. For more information click here.