Fort Worth — Performer and writer Taylor Mac is not brand new to North Texas. In 2010, the NYC-based artist did the best-of compilation The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac at Undermain Theatre for several performances (TheaterJones got to interview him at the time; you can see the video interview here). And in 2015, Mac and Mandy Patinkin brought their wonderful The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville to the Eisemann Center. (Our interview with Mac is here.)
Since then, Mac—who uses the pronoun judy, with a lowercase “j”—has grown in fame and acclaim, staying true to his gender-bending, non-binary performance showcases and writing and performing epic-length work. His play The Lily’s Revenge is five hours long (Mac believes that 10-minute play festivals should be excommunicated from the theater industry, as stated in his manifesto), and his Pulitzer Prize finalist work A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, in which an hour is devoted to each of those decades, will have its final performances this month, in two 12-hour sessions, in Philadelphia (June 2 covers 1776 to 1896 and June 9 covers 1896 to present).
But North Texas hasn’t seen a production of a play by Mac, until now. Stage West is in the middle of its run of the 2015 play Hir, which deals with an American family, PTSD, and a teenager who is transgender. (Read our review here.)
It’s the second work on the current Stage West season featuring a non-binary character, following Erik Forrest Jackson’s Like a Billion Likes in January. For Hir, Stage West has supplemental programming. They have already shown a filmed stage production of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child, which inspired Hir. In the tradition of Taylor Mac, Dallas performance artist Brigham Mosley brings drag and drama with the premiere of his show Critical, Darling!, which dismantles the patriarchy and “queers up your childhood.” It’s described as “a jukebox-musical of the performance-art-sort.” The performance is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 17. See more info at www.brigham-mosley.com.
TheaterJones chatted with Hir director Garret Storms about the play, the production, changes at Stage West, and Taylor Mac.
TheaterJones: How long had Hir been on Stage West's radar? Tell me why you pushed for it to be on the SW season, and why now?
Garret Storms: A few years ago, while it was in New York at Playwrights Horizons, Hir came up in conversation at Stage West as we were looking for titles for that season. Dana got a copy of the script and we all read it. For the next couple of seasons, it didn’t seem to fit with the other scripts that we were working with. But for this past season, it seemed to find a place and fit right in with the rest of the programing. In a time of national examination, when we are a divided nation trying to move forward from our oppressive past into an aspirational future, this script finally seemed to find a place for us—a season of shows where characters are striving to do better and to ask each other tough questions. And I’m sure there is a very eloquent metaphor in there somewhere in regards to Hir, but I don’t want to give too much away. I think it speaks volumes. … It is one of the most produced scripts in the nation at the moment.
Stage West has had two plays with transgender characters this season, first Like a Billion Likes and now Hir. Was this planned, or did it just work out that way? Why is now the right time for transgender characters and themes?
Well, the character in Like a Billion Likes is agender whereas the character in Hir is transgender. There are similarities in that both of these specific characters are non-binary, but they do not share the same gender identity. Having both of these characters in the season was not planned. We were attracted to the scripts, and it wasn’t until we were actually narrowing down titles that we noticed there would be two non-binary characters in the season.
I think one of the aspects that is appealing about both Like a Billion Likes and Hir in this regard, is that neither play is about gender. Certainly gender plays an element in the stories, but both of these scripts are creating a space for a person who identifies outside of the binary gender definition to simply exist—we don’t have to make the whole play about it. There are more universal themes at play in these scripts. That said, representation is also important. We need to see stories about people who are just like us and people that are different from us. It helps us foster empathy and start dialogue about how we are more similar than we are different. We may have different upbringings, political views, skin colors, spiritualities, etc., but what is important is that we are all in this thing together, and seeing stories where marginalized groups are represented without that being what the story is solely about is a step in the right direction, I think. (And that is not to disvalue stories that ARE solely about the struggles of these marginalized groups —these stories are also of great value.)
Was it important to cast a transgender actor, Zander Pryor, as Max? Cara Serber and Zander have appeared as mother/transgender child before, at Uptown. Has their chemistry together carried over into this production?
Taylor Mac states in the script that it is important to judy (Taylor’s preferred pronoun) that the character of Max be played by a transgender (specifically female to male) or non-binary actor. It was of utmost importance, as we programmed this show, that we were prepared to see this through, as it is in keeping with the playwright’s intention. We had multiple folks who fit Taylor’s description turn out for auditions, which was wonderful. And we were thrilled to be able to offer Zander the role.
And yes, Zander and Cara have a very special bond from their time working together during Uptown Players’ production of The Tribute Artist. While their characters in Hir are quite different from the characters they played in Uptown’s production, they did bring their own chemistry and camaraderie to the rehearsal process for Hir.
The character of Arnold (played by Bob Hess at Stage West) is a tough one. Is there a trick to not making him feel cartoonish?
I think just keeping the thing as honest as possible is most important. We did research and looked into Arnold’s affliction, and had a dialogue about how differently abled he has become in response to his affliction. But there are certainly some permissions given with the absurdity of the rest of the script. He is, after all, dressed in a muumuu and make-up for a sizable amount of the play. Up to a point, the given circumstances of the script sort of help you gauge both how far you can go and how far is too far. But what was most important was treating the portrayal of his affliction with tenderness, sensitivity, and informed clarity, while still accounting for, acknowledging, and not apologizing for this character’s difficult past.
Give me your thoughts on Taylor Mac as a playwright, and how judy, as an artist, has progressed American theater/drama.
