Self-Care: A 24-Decade Reflection

For months I’ve struggled to write about my time at Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.  I could not head into 2017 with this piece hanging over my head any longer.  Here goes...

It seems every journalistic outlet sent a critic to see the show and they all universally praised it. With each article I read celebrating it, the harder it was for me to write this difficult admission: I “experienced” the show but I did not love that experience.  And I’m not sure I was meant to love it. 

The show made me confront an issue I was unprepared to.  My own need for self-care. In two shows I experienced this year I was faced with my own personal anxieties through audience participation.  In one show, the artist worked hard to care for me in that precarious space.  In the other, judy did not. 

Typically, there is no expectation that artists tend to their audience's personal needs.  The artists are often there to provoke and challenge.  Safety or security can grind against the goal of pushing an audience to confront or engage.  But in crafting work that specifically calls for the audience to be a part of the work, I do think artists bear in mind the nature and shape of that participation. 

For instance, I watched Daniel Oliver in his piece Weird Séance get naked in a room full of tentative audience participants as they wandered through a world he created with them. He gently nudged them along to get what he needed. Taking them by the hand, he guided them through the scenes. There was violence, blood, humor, and yet I sensed his awareness of the participants.  With his care, he made the uniting of artist and unknowing strangers harmonious.  It was one of my favorite shows at the Forest Fringe in 2016.

Brian Lobel made me dance like no one was watching in a room where some people were watching in his piece Hold My Hand and We’re Halfway There.  I was always put in the back of every dance number in high school theater even though I was really short because I could not even grapevine.  Public dancing is not my strong-suit.  In fact, it’s one of my greatest fears, especially if there are steps and a “right way to do things.”  My feet choose the wrong way every time.  But Brian was not asking for the “right way.”  He was asking for a temporary partner to join him for short bursts to recreate dance numbers from movie musicals in a replica bedroom of his childhood.  We just happened to be standing in the middle of an arts center café while we did it.  Exposed and open, this was the perfect setting for me to panic.  And yet, I put headphones on and fumbled my way through a number from Muriel’s Wedding and Fiddler on the Roof.  He disarmed me and made me feel I could do no wrong. I came away understanding Brian’s piece and wanting to be a part of it. 

So with these positive audience participation situations under my belt, disliking my experience at A 24-Decade came as a shock to me. I had no qualms about attending A 24-Decade (my only hesitation was the steep price tag).  I paid and was honestly curious what this extravaganza would entail.  Somewhere between hour 9 and hour 13 a disconnection to the show began to gnaw at me.  That led to a raging fury in my head that reached levels I could not ignore.  By hour 13, I’d had enough. 

It came to an apex for me with the physical scrum we had to engage in to represent the Oklahoma land grab.  The audience had to rush to nab a limited number of balloons and plant them on a piece of land if you wanted a place to sit on the floor.  I was battered by the crowd who pushed, shoved and elbowed me.  There was something in that brutality transferred to the audience that broke me.  I did not want to be around any of these people anymore and in fact I wanted to crawl in a hole maybe not to resurface. 

I’m pretty susceptible to pain—on stage or off—at the best of times.  In this show, I started to question how much pain I was meant to endure for art.

Mac’s original inspiration was seeing the gay community come together for a gay pride march while the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the same group of people.  So Mac applied this to the many generations of outsiders who have pushed forward to build even while they are being torn apart.  

If the show’s intent was to tear down the audience in an effort to demonstrate how community forms from such destruction, I got somehow left in pieces with no one to put me back together.  Others gained a closeness and community from the show. I was disappointingly isolated.  

In the end, I was left with more ambivalence towards A 24-Decade, than most critics had.  I started to wonder if I had failed the piece or if the piece had failed me.  I could not shake the uncomfortable sense of my own personal failure.  Maybe I was not as flexible, cool, and hip enough to get into the groove of it. 

Why did it come so easily for this massive room full of people (oh my god there were too many people all squished into a space that was not big enough for all of us) and why was I the only one struggling?  Were my needs (emotional or physical) somehow a failure?  Was I asking for too much from the show?  Why could I not feel the euphoria others did?  What was I doing wrong? Where was my euphoria?  Did they hand it out while I was in the bathroom?

For those not familiar with what the show was, for every hour of the show, there was an hour of American history laid before us.  From Revolutionary soldiers to Civil Rights protesters to a radical lesbian cookout to a man alone on stage, raspy-voiced, singing songs judy wrote.  The selection of music included traditional tunes, rock and pop favorites, and B-side tracks I’d never heard. 

For each decade, Mac donned a new costume (crafted with meticulous symbolism and a trashy sculptural flair by Machine Dazzle).  Mac performed the entire show with only a few bathroom breaks and microphone passes to back-up singers.  Judy began with a full orchestra and every hour the stage would lose a performer until we reached the end where it was Mac alone.  Judy hardly wavered when my butt was giving out. Judy dazzled and commanded the space non-stop.  And judy did it in heels.  

