Arts

Flamboyant New Yorker Taylor Mac set to be queerest thing in Belfast festival

A night at the theatre won't seem the same again, says Gail Bell, after performance artist Taylor Mac prepares to dazzle with feathers and sequins – but definitely no blindfolds

Taylor Mac: "You don't have to agree with me and you don't have to clap – it's not Oprah"

IN A few months' time, Belfast won't know what has hit it – theatrically speaking.

A night at the theatre won't seem the same again after self-confessed "radical, leftie queer" Taylor Mac sashays on stage at – coincidentally enough – The Mac, in one of his outrageous feather and sequins creations, ready to "engage" with his audience.

Don't be alarmed, but that could mean anything for this dazzling drag queen and performance artist who once asked people to put on blindfolds as part of his act.

Although that's not the plan for Northern Ireland, he assures me in a phone call from New York where he is widely regarded – according to NewYork Magazine – as the Big Apple's unrivalled 'critical darling'.

"I have a surprise in store," he teases, "but I'm not going to say what it is. Suffice to say, I will be the 'queerest' thing anyone has ever seen on that stage".

It is safe to say Mac, who is fairly laid back about being heckled, likes to embrace controversy and challenge perceptions in his shows which are as famous for their flamboyant costume changes and elaborate headdresses as they are for their cabaret, acting, talking, big-band music, politics and pure pizazz of theatre.

When we spoke, he was "resting up" ahead of his magnum opus and first major international show modestly entitled, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: The WW1 Years and More.

The production, a mega-ambitious, marathon 24-hour experience packed with a total of 240 songs, premieres in St Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn on September 15.

Thankfully, his three Belfast performances will be in more manageable chunks, covering three separate shows in October.

As part of Belfast International Arts Festival, which launched this week, Mac's Northern Ireland debut will focus on music and culture before, during and after the First World War, from 1896 through to 1926, followed by a " a 10-decade spectacular" capturing 1916, the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising, through to 2016.

And, although the main show covers 240 years of America's idiosyncratic history, he will – in special homage to local audiences – present his own 'take' on Belfast and Ireland.

"I have performed in various conservative places before, so I'm not at all worried about coming to Belfast," he says. "I take it as it comes and I love playing off the moment.

"It all adds to the story, to the drama, to the improvisation, as we attempt to understand ourselves and others. I feel the audience are my extended family and we have a 'conversation'. There have been times when people, adamant that they don't like me, end up dancing on stage with me at the end of the show.

"I am what I am. I would describe myself as a radical, leftie queer and I have no qualms in saying that."

Brought up in California, his own background is, surprisingly, conservative, and still full of family members who blankly refuse to attend his shows.

"My mother and sister are very supportive, but I have extended family who are Donald Trump supporters, so that tells you a lot," he says. "I spent 18 years immersed in their world, so it's not much to ask that they come and hang out in my world for just a couple of hours.

"People have this image of what Americans are like and I aim to give them, through the show, a different perspective."

Funny and sad by degrees, he encourages the audience to take part – not in "that crazy way where you sit on someone's lap", but as part of the dramatic process.

"You don't have to agree with me and you don't have to clap – it's not Oprah – but the audience are the characters in my show; they are part of it," he says. "That's why they're not allowed to leave over the 24-hour period."

He has 24 costume changes for the 24-hour experience, but has reduced that number to a mere "four or five" for the Belfast dates, in which to portray seditious notions on authority, class, empire, gender, patriotism and war.

A performer all his life, Mac started out in acting and writing, but it was only when he blended all the aspects of theatre together that "life got interesting".

Away from the stage, he dresses 'normally' and likes to unwind in rural settings, canoeing to his favourite lake or "hanging out in the woods" with his lover.

"It's good to unwind as I have been rehearsing with my orchestra for three weeks solid, but I feel pretty happy now," drawls the performer, recently described by the New York Times as a "diva from another planet – but with his feet firmly planted on Earth".

"I have toured Ireland before, but this will be my first visit to the north. I can't wait."

:: Taylor Mac plays The MAC on October 25, 26 and 27. For tickets and information visit belfastinternationalartsfestival.com

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