Richardson — The last time performance artist Taylor Mac was in North Texas, it was for his one-man show The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, a compilation of his work, presented at Undermain Theatre in 2010. In a video interview with TheaterJones, he quoted the great Quentin Crisp about discovering your artistic voice: “Find out who you are without praise or blame and be it.”
No one could say that Mac hasn’t lived up to that. He’s become one of the most talked about theater artists in the downtown New York scene, with a growing repertoire of one-man shows and collaborations that fuse physical theater, cabaret, dramatic narratives and drag performance. He’s embarked on several marathon projects, including his five-hour play The Lily’s Revenge; and he’s building up to a 24-hour performance with A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
His current project involves an unlikely collaboration with a performer who comes from another end of the theater spectrum: Broadway musicals. Mandy Patinkin is of course known for film and TV, such as Showtime’s Homeland and The Princess Bride, in which he delivered one of moviedom’s most quoted lines. But his home has always been in the theater; he won Tony Awards for his performances in Evita (as Che) and Sunday in the Park with George (as George).
Several years ago, Patinkin and Mac, who share an agent, were asked to perform at a benefit concert. They hit it off and decided to work together, and the result is The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville, which has its world premiere at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson this week, after having had several workshops, including at Classic Stage in New York in 2013. The director is another Tony winner, Susan Stroman, a choreographer/director whose credits include Contact, The Producers and Young Frankenstein. The music director is Paul Ford, who has a long career with Broadway musicals, especially Sondheim work—including the original productions of Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Passion and the 2004 revival of Assassins.
In the piece there is no dialogue, just song and dance; vaudeville without the corny spoken jokes. The songs come from musical theater (there’s R&H and Sondheim), but also from the popular music world, including tunes by Queen, Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch. Look for the work to continue to be developed; there’s another performance scheduled for American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., this spring.
The show previews on Tuesday, Feb. 17; opens Wednesday, Feb. 18 and runs through Feb. 22. We chatted with Mac about the show and the collaboration.
TheaterJones: You and Mandy met at a benefit. Was the connection immediate?
Taylor Mac: It was clear that there was some chemistry between Mandy and I. Our voices blend really well together; there was this weird duality of his gravitas and my weirdness, and he’s a little weird, too—and I have some gravitas. It managed to blend together in some weird way.
What ideas did you discuss before settling on this one?
At one point we wanted to do a two-man version of Man of la Mancha, but when we asked for the rights they said “no.”
They said “no” to Mandy Patinkin inquiring about musical theater?
I know. But it turned out well for us. … Then I brought up performing [Genet’s] The Maids, not sure if he would be interested in that. But he said he had already done the show with William Hurt. I found out he’s very curious about the world and he doesn’t say “no” to things; he has an open heart.
How did the concept for the show come about?
I was interested in doing something I don’t normally do in terms of the vaudeville that is not part of the drag work that I do. Then Mandy asked “What would we like to do if we were the last two people on earth?” And that’s how this happened. When [Susan Stroman] came on board, that’s when it began to come together. We had that concept before we brought Stroman to it, but we decided to have no dialogue and it happened.
He has this career with Broadway musicals and movies and TV, and Susan Stroman’s schedule has to be crazy, and you’re busy in the downtown scene. How did it work in terms of your schedules?
Our schedules are really jam-packed. He’s got Homeland, and he was doing a show with Patti LuPone, and I’ve got all my plays and performance art, and Stroman of course is doing all the Broadway shows. In some ways it was like the process of what Andre Gregory and Wally [Wallace] Shawn do, but more truncated over five years. Then we worked solidly for a month. In our workshop at Classic Stage, we learned some things and we cut some songs; we’re still sort of in that process.
What did Mandy bring to the work ethic that is different from yours?
It’s such a treat for someone who comes from this beautiful hodgepodge world, where the expertise from the downtown world that I’ve been part of is not always about craft, or not the industry-standard craft; it’s where people work on themselves and their own craft.
What’s been a delight is to work with him and Susan, people who work with these specific schedules and in a certain way.
He works at 100 percent all the time, as does Stroman. I’m kind of a performer who works my way into it; I’m 20 percent today, 30 percent the next day, and I work my way up. That’s been the biggest joy, and part of the greatest fear. The expectation is that when you’re in it, you don’t have the time to ease the nerves out of system—you just do it. It’s been so much fun to be with people who are willing to make asses of themselves; or in Stro’s case, willing to make asses out of us.
You often develop your work in front of audiences, which is similar to what you’ve done with the workshops of this, right?
I rehearse in front of audiences. It’s an extraordinary way to work; when I’m acting in somebody’s play, or when I’m performing in a hybrid, it’s a different way of working. I love going out in front of the audience, having an outline, and saying “ok we’re going to make it in front of you.” We’ve done some of that in the workshops. There’s some improv in [The Last Two People], and lots of spontaneity.
Mandy is known for his voice and musicals, and you have performed your own songs in your work. How did you pick songs for this?
Paul Ford is the musical director, so he picked some of the songs. He has been there for a lot of the great musicals. What Mandy and Paul wanted for me was to bring in some alternative ideas, so I tried to pick songs that I thought Mandy would sound good on, that we would be good on together.
You have songs by two of my favorite artists, Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch. Which ones?
I don’t want to give too much away, but we have Patty Griffin’s “Making Pies” and Gillian Welch’s “My Morphine.” And of course since it’s the end of the world we had to have R.E.M. [“It’s the End of the World (And I Feel Fine)”]. The reason is those are story songs; we’re both storytellers more than anything.
And there is dance?
Well, we “dance”—although neither one of us is a dancer; we’re actors who move. We find ways to do the storytelling without the dialogue.
I’m curious about your work in developing A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which you’ll eventually perform in a 24-hour marathon. How do you prepare for something like that?
We’ve [the musicians and myself] have been marathon training for it. We’ve done three-hour concerts for two weeks, then we did a six-hour concert. It’s about building the concert one decade at the time. We’ll do three more six-hour concerts and then a 12-hour. We’ll never rehearse the 24-hour show; we’ll just do it.
Back to The Last Two People, what do you want the audiences to take away?
Ultimately we’re just saying “when the shit hits the fan, love each other” [laughs]. Look, CNN is showing the ISIS videos, so our national entertainment right now is executions, which you can see anywhere on the Internet. It’s clear that things are not OK right now, so if we have something that makes people smile, I’m happy.