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Not Ziggy, not Tim but Taylor Mac

TaylorMac_NiallWalkerPlaywright, actor, singer-songwriter and occasional director and producer Taylor Mac has been compared to a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Tiny Tim. But the ground-breaking theatre artist is really one of a kind. On the eve of his Australian performance of Comparison is Violence, he spoke with Katrina Fox.

13 February 2011

Tell us about the show you’re doing at the Opera House. Why the title?

The media kept describing me as “Ziggy Stardust meets Tiny Tim” and if you see my shows the only thing I have in common with either of them is that I wear glitter (Ziggy Stardust) and sometimes play the ukulele (Tiny Tim) and sing. I thought it would be funny to actually give the media what they wanted and see what would happen.

Why is comparison violence?

I don’t necessarily think it is but what the show is partially trying to do is to get the audience to consider the ways we use comparison. I’ve found comparisons are often used as ways to reduce a complex person or happening into something easily consumable.

Why in your opinion do people feel the need to make comparisons? Even with the most unique performers, we’re desperate to compare them to someone we already know?

Part of it is a desire to build community. You see something you want to share with someone who hasn’t seen it and so you describe it in a way they’ll understand. It’s about giving people context so they can share in the experience with you.

The danger in this is how we go about comparing. Do we take the time to truly describe what we’ve experienced or are we simply grasping on to the easiest description without considering the consequences?

Ziggy Stardust and Tiny Tim are worlds apart – you could hardly get two more different performers. How do you feel about the comparisons of you to both of them?

I’m honored that someone would see me in the wide range of how different these two creatures are but ultimately I’ve come to question whether they and I are so different. Originally I felt I was nothing like them other than that I wore glitter on my face – Ziggy – and I sometimes play the ukulele – Tim.

It turns out we do have a lot in common: we’re all storytellers, we all use style and theatricality to tell our stories; we’re all outsider artists who use/used our outsider status to communicate to as wide a range of people as we can.

Also if you listen to those early Bowie songs the only thing that separates them from cabaret songs is the electric guitar so I’d say we all have a vaudevillian history we’re pulling from.

Of course I acknowledge Bowie, at least in terms of fame status, is the ultimate cool-kid and Tim is the ultimately geek. So that makes the two quite different. If I express such a range of myself that I can encompass both the ultimate cool-kid and the ultimate geek than, I’d say, something is either working or going horribly awry.

What do you think of Ziggy and Tim and were either of them an influence on you?

I didn’t really know anything about David Bowie or Tiny Tim before I decided to do this show. I’d heard Bowie songs on the radio, in the background, but I didn’t own any of his music and the same goes for Tiny Tim.

However, I’ve become a huge fan of both through the process of putting the show together. They’re remarkable craftsmen and both have strong visions for their art.

The ukulele seems to be having some kind of renaissance, particularly in queer circles: What appeals to you about the ukulele?

I chose to play the uke in two of my last touring shows because is such an honest instrument and because I’m so huge in my drag and it’s so tiny. I love the juxtaposition of that.

I would argue it’s the most honest instrument. A uke is what it is. I think people, and perhaps queer people who don’t want to hide who they are, are drawn to that. Also, anyone can pick it up and learn a song in an hour’s time.

People have access to ukes and that liberates them. Most instruments and the music they can make are hard to get access to. But ukes travel well, are relatively cheap, and are everywhere.

Still, as much as I appreciate and love the uke, I do want to branch out from it. I play a little of it in the show, because what would a show partially about Tiny Tim be without a ukulele, but most of the show I’m accompanied by the piano and the tremendous Lance Horn.

There’s a tendency in some alternative cabaret/burlesque shows to try to shock audiences in an attempt to be seen as ‘daring’ or ‘cutting edge’, sometimes without any ethical considerations. What are your views on shock value nowadays? And why do you prefer to ‘surprise’ audiences instead?

To me the point of theater is to remind the audience of their humanity. Not just the sentimental parts but the whole range. So I want the audience to walk away having felt everything they’re capable of feeling along with having exercised their brains.

