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September 11, 2015

Student Spotlight: Embedded with Taylor Mac and Pomegranate Arts

By Tsukumo Niwa

Editor’s note: As part of the UMS 21st Century Artist Internships program, four students interned for a minimum of five weeks with a dance, theater, or music ensemble part of our 2015-2016 season. Tsukumo Niwa is one of these students. This summer, he was embedded with the artist Taylor Mac and the production company Pomegranate Arts.

Below, Tsukumo shares her travel stories in New York City and beyond ahead of Taylor Mac’s performance in Ann Arbor on February 5, 2016.

This summer, through the UMS and U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance 21st Century Artist Internship program, I had a chance to work closely with Taylor Mac and Pomegranate Arts in New York City.

A little bit about myself: I’m a junior majoring in Oboe Performance and International Studies. As such, theater arts – let alone drag performances – are a bit out of my specialty area. When I was first introduced to Taylor’s work, however, I was immediately intrigued by Taylor’s commitment to inclusivity, especially in terms of LGBTQ+ identities, and judy’s beautiful presence on stage with glittery and flashy costumes and make up. (Taylor uses “judy” as a gender pronoun.) Because I dedicate a lot of time to social justice education as well as music, I wanted to see how arts and social justice ideas can meet.

taylor mac

Taylor Mac performs. Photo courtesy of the artist.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The first week of internship, I attended my first Taylor performance at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas  in New Haven, Connecticut. Held each year on Yale University campus, this festival brings in world-class artists and thinkers across genres. This festival commissioned the 1996-2006 decades of Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music will eventually become an epic show performed over 24 continuous hours (in Ann Arbor, Taylor will focus on the 1960s, 70s, and 80s). The section at the festival was called “Songs Popular in the Radical Lesbian Circuit.” It was the opening performance.

On the day of the performance, six musicians, the company tour manager, and I took the Metro North together from Grand Central to New Haven. Some passengers noticed our gear, and asked if we’re musicians. Viva, the band’s “guitar goddess” interacted with her:

Viva: “Yes! We’re performing at Yale.”
Woman: “Cool, I might check it out! What kind of music?”
Viva: “It’s cabaret music from the 90’s.”
Woman: “Okay!”
Viva: “… popular with the radical lesbians.”
Woman: “…Oh.”
Viva: “You should totally come check it out!”
Woman: “Okay, I’ll try…?” *quickly escapes the scene*

While this woman wasn’t in our audience, we had a really good turnout, including donors in  VIP seats with their jaws dropped as they experienced Taylor for the first time. We heard that one of the festival founders – a woman in her 80’s – attended the performance and left the house “glowing.” Almost everyone from Pomegranate Arts (the management company working with Taylor Mac) came to see the performance and to support Taylor. The support and reactions from the audience added to the energy of the performance by Taylor and judy’s band.

tsukumo and festival of arts and ideas poster

Me at the after-party, with performances by drag queens and dance music from the 90’s. It was fun!

Projects at the Pom Office

When I wasn’t at Taylor’s performances, I worked at the office of Pomegranate Arts, an independent management company that manages contemporary artists such as Sankai Juku and Philip Glass (both are familiar to the UMS audiences! Sankai Juku return this season October 23-24, 2015). With only 6 employees, it’s a small yet strong group that organizes shows and tours from start to finish.

With the help of my mentors, Linsey and Katie, I made a prototype of the project book for Taylor’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.” Since “A 24-Hour History” is a huge project involving multiple parts, it’s necessary to keep them organized – costumes, stage directions, performance history, and song lists for each decade. Linda Brumbach, the founder and president of Pomegranate Arts, met with me to help me understand diverse topics what Pomegranate Arts is about, and what young artists like ourselves can do (watch for an interview soon!).

I also got to use my Japanese skills and helped to prepare visa documents for Sankai Juku company members. I can’t wait to finally see them in October!

Celebrate Brooklyn!

August 1, 2015 was the first time that Pomegranate Arts produced an outside show, and I was lucky to be a part of it. This was a huge one – 12 musicians on stage, 24 burlesque dancers strip teasing, and dozens of musicians from Brooklyn United Marching Band. About 2,000 people showed up for this free concert, ranging in age from toddlers to the elderly.

tsukumo's deskTaylor instructed these kids to (friendly) insult each other. The terrified look on their faces were priceless!

Photos: On left, my desk, with documents about “A 24-Decade History” project and project book on screen. On right, Taylor instructed these kids to (friendly) insult each other. The terrified look on their faces were priceless!

This was a huge day for me, too. As an intern, I was responsible for guiding all musicians and dancers backstage, hiring the videographer to film the rehearsal and mini interviews with artists, and just being available for anything the company needed. This was rewarding – I got to hear so many interesting stories from the musicians that have been working with Taylor for years, as well from as key people from Pomegranate Arts. One of my favorites was Machine Dazzle, the costume designer.

stage viewtsukumo niwa and machine dazzle
Photos: On left, dress rehearsal, seen through the backstage monitor. On right, Machine Dazzle, costume designer for Taylor Mac. He’s really tall. Or maybe I’m really short. Most likely both.

At this performance, a lot of things happened. Audience members were frequently brought to the stage and did various ridiculous things that Taylor asked them to do. They split up and shouted at each other, representing the pro-war and anti-war forces. The Brooklyn United Marching Band came on stage, 36 strong, and blew everyone in the crowd away.

Under Construction Series at the Park Avenue Armory

The final set of performances that I attended were totally different from the Celebrate Brooklyn! performance. They took place in the intimate and historic Park Avenue Armory, which accommodates artists that strive to create artworks that are difficult to present in traditional theaters and museums.

Since Taylor and Machine are resident artists at the Armory, they have access to one of the company rooms and store all the costumes and other materials related to “A 24-Decade History” project. It is really glittery, a bit messy, and awesome!

costumes backstageat the armory in new york city

Photos: On left, just a few of the costumes living in the Armory! On right, the historic Board of Officers Room in the Armory. The walls are wooden, and acoