Queerness revolts in the Podunk setting of Taylor Mac’s newest play, Hir, currently running at Playwrights Horizons. In the time that Isaac (Cameron Scoggins) has been in the marines, the patriarchal order of his family has capsized. Isaac’s abusive father, Arnold (Daniel Oreskes), has suffered a debilitating stroke, freeing the other members of the family from his abusive rule. In the aftermath of her vegetative husband’s tyranny, Paige (Kristine Nielson) runs the family. Isaac’s sister, now named Max (Tom Phelan), takes hormones to better embody hir genderqueer identity.
What ensues is an examination of what happens to the collateral damage of old-school masculinity. Paige derives her newfound agency from Max’s transition; she tells Isaac, “There never have been such a thing as a man or a woman and there never will be.” Paige in turn applies this sense of genderqueerness to herself. “I am now the mother and the father,” she proclaims.
In Mac’s vision of progress, men like Arnold and Isaac have got to go. The tropes of hardball masculinity — the sweating, the farting, and the brutish mumbling of orders — have no place in Paige’s new world order. This series of gender and identity realignments within the family induce a struggle for power. It begs the question: who is steering this revolution?
Mac, whose gender pronoun of choice is “judy,” is a performance artist in the truest sense of the term. Judy’s work runs the gamut from performance art and drag to playwriting and directing. Mac’s plays and performances engage in subcultures and subvert them, injecting them with political commentary that balances criticality and entertainment.
I spoke with Mac to discuss the success of Hir, the state of performance art, and the fall of Willy Loman.
* * *
Zachary Small: I am interested in the different tensions the characters of Hir experience. They are cramped together in their messy living room, yet perfectly alone emotionally. Meanwhile, they are stretching their legs, experiencing the nuances of their identities as feminists, queers, men, etc. For example, Isaac tries so hard to join his mother and Max in their “new society,” but is reluctant to leave the patriarchal paradigm because it is where he is most powerful. As I saw it, this was his undoing in the play. How did characters like these converge for you?
Taylor Mac: Each character wants to be the central character of the story. Usually, in a play that has an Aristotelian structure there is a central character who the viewer identifies with. When I decided to write such a play, I didn’t want the audience to know who the main character was. You think it is the transgender character because of the play’s title. Then you think it is the mother, Paige, because she has all the lines. Next, you think it is Isaac because he is the prodigal son returning. The audience eventually has no idea what to think. Focus shifted from each character, except for the father, Arnold, who would normally be the focus of a play. Instead, he is dressed as a crazy clown on stage, the house is a mess, but Paige looks perfectly normal.
In our society, I feel like everyone is vying to be the central character. Some people who have not traditionally been the central character are now saying it’s their time. Others claim, “You’ve always told my story. I will tell my own story from now on.” Still, it is the notion of winning. If you are seen and heard, then you have won.
ZS: Some would say that is a condition of neoliberal economics, right? And Arnold functions as an incapacitated Willy Loman character?
TM: Exactly. Yet all the characters are connected in that they all are desperately seeking some kind of healing.
ZS: The play seems to me to be asking broader questions: As our society progresses, what happens to the men who can’t progress? Where do women fit? Where do genderqueer people fit?
TM: Yeah, but I don’t have the answers (laughs). When I write a play, I think of what I am ignoring in the world and what I am afraid to deal with. The patriarchal oppression concerning how the world should work is the old world order. It’s clear that it doesn’t work and that it has harmed a lot of people. Now we are breaking out of that mold and moving into a new way of thinking, behaving, and treating each other. We are moving on, but we all must heal from different wounds. And different people have different interpretations of what will help. One of the greatest tragedies of our time is that people cannot see that their way of healing is not somebody else’s way of healing. For me, that is the tragedy of Hir. Certainly, Isaac and Paige are unable to see that both of them are just trying to heal.
I think the family really loves each other, Arnold aside, but they don’t know how to express it. As all people who have endured traumatic experiences know, trauma creates bombs between people. [The family] had an abusive father. They don’t know how to listen to each other.
ZS: I was looking around at some of the older men in the audience. I wondered if they realized that this play was about them.
TM: It is fun to get those men to click into what is happening in front of them. Often, those guys are dragged to some play by their wives. To them, it is a cultural obligation. When I do my performance art, I tend to work those men. Once they figure out that Arnold is supposed to be them, their reaction is extreme. I think it is moving for them to see their story told out of spotlight. It invites them into the experience more so than if Arnold was on stage beating everybody up. To see themselves as the victims or clowns is different.