In the sweeping quilt of ideas, images, and song, judy focused on nation building, colonialism, war, protest, oppression, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Judy talked politics, mothers, anonymous sex, and AIDS.

Although this show took place over 24 hours, I don't think it was spiritually a durational piece.  Judy made a series of deeply crafted 3-hour concerts which were performed before this marathon in that format.  Most of the segments boasted a strong conceptual core and an overarching purpose.  They were rich with imagery, involved physical adventures for the audience to undertake, and of course laden with song after song representing judy’s subjective views on American history.  

Unlike durational work where your focus can wander, this density of creativity required your full attention.  On top of that, the show and Mac demanded a substantial contribution and sacrifice by the audience.  We stacked and unstacked chairs.  Judy segregated the audience to demonstrate white flight.  Judy had us do battle with imaginary weapons pointed at one another.  We spent an hour blindfolded and at some point shoved a grape in the face of our neighbor. We were forcibly moved around the room.  The audience was both a part of the show and mechanism to be manipulated.  They were judy’s rules and we played by them. 

Mac’s disruptive personality when taken in 3-hour doses delivers an effective punch.  Expanded to the 24-hour format, the accumulation of tension and conflict pushed at my limits.  

There was an edge of viciousness as well.  For instance, there were moments we were asked to throw ping pong balls at other audience members as well as Mac (we were homophobes and judy was the last queer we pelted as judy moved around the room).
During The Marskado (a take on The Mikado set on Mars to avoid cultural appropriation issues) Mac made a man sing “Tit willow” over and over again.  Saying, “sing ‘Tit Willow’ until you cry.”  When he did not start crying, Mac kept calling for him to keep singing.  Finally threatening, “I'm ok with the whole show just being this.”  A big laugh from the audience followed.  

The cruelty on display was a surrogate for America in various forms--calling for societal conformity, your body for war, or a palpable recognition of the power you possessed or repossessed from someone else.  Mac would tease that some of these vocal or physical activities were “going to go on longer than you want it to.”   And they did. 

So without question Mac made a show that was meant to be a trial (for judy and for us).  Mac explicitly said it was our responsibility to take care of ourselves.  Judy was not going to do it for us. 

Maybe my fatal flaw was that I did not expect myself to have needs.  I packed emergency peanut butter sandwiches and a thermos of tea.  I had snacks and comfortable clothes on.  I was as ready as I could be for something I could not foresee.  But I was jolted by how hard it was for me to stay in the room.  How pummeled I was by the experience.  How personally I took the show. I was a raw wound being poked and prodded for hours.  Was this not failure but success? I felt too much.  Was that the point?

I took breaks every couple of hours and left the room.  Introvert recharge moments were covered by cell phone recharge moments.  I stretched and moved and stood and sat.  And saw friends and moved on my own.  And even with all that, a growing rage began to form.  Not at American imperialism, colonialism, or prejudice.  I found myself in a tremendous power struggle with the art and my mind and my body. 

I have to believe this was intentional.  Mac’s work was focused on the wrongs America has done to the powerless, the derided, the outsiders, and the non-conformists.  But rather than find anyone reaching out in this, I was knocked to the ground as I tried to grab a balloon so I could just sit down.  I buckled under the weight of the work and I felt like I had lost. 

I know how I would have done in the American West.  I would have starved and died early in the journey.  But I knew that before going to this show.  That was not particularly a lesson I needed to learn. 

So when I cracked, I left the show.  I went home for a few hours, napped and returned.  It may have been a small victory to take some power back for myself.  But it helped.  I sailed through the last 8 hours not enraptured like others around me.  But less hostile.  I had reset my mind.  

I could enjoy the giant inflatable penis bouncing around the room and slow dance at the queer prom with a woman less into this entire endeavor than I was (I'm not sure who she was but maaaaannnnn she was really annoyed at having to dance with a woman). 

Of all the high style and drama that the show offered, the part that has stayed with me was one of the smaller moments.  judy told a story about a near-gaybashing incident that judy experienced with a friend.  A stranger had approached them in a Polish food restaurant and threatened them.  The bully demanded Mac’s friend eat a pierogi.  And the friend said, he would if the bully would feed it to his ass.  And this went back and forth for a while until the bully capitulated to Mac’s friend’s demand; and fed the pierogi into his ass.  It was a lesson in shame, consent, and power.  Mac’s friend had successfully denied the bully his goal, which was to shame them.  Instead, Mac’s friend had managed to push the shame back onto the bully.

The show was in the October and as I watched political fights on the internet unfold for a week following the show, and the national dialogue shift to misogyny and sexual assault, this push and pull over shame seemed so present.  

As the months have passed since seeing the show, I’ve brought up this story of the pierogi a lot.  The power of shame is an important topic we don’t talk about and judy got at the heart of it. 

In the end, I'm surprised by the joy people got out of the show.  Maybe they were able to celebrate their survival, their persistence, their success in the face of so much hostility.  

For me, all I can say is that I tried.  I went in with an open heart which got broke a whole lot during the night.   It was not what I expected.  But as Mac says "Everything you are feeling is appropriate."