Belfast festival headliner Taylor Mac: I'm not coming to tell people Irish history - there is plenty of oppression and rebellion where I live
Ahead of his debut Belfast show next month, flamboyant New York performance artist Taylor Mac tells Grania McFadden he loves to surprise people
Award-winning performance artist Taylor Mac promises to make his debut here in October a memorable one, but then again that is his stock in trade.
"I believe, in the theatre, something surprising should happen every 10 seconds."
So says Taylor Mac, who's already planning some surprises for his visit to Belfast Festival.
The festival's choice in asking the American artist to perform the closing concert at this year's event is a surprise in itself. Last year the honours went to a more conventional act - singer Cara Dillon. So the decision to end this year's event with a rare UK appearance of the American drag queen and live artist who "makes the eyes and ears dazzle" - certainly wasn't expected.
But learn a little more about Taylor Mac and you'll probably be queueing for tickets before the box office opens. I spoke to him from his home in the Big Apple, where he talked about his performances, his hopes to see Belfast audiences lost in wild abandon, and his future plans for a concert that will last 24 hours. He may sing and wear dresses, but this is no Danny La Rue.
Born Taylor Mac Bowyer in California, he had a pretty conservative upbringing before upping sticks and moving to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. There he discovered a different way of expressing himself.
Since then, he hasn't stopped surprising crowds in America through his work as a playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director and producer, with accolades as long as the streams of sequins on his concert dresses.
Critics have described him as "one of the most exciting theatre artists of our time". The New York Times says: "Fabulousness can come in many forms, and Taylor Mac seems intent on assuming every one of them."
He's written 17 full-length plays and performance pieces, and won handfuls of awards - including some for 'straight' acting, like his role as Puck in the Classic Stage Company's A Midsummer's Night Dream. This is more than an American Lily Savage. Taylor Mac is a hugely talented, thoughtful, engaging artist whose performances persuade audiences to let down their guard and join in. He'll be performing two concerts during the festival - the first one comprising of songs which were popular in America pre and post World War One.
His second even has been created especially for the closing concert. "It's songs from 1916-2016; songs about uprising and rebellion. They're not necessarily songs about war; some are love songs. We'll be looking at what rebellion is, what it's like to live under oppression, how things changed," he says.
"I'm not coming from America to tell you Irish history," he adds. "There's a lot of what's happening today that makes this subject as relevant as ever. There's plenty of oppression and rebellion where I live right now. People will be able to see a connection."
Belfast may not seem a natural stopping-off point for this exotic performer.
"I've never been to Northern Ireland," he says simply.
"And I like to go to places and meet new people. I'm really looking forward to it."
Is he worried about what sort of a reception he'll receive? Northern Ireland's not always the most welcoming place for members of the LGBT community.
"I've been told that Belfast audiences are so conservative, but that's cool. You know, that happens sometimes, even in New York. People are obstinate. They think they know what art can be. But I have a few tricks I use to loosen people up. I know how to get in there," he says.
"I'm not trying to make anyone feel uncomfortable," he says. "I'm not telling you anything that you don't already know. I'm not a teacher; I'm a reminder. I'm just trying to remind you of things you've dismissed, forgotten or buried. And to do that I need to surprise you."
So how does that translate onto the stage? What should Belfast audiences expect from a Taylor Mac show?
"Ninety-nine percent of the stuff I say on stage I think people understand in their DNA. The other 1% - well, you'll have to wait and see."
He described his shows as 'performance art concerts'. He'll be on stage with his band and his costume designer, the excellently named Machine Dazzle.
Costume changes are very much part of the show.
"Dazzle will help me change costumes in between numbers. We'll chat, share some stuff, have some fun. He's my genius."
In between the conversation, Taylor Mac sings - he chooses songs that will bring his audience together in a sense of community.
And through the lyrics, he finds triggers to reference a whole range of themes, from war to gender through mothers and sons to Aids - songs in the key of life, if you will.
"He seduces you, breaks your heart, patches it back up again and sews sequins along the scars," wrote one critic.
"I'm a diviner, pointing out where profundity is. But the audience needs to dig for it - I'm just saying that profundity, it's over there somewhere. Go have a look," he says.
The audience shares the stage - literally, at some points - with Taylor Mac, who encourages them to play a role, whether singing, dancing, or just saying hello to the person next to them.
"The audience matters," he says. "I believe the audience deserves to alter the outcome of the events."
And so no two shows are the same. "What there definitely will be is singing. Not all of it will be good singing, but some of it will be. But every show is different - there's always some improv, and I never know what's going to happen from day-to-day."
Taylor Mac stresses that his concerts are an invitation to see something different. "If you don't see your story on stage… that is a good thing. Have a little curiosity already."
He's a pioneer of highlighting difference, criticising much of what makes it on stage as more of the same.
"Middle class stories are neither tragic nor wildly comedic simply because, when it comes to the middle class, the stakes aren't high enough. Take that, Willy Loman," he says.
"Actually, I'm a fan of Arthur Miller's work," he adds, apologetically. "Even though it is full of middle class white characters. But I think it's time for something different.
"If people come to the show and see different stuff, it's not an attack on them. It's an invitation to hang out with someone else for a couple of hours.
"And, you know, if you don't want to do that, then you needn't come."
But he's adamant that audiences shouldn't always get what it wants. "Giving our audiences what they want is not the job. If I were a plumber you wouldn't think it was presumptuous of me to say my job is to learn what your plumbing needs. You would say I was a good plumber."
One of the tools in his artist's kit is surprise. "If you want to remind your audiences of the things they have dismissed, forgotten, or buried, then you need to surprise them - one surprise every 10 seconds.
"That surprise doesn't have to be big; it can be a breath."
Aside from his Belfast concerts, Taylor Mac is currently working on his hugely ambitious project, a 24-hour performance of 24 decades of popular music. He calls it "a radical fairy realness ritual performance of 246 songs that were popular in United States from 1776-2016". It's a project he's been researching for more than five years, and he's already in what he calls "marathon training" for the event.
We won't be watching Taylor Mac for 24 hours straight in Belfast, but he's hoping his shows will be memorable all the same.
"I'm always trying make something tangible out of an ephemeral art form" - something he concedes isn't really possible.
"Although, you know, I talk to people who've met and got together with other people at my shows. They might stay together, have babies. That's a tangible result. So anything is possible."
He said that every show he performs should result in some sort of change for both the performer and the audience.
"I believe in works of consequence. I believe if something doesn't happen during the performance that changes an audience, then it isn't worth doing.
"So I might go into the audience and encourage singing and wild abandon.
"Yes, I've had audiences that just sit there. But I believe Irish people are very responsive. And if they're not, well, you call out the thing that's in the room."
Belfast has a rare opportunity to see this exotic performer, who describes himself as a student of humanity. His show promises to be unlike anything we've seen before.
"There's no right way to do a show," says Taylor Mac.
"And there's no right way to see a show. Whatever it is, we'll be doing it together."
And the costumes, of course, will be fabulous.
- Taylor Mac will be at The Mac on Thursday, October 25 and Friday, October 26 and Monday, October 29 at 7.45pm. Tickets cost £14 or £16 from belfastinternational artsfestival.com