ZS: For me, what is unifying about the play is its portrayal of the middle class.
TM: Here, the middle class is pressed up against the fourth wall. They are trying really hard to break out of their middlebrow malaise, but they aren’t quite there yet.
ZS: That reminds me of your manifesto, “I Believe.” That piece resonates with people for how you define the state of the arts. You talk about economics and the struggles of making art in the non-profit theater world. In your manifesto, you say: “Middle class stories are not tragic nor wildly comedic simply because, when it comes to the middle class, the stakes aren’t high enough. Take that Willy Loman.”
TM: It was said partly in jest. Let me articulate it better. One of the problems I have with the middle class is urban flight. In the last 80 years, America has focused on telling the stories of the middle class. We ensure that they are being seen and heard. We ensure they are comfortable. As a result, we have urban flight; it’s a casualty. Subsequently, we have widespread conformity of middlebrow aesthetics; even the wealthy are middlebrow now.
Now, there is a uniformity to America’s aesthetics. It affects the way we create and respond to the world. I don’t think the middle class needs to be championed any longer because it already has been — and when people argue that the middle class has disappeared, I tell them to go look at the lines at Starbucks.
ZS: Your work runs the gamut from performance art to drag, music, playwriting, and acting. Many people in the art world would tell you to choose one; pick one thing you do well. How do you justify your work to these people?
TM: To them, I always talk about Molière or the Greeks. Theatermakers have never done one thing; they do many things. It is because of that they can produce good work. Theater is one of the most collaborative art forms there is. If you don’t know how to do what your collaborators are doing, you can’t make work with them. So we learn. I think it is bullshit when people try to make you do one thing.
In fact, my work is an exploration of heterogeneity and homogeneity. Why do we feel the need to reduce things in order to understand them? Why do we instinctively want to take a landscape, which is too big to understand, and turn it into a small painting? We do that to see it, package it, sell it, and market it. We need to have an easy conversation about that impulse. It is how our brains work, I think, but it is also worth fighting against. It’s useful to reduce and harness something, but if we get stuck doing only that, we don’t really understand the thing as a whole.
ZS: I recently got into an argument with two curators of performance art. One says that performance artists aren’t theater artists because they don’t engage with the methods or history of theater. The other claims he can recognize performance art because those artists, unlike actors, don’t strictly adhere to a script.
TM: That’s crazy. How can you not be aware of it? All [theater] is storytelling. In my experience, the art world has a disdain for theater. When I present my work to theater people, they call it performance art. When I present it to the art world, they call it theater. In reality, I know my work is a hybrid. It is a “yes, and” mentality for me.
Then again, the art world has a strict sense of what performance art is, and they don’t like to think of it as close to theater. They view theater as conservative, regressive, unradical, and middlebrow. For them, performance artists should be after something bigger, which is essentially money (laughs). I’m so snarky about the art world, but it’s ridiculous
As if Marina Abramović doesn’t use a script of some kind. As if her work doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end. She must say to herself: “I sit in the chair, someone sits opposite of me. We look at each other. When he gets up and leaves, another person sits down.” She has a beginning, middle, and end. That’s a script! There is nothing but a story there.
ZS: I think our understanding of what performance art and avant-garde theater are has shifted, perhaps fused together. There are differences but —
TM: I think it is all storytelling. When I go to an art gallery, I see storytelling. Others will defensively say, “No! There’s no story. It’s image on canvas. It’s about lines and architecture.” But to me, all of that is story.
It’s like drag. When you wear jeans and a shirt, you are wearing drag. It’s just normative drag. To me, all artists are theater artists … but the cool factor in the art world is definitely something we don’t have in theater. The theater world knows it’s dorky. The art world is wrapped up in cool kid culture. It is about being hip; it is about being above the middle-class culture. As a cultural institution, the art world is an elitist community. And I love them for that. Sometimes, with how much money is involved in it, it all seems so cheap. Paradoxically, the fact that there is so much money in it makes it cheap. It is the same for Broadway. The fact that it takes millions of dollars to just put on a play makes the work cheap.
For me, performance needs to be rigorous. I like the audience to see that I have worked for them. I like them to see that someone actually cared. That I gave them my time and energy.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.