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Artists Taylor Mac and Matt Ray will discuss 'Bark of Millions,' a new project being developed at Mass MoCA


Taylor Mac, left, and Matt Ray, right, will appear together at Mass MoCA on Nov. 19 to discuss their latest collaboration "Bark of Millions," a project being made in residency at the museum.

NORTH ADAMS — When award-winning international theater maker Taylor Mac performs in the Berkshires, he does so now as a local, albeit low-key, resident.

After visiting the area for nearly 30 years, the California native now lives full time, with his husband, in South County.

A MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient, Mac is spending three weeks in residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art with a caravan of creative collaborators to develop his latest Work in Progress “Bark of Millions,” a study of queer luminaries across the ages, with 54 original songs written by longtime musical partner Matt Ray and performed by two dozen singers and instrumentalists.

On Nov. 19, in a 60-minute presentation, the duo will talk about their process with Mass MoCA Director Kristy Edmunds in the Hunter Center, previewing some of the new songs and offering fresh insight into this much-lauded Obie-winning artist and dynamic team.

Mac last appeared at the museum in 2016, developing and previewing five hours of his 24-hour-long magnum opus and Pulitzer Prize in Drama finalist, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.” The combination of Mac’s considerable vocal skills and perceptive perspectives, Ray’s arrangements of 246 songs gleaned from 240 years of American musical history, outrageously imaginative drag-inspired costumes by Machine Dazzle, aka Matthew Flower, plus a large ensemble cast of performers, community and audience members, left many clamoring for even more.

In the two decades since his first performance art cabaret in a New York City bar, Mac has created and performed in musicals and plays — many of epic length — seen around the world from Stockholm to Sydney. As a playwright, Mac made his Broadway debut in 2019 with "Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus," starring Nathan Lane as a clown charged with cleaning up the mountain of dead left by Shakespeare’s bloody conflict, earning seven Tony nominations. His often-staged chaotic drama “HIR” was presented locally by Shakespeare & Company a year earlier.

At the core, Mac is an advocate for addressing and embracing queerness, bringing it into the spotlight through celebrations and social indictments of what it means to be queer throughout history.

“It’s a little bit different than a usual theater piece,” Mac said. “In general, the kind of theater I make is not representation, it’s consideration. There aren’t characters, the songs were inspired by different queer people from around world history, but are not about those people. They get to a particular theme, an idea, a question. We’re not getting up there and representing Marsha P. Johnson, we’re singing a song inspired by her activism.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, drag queen Johnson was a prominent gay rights advocate who helped shelter homeless transgender youth in New York City.

“It’s more about activism and the time we’re living in right now, and a fantasy for how things could be better,” Mac added. “There’s nothing instructional, it’s Socratic in the sense it’s using wonder as a way to explore our humanity.”

While some songs are “smorgasbords of considerations of people that have inspired a particular way of being in the world,” Mac said, most are inspired by one individual person.

It’s not about checking off a list of names people may or may not recognize, Mac said, “it’s about existing in queerness and queer consideration for the length of the show. Ultimately we’ll pass out a hymnal with lyrics so the audience can Google and research them to their hearts’ desire.”

“Bark of Millions” is an ancient Egyptian myth, a creation story, Mac said. “The Bark is this mythical boat the god Ra travels on, bringing the sun with them every day. Amun or Ra is possibly the first gender-queer god in the history of man, all the gods in religions after that spring from some part of this mythology. So that makes you think, everyone is a gender-queer then. Millions of stories, millions of queers, millions of years of being on this planet.”

The finished show will run a little over four hours.

“Our experience has been that people say, I wanted more, no matter how long it is,” Ray said. “That’s part of Taylor’s genius, actively thinking about the audience. Too many people think of them as the enemy or something to be managed. We think of them as part of the show. That way they’re not going to be bored.”

People will sit through five hour Wagner operas or binge entire seasons of shows on Netflix, he said. “The truth is, it’s really quite a lovely experience, to receive the information, participate or not, have your own set of feelings, or leave the theater and come back.”