Taylor is a rule-breaker and an innovator. It feels like that is how progress happens—by testing limits and pushing boundaries and questioning norms and upending expectations. I think Taylor, in doing this, is also incredibly intelligent and retains a lot of heart. The pieces that judy curates and writes are not just shock value and spectacle, they come from a place of common human truth, that we can all relate to. They are unique to judy and authentically reflect who judy is and how judy sees the world—which, in regards to Taylor’s success and rising fame, is clearly how many others see it too. It is also done in a way that is universal. Taylor exposes judy’s humanity and in that examination, we see our own. That feels like one of the most revelatory aspects of judy’s craft: it is both about gender and simultaneously has absolutely nothing to do with gender.
Taylor has said judy was inspired by Sam Shepard's Buried Child in writing Hir…can you see that inspiration?
Sure. Sam Shepard is known for being this gruff and sordid playwright with a collection of broken and fragmented characters who are trying to survive against an American backdrop. He is unapologetic. He is also quite a psychological playwright. I think you can see all of these things in Hir, albeit the latter might be dipped in glitter for a little extra pizzazz. But underneath it all, I think you can certainly see the resemblance between the two —not to water it down, but…a family, a house, the past, and secrets…components that are easily identifiable, not only to theatregoers, but to all of us.
How does it build on the great American family dramas we've seen from the likes of Shepard, O'Neill, Inge, et al?
Generally speaking the families and characters in these great classic American dramas are at a precipice with the ghosts of the past haunting their lives. These plays examine what it is to be an American, what it is to be a father, what it is to be a woman, what it is to be an immigrant, what it is to be any number of things that we associate with the American way of life (some of these examinations are admittedly a bit outdated, but on the other hand it is a bit jarring how relevant and true some of them remain). These are also characters with a lot of fight in them—these plays are gritty and raw and darkly funny and tender and heartbreaking. Taylor Mac seems to be taking these archetypal characters and shifting their paradigm, bending their circumstance, and bringing them into the new century (or insofar as oppressed archetypes can be brought into the present day). There is a lot that feels new about it while there is much more of it that feels familiar. Taylor has penned an addition to the genre of the great American family drama with an irreverent and touching comedy—and judy brings a new lens through which to view this genre that has become a staple of our national identity.
How did subscribers respond to Like a Billion Likes, and what do you anticipate from their response (in general) to Hir? Dana has been carving a new path for Stage West. Are subscribers staying, and are new audiences coming?
We were very glad to be able to produce the world premiere of Like a Billion Likes earlier this season. We had many patrons who loved the show, and of course others who didn’t quite understand it. One of the things that we have heard from our patrons is that we need to get younger people to the theatre. Now, as any theatre producer or arts administrator around the nation will tell you, this is one of the most difficult tasks that an arts organization faces. And Like a Billion Likes was an offering to do just that. And we did have younger audiences turn out. Of course we would always love to see more of that demographic, but these things don’t change overnight.
But as an arts organization, we are a cultural home for our community and younger audiences are a part of that community. We are trying to balance the scales of providing theatre for our wonderful, devoted patrons as well as new audience members while being an active part of the national conversation by producing great live theatre that is engaging, entertaining, and inspiring. Our audiences are used to thought-provoking theatre—that is nothing new for Stage West. And for Hir we hope to see a bit of a mesh of demographics; certainly new folks who identify with particular characters in the play, like veterans, transgender people, mothers, etc., but this show should also appeal to our loyal Stage West audiences as well. Patrons who have been with us for years should be able to recognize this American kitchen sink-drama underneath the contemporary style of this play.
We hope that audiences will enjoy it—it is a comedy, after all—and that folks are entertained and touched and leave feeling like they were taken for a fun and wild ride, provoked, reflective, and hopeful. Throughout its history, Stage West has never been a theatre to shy away from the great American plays or plays that deal with important issues. It is certainly important to move forward with the times, and in some ways Hir is contributing to that “new direction” but in many other ways, it is as faithful to Stage West’s mission and vision as it has ever been since the organization’s inception and the days of our friend and founder Jerry Russell.
Representation of the community and humanity is important onstage. What about behind the scenes? How is Stage West doing that?
As important as it is for audiences to see the great scope of our community represented on stage and screen, it is equally as important for the artists who are building and shaping those stories behind the scenes to represent the community as well. Behind the scenes, new and varied perspectives will help to create a more well-rounded and informed product. Stage West is working to be mindful of this in all aspects of its operations. In terms of broadening our file of artists and artisans for prospective production and creative teams, we are making sure that we are seeing the work being produced around the metroplex by artists familiar and not. We are following up with designers who submit résumés who are new to town or unfamiliar to us. We are making it a point to be mindful of the creative teams for each production, making sure that not only are we pairing folks with projects that match their strengths, but also that we have a well-rounded team of artists both in life experience and perspective as much as possible. For Hir, for example, our directing, stage management, design team, and crew collectively are made up of about two-thirds women—and this is the first time that about half of these artists have worked with Stage West in this capacity.
You've built your directing skills mostly at Stage West. Can you look back at your first directing projects and chart your progression as an artist and director?
I try my best not to compare or rank my projects. For as much as I know at any given point and with the resources at my disposal, I try to do my best. I tend to be drawn to stories that aren’t easy, either thematically or theatrically (usually both)—that has certainly been a theme. I do hope though that I am continuing to grow from project-to-project, not just learning more about my craft but also more about myself and the artist that I want to be. I am proud to be a story-teller, a yarn spinner, a craftsman—if can continue doing that for the rest of my days, that will work quite nicely for me.