In order to do this I try to surprise the audience as much as I can. The only time we feel anything is when we’re surprised (it has to do with how our senses are connected to the brain).

If you shock someone, you shut that person down and they won’t feel or consider anything. My goal is to get the audience to further the conversation I’m putting forth as an artist and if I shut them down with shock, they won’t even be able to hear what that conversation is.

You said in your interview with American Theater magazine that you like to go back and forth between labels. What are you at the moment and what will we be seeing at Sydney Opera House?

Right now I’m calling myself a Theater Artist and a traditionalist who is working as an insurgent against Realism’s takeover of Western theater.

You consider yourself a ‘community activist’ by creating and performing your shows – in what way/s do you aim to create change?

All I’m trying to do is remind the audience of their humanity and give them a little practice with their emotions in a relatively safe place.

If they have practice with their emotions then when the shit hits the fan in the world outside the theater they might handle those events with a little more grace.

You alter your appearance dramatically in your shows, but at the end you can take all the make-up and paraphernalia off and blend into the crowd. How do you feel about permanent body modification – from plastic surgery to piercings and tattoos?

I say go for it. Life is short. Do what you want with your body but I’d recommend not being lazy about it. Meaning: do the research. You may think you want new boobs but make sure you do it in the healthiest way possible. You probably don’t want painful tits for the rest of your life.

I’ve kept my body the way it came out of the womb not for any moral high-ground, fear or financial reasons but because I’ve never had the calling to change it. If the change fairy comes knocking…

You came from the downtown alternative scene to perform in high-end venues across the globe and been the recipient of many prestigious awards. I was talking to longtime British radical drag performer and actor Bette Bourne (Bloolips) recently and he said so many creative and talented people he’d met over the years didn’t feel able to put themselves forward and sell themselves and their talent properly. How much of a business person and PR person does an artist need to be nowadays and how did you achieve your success?

I’m at the place I’m at in my career because I work my ass off. Whenever someone tells me no, I figured out how to do it without their assistance. It helps if you’re tenacious. I also believe the work I do is my way of contributing to my community, and I define my community as the people in the audience each night.

I stopped playing the fame game when I realized that the applause weren’t enough and that contributing something to the world around me was more important to me. Oddly enough, that’s when the venues got fancier.

I agree with Bette, who is one of my role models. I see a lot of extremely talented people who aren’t able to get anywhere with their talent because they don’t have the temperament, skills, and patience to write a grant or even have a conversation about the business side of their art.

Part of what makes them magnificent is that they’re not people who easily conform, so if you ask them to conform and join the market they will rebel. We need them and I have a lot of respect for their choices and their own very different kind of tenaciousness.

On the flip side of it many of those same artists, who don’t have the business skills or sensibility to make a living with their art, are often working day jobs and I always think, if you can get it together to work a day job you can get it together to make your day job the promotion of your work.

But people want different things and who am I to suggest they should want what I want. For some people the idea of associating commerce with their art ruins the joy of making the art.

I’m not one of those people. I’ve spent enough of my life working in grungy basement bars that are really sex clubs. I’m not saying I didn’t have a great time playing those spaces and that I won’t visit them ever so often as the years go on but it’s hard to compete with blowjobs and I’m so much happier performing at the Sydney Opera House.

I do think a lot of artists have bought into the idea that it’s extremely rare or impossible to make a living making art. I don’t believe that. I see artists making their living via their art all over the place.

It’s honorable to be able to feed yourself with your joy. I’m not talking about buying a penthouse apartment in Sydney but you can at least live a healthy life, raise kids if you want, and go to the dentist when you need to.

We live in a visual world. It’s ridiculous to think a visual artist wouldn’t be able to make a living with their art. We live in a world full of stories so it’s a lie that a storyteller can’t make a living telling stories.

Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook or Comparison is Violence
starring Taylor Mac
plays at the Studio, Sydney Opera House from 25 February to 4 March, as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. Visit the Opera House website to book tickets.
Taylor will also perform at the Brisbane Powerhouse (Queensland) on 27 February.

For more information on Taylor Mac, including upcoming international shows, visit his website.

Image: Niall Walker, courtesy of Sydney Opera House.



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