Mac and Ray have collaborated since 2008. ”Taylor needed a music director and arranger for a piece he wrote with our mutual friend Rachelle Garniez called ‘The Lily’s Revenge’,” Ray recalled. With striking costumes by Flower, appropriately, the show earned Mac his first Obie award.

Usually an arranger for Mac, Ray has written 54 original songs for “Bark of Millions.” It’s extremely gratifying, he explained.

“When I’m writing songs, I’m always thinking about how things might be constructed,” he added. “But the joy is when you compose and imagine what it’s going to sound like out of someone’s vocal chords, then they actually sing it and it’s different, and all the adjustments go from there. It’s such an exciting process. I’ve collaborated with Taylor for a long time, and composition has been a new, even more rewarding chapter in our working creative relationship. For one thing, it got me through the pandemic. Having creative things to do remotely without anybody else there — Taylor sent me lyrics and I wrote music — was kind of a life saver. The whole thing has just been a dream.”

Their collaboration and friendship has deepened over the years. “We grow together and change, and allow each other to change,” Ray explained. “Taylor has a deep, thoughtful intelligence, as well as being a kick-ass singer. You want to admire the people you work with. And we both have a high-brow, low-brow sense of humor and aesthetic in the work we make.”

Ray has fond memories of visiting the Berkshires. “As a little kid in the 1980s, I went to YMCA sleep-away summer camp,” he said, “so I’ve been going there for a long time, enjoying cold mornings and warm summer days.”

Edmunds is looking forward to working with Mac again on this new project. As artistic director of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles, in 2016, she presented an abridged version of Mac’s “24-Decade History” and its entirety two years later at Ace Hotel theater.

“I’d never performed in L.A. before,” recalled Mac, “and she booked me in the big 1,800 seat theater. I said, 'nobody knows me, I’m not famous, we’re not going to have an audience.' And she said something nobody else has ever said to us: ‘If we relied on artists to provide the audience, then we’re not doing our job.’ It was such a revelation, that I didn’t have to do [everything], that somebody invested in the community can do that part. And we had a giant audience, it was remarkable.”

“She’s one of the great producers and humans that I’ve worked with in this industry, she thinks differently, she’s in the trenches with you,” Mac added. “She’s going to talk to us, and she’s got one of the great minds working in the performing arts, so it’s really fun to listen to anything she has to say.”

Mac is delighted to return to Mass MoCA’s long-running creative residency program. “It’s an amazing space and a joy working with people who support artists,” he said.

“I always try to mix it up a little bit so I don’t get stuck in a box. It’s a real treat sometimes to see things with a different aesthetic, you have a deeper understanding of what the work is and what the artists are doing.”

“Every residency is different as far as where they’re at, and it always changes,” said Susan Killam, director of performing arts at Mass MoCA, who oversees the program. “We always try to find out what their goals are so we can help them get that done. So I know they’re working on movement, rehearsing a lot of the songs with a larger group, and starting to think about the staging.”

“In the first week with a small group,” she said, “Taylor said, ‘we got more done in these past few days than we would have in weeks in NYC’.”

“They’re great to work with, Taylor’s such a professional, the whole company is,” she sad. “It’s like family coming back to work on new projects. They’re so creative, pushing boundaries and really leaning into new ways of creating and presenting. And we’ve worked with producer Pomegranate Arts almost since our beginning times.”

While many residencies require only a final polishing before premiering in New York, this one “is so early in the process, there might be a world where we would bring it back,” when it’s more finished, she suggested.

“Our extended local community is just filling up with so many interesting artists,” Killam observed. “There’s a gravitational pull to this region for creatives. We’ve always tried to be a place that people feel welcome, we value the kind of work they are doing.”


What: Taylor Mac & Matt Ray: In Conversation and Song

Who: Taylor Mac and Matt Ray hosted by Mass MoCA Director Kristy Edmunds.

Where: Hunter Center, Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams

When: 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 19

Tickets: Performance only: $25, student; $35, advance, $45 day of. $70, preferred seating and museum admission.

Information and tickets: 413-662-2111, massmoca.org 

COVID-19 Policy: Masks required during the performance, when not eating and drinking. 

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