In my capacity as a theatre critic for the Poughkeepsie Journal—alright, people, somebody has to do it—I recently got a chance to interview Taylor Mac, playwright, actor, singer, about judy’s upcoming 24-hour long marathon of songs from 24 decades of American pop history. We got to talking about Greek theatre, and judy told me that the reason judy dresses in incredible costumes for judy’s performance (one, which I saw, a cardboard replica of a shimmering Empire State Building) was that the costume reflected how judy felt in whatever story judy was telling. In other words, the costume was judy’s emotional truth. “When I walk down the street in jeans and a T-shirt, I’m hiding. When I wear these costumes, I am being who I am.”
Judy went on to tell me about growing up in Stockton, CA, in the third worst education system in the U.S. I asked judy how judy got out: “I was queer. Thank god. I had access to information that there was somewhere else I could go and be myself.”
So often since that interview I have thought about these statements and how they apply to my own journey as a migrant from middle-class Skokie, Illinois to mugable-class New York, New York, the very thing I looked like being the thing I was trying to escape most: a well-fed, wholesome, blondish, trusting and happy midwestern gal—which was also the thing that made people want to rob me in broad daylight. Once, I was walking down the street in a crowd and a man turned his head to the side without looking and spit on me.
I decided these were the lessons Manhattan had to offer me: that I wasn’t the center of the universe, that my mother wouldn’t always be there for me, that the tips I hoarded from my coat-checking job as well as my beloved Walkman, my grandmother’s garnet ring and my lucky horseshoe necklace were ephemeral and not worth mourning, though I did. Was I being forced to learn these lessons the hard way because something was wrong with me?
—Bear with me, there’s writing advice coming from all this—
Was the constant attack I felt myself to be under on the streets of New York and then life in general because I was hiding myself or being myself?
I think the answer is yes, and now I think that this is my style. My plays reflect this, seemingly to be about one thing but upon a second look are actually challenging what they seem to be for.
And what can you wear that reflects that?
And that’s my advice to other writers: think about what you’re hiding. Think about what you know that you would never say aloud, out of fear, or doubt (which is fear) or embarrassment (which is fear) or… And find a way to bring it to the surface; your way.
The lessons continue to come.
Photo Of Taylor Mac by Norman Jean Roy