What a year or two Taylor Mac has had. He was nominated for a Tony Award for the Broadway comedy he wrote starring Nathan Lane, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus. He also received a MacArthur “Genius” Award. And for his nonstop, 24-hour theatrical work A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, he won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize and Guggenheim and Doris Duke awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
“I did!” he laughs. “Now, I didn’t know the specifics, but I always knew this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
What he will be doing later this month is presenting a two-hour version of his theatrical extravaganza at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts in Middletown on Sept. 21 at 7:30 p.m. There will also be a free Conversation with Taylor Mac on Sept. 19 at 6 p.m. at Memorial Chapel, 221 High St.
“This is all I ever wanted to do,” he says of his often fantastical musical theater work. “Some people are suggesting now I make films and television, but I’m a theater artist — and there’s some ego in that — but it’s also humble. I’m a theater artist because I’m most interested in grass roots communication and — I won’t even call it activism so much as ‘progression.’ We’re just trying to go deeper into our considerations and make it a more equitable, breathable and more enjoyable world.
“The way I know how to do that — and the way I think is the most ethical — is to hang out in a room with other people and not create distance between the user and the maker. All the art forms create distance — except for live performance.”
Mac fans can also catch him in his abridged show Sept. 14 in Providence at Veterans Memorial Auditorium and Sept. 16 in Worcester, Massachusetts, at Fenwick Theatre at the College of the Holy Cross.
Playwright Young Jean Lee was on her way to teach her class at Stanford when she got a call from an organization unknown to her: the Windham Campbell Prize. The operative word here is “prize,” and when she learned she was to be awarded $165,000, she burst into tears. (To put awards in perspective, you get $15,000 when you win a Pulitzer Prize, upped two years ago from $10,000.)
You’re talking enough money to change the course of a career — and a life.
Lee and seven other writers of drama, fiction, nonfiction and poetry will take part in lectures and readings Sept. 18-20 around the Yale campus. Renowned poet Eileen Myles will deliver the Why I Write lecture Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. at the lecture hall at the Yale Art Gallery.
“This award came at a very crucial moment in my career,” Lee says. Though the South Korea native’s play Straight White Men was presented on Broadway last season, it was written at least five years ago and she hadn’t written a new play since. The reason, she says, was because she was focused on looking for and establishing a collegiate teaching position. She pursued academics when a $225,000 grant from a Doris Duke Performing Artist award, which was spread out over five years, ran out.
“When I got the Doris Duke Award, those were like five of the most productive years of my career because I could just live off the grant,” she says. Teaching, Lee found, is insanely time consuming. “I have zero doubt that if I got the Windham Campbell Prize right after the Doris Duke Award, I would have just continued to write.”
The Windham Campbell Prize — which fellow Yale School of Drama playwriting teacher Tarell Alvin McCraney also received six years ago — “means that I don’t have to do anything just for the money — and that is huge in terms of feeling you now have time and freedom.”
But she also found that she gets a different kind of reward from teaching now, too — and is getting better at it. “I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t like to teach. It’s a wonderful job and I’m on a tenure track at Stanford. It’s just the first year was brutal because teaching is a skill you have to learn. That first year I taught at Yale in the first semester, and Stanford in winter and spring was like a trial by fire, just learning how to teach. But once you figure it out, it’s a wonderful job for an artist.”
Lee says she’s already working on a new musical “about class” as well as preparing to direct and co-write a movie, Mistress Hand, which she describes as a horror film set on a Dakota reservation.
When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival asked Octavio Solis to adapt Don Quixote to the stage, he discovered it was a massive undertaking.
“What they wanted was a more faithful adaptation of the novel set in that period for their theater audience,” he says, adding that the popular musical Man of La Mancha “completely ignored the book altogether.”
His adaptation had a successful run but he saw limitations to its stage transformation.
“The pitfall is in the fact that the character of Don Quixote doesn’t grow, never changes, never has a moment of doubt. At the end of the day, I felt like I was honoring [Miguel de] Cervantes but I wasn’t finding my own voice in the work.”
In Quixote Nuevo, his new play which is described as a “re-imagining of Don Quixote,” he has.
In the work, which plays Hartford Stage Sept. 19 to Oct. 13 and is directed by KJ Sanchez, Solis takes his hero and places him on the U.S./Mexico border, the setting of so much of the work. Solis, who was born in El Paso, Texas, says, “I’m a child of the border.”
“Once I changed the setting, everything changed: the language, the characters. This time I wrote something for me, for our time, something that would resonate with what we’re going through today.”
His central character is a Cervantes scholar, who at the end of his life is undergoing the initial stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s. “He is conflating elements from his past with events from the novel until he can’t tell what is real and what is not.”
Solis says his hero remembers a girl he once knew and loved when she and her parents were migrant workers on his father’s field — but who lived on the other side of the border. “He can’t even remember her real name anymore, so he names her Dulcinea. And now he feels it is now or never the time to get her — because they’re building this wall.”
Have You Heard …?
… Faye Dunaway was fired after the Boston run of the Broadway-hopeful Tea at Five in which she played Katharine Hepburn. The play, by Wethersfield-raised Matthew Lombardo, which premiered at Hartford Stage in 2002, is seeking a new star and a new run elsewhere, perhaps London.