Back when Taylor Mac was wearing khakis and button-downs, people would tune him out. When the drag performer slipped into something that fit his offbeat personality – long flowing dresses that demand attention – they didn’t have a choice.
“If you’re an oddball and you’re dressed in those clothes, then people don’t want to listen to you because you seem weird – like you’re trying too hard, even if you aren’t,” he says. “But if you suddenly expose the truth of who you are with your personal style, people can listen to it because they’re not overwhelmed by the contradiction.”
Now people call him a Ziggy Stardust-meets-Tiny Tim type, an oft-comparison that the ukulele-playing gender bender found a use for – his latest show, “Comparison is Violence,” playing at 8 p.m. July 2 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. Mac’s show is said to be a thought-provoking commentary that’s searingly satirical, poignantly honest and very, very glittery.
“This is a big part of our lives,” he says. “Comparison is really how we define people nowadays. We tend to only describe things in relation to other things. That’s how we’re defining our world, so I thought, ‘This is a really interesting dialogue to be having with the audience.’ That’s what I’m trying to inspire – for them to go out into the world and think about comparison more.”
So, in jest, we just had to ask: Who would you compare yourself to?
“I’m not going to answer that,” Mac says, through a laughing fit. “That’s, like, the show. I definitely talk about the people who I feel like have influenced me in my work, so you’ll be clued in. But I guarantee you it’s not Lady Gaga!”
After a long, meditative pause, he reconsiders, “I say that now, and in 10 years I’ll probably look back at my life and be like, ‘Oh, the work she was doing was kind of influencing me to some degree’ – even though she saw me before I saw her.”
Gaga, he says, used to hang at the same New York City clubs as Mac. And now she’s the benchmark of late, even though, Mac says, she’s part of a lineage that includes Alexander McQueen and Lee Bowery.
“It’s about amnesia,” he says. “We’re not very good at remembering our history and educating ourselves on our history. So, Lady Gaga is the newest thing that’s of the lot; she’s the one that everyone thinks is creating it. It’s not to say that she’s not creating pieces of it, but I think she’s continuing the story, not inventing the story.”
Mac’s story goes something like this: Suburban Cali kid who doesn’t have many options does drag later in life. Produces heralded shows like “The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac” and “Dilating.” Acts in other people’s plays and takes TV roles on MTV and the then-Sci-Fi Channel.
“I used to think drag was all vagina jokes and lip-syncing, so I had no interest in it,” he says. “But there’s this whole history to it and a long history of squishing the low- and high-brow together, and I just kind of got floored by that history and that legacy.”
Part of that history was wiped out in the ’80s AIDS epidemic that swept through the gay community – and many of the “drag mothers” passed on, leaving the most famous survivors to represent an era.
“There was this whole generation that disappeared,” he says. “We see it from the lenses of Dame Edna and now RuPaul, but there were way more interesting queens – not that they’re not interesting, they’re unbelievably interesting, but there was more variation out there.”
Mac’s performances start with an idea – something conceptual that he jots down and builds on. His designer friend, Machine Dazzle, takes it from there, making something out of almost nothing. “I say to Machine, ‘This is how I’m feeling about this. I know I want the outfit to do these things.’ And then I let him go at it, and he comes up with something so much more interesting than I ever would.”
It used to be all Mac, who was very DIY about his costumes. But then, “I kind of got a little more successful in the world and realized I don’t have to do it all,” he laughs.
What he wears is radically out-there, including a dress made of latex gloves that expressed his feelings on the war on terror. He says, “It was really effective – affective and effective – because it made me the oddest thing in the room.”
But he doesn’t do it to shock.
“I don’t think that that’s communicating,” he says. “I think it’s important to communicate responsibly. I try to surprise the audience; I try to get them to feel, which gets them to recognize their humanity a bit more. The only time you feel anything is when you’re surprised. If you shock them, they shut down.”
And if they collapse, they’re not learning a thing.
“My whole job as an artist is to try to get the audience to relate to me,” he says. “If they can relate to the strangest person in the room, then I’ve opened up something in them. If they can see themselves in me – the oddest person in the room – then there should be never no reason to be afraid of Muslims or whatever you’re afraid of.”
Which brings us back to Tiny Tim, who wasn’t just the oddest person in the room – but, at one time, the oddest person living. Was he queer? Gay? Mac’s friend explained to him that “queer is not a gay or a straight, but a person who is ostracized to such a degree as a young person that they could never possibly ostracize anyone else. Tiny Tim was the ultimate geek, and the ultimate geek lets everyone hang out at the table. You can’t say that about David Bowie, because he was the ultimate cool kid. I would say that David Bowie, even though he slept with men, wasn’t a queer. Tiny Tim was.”
So again, we ask Mac for a comparison: Which are you? This time we almost get an answer.
“I’m somewhere in between, right? I think of myself of a queer,” he says, laughing, “and every so often, I slip up and become a gay or a straight.”
8 p.m. July 2
Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre
911 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor
$25 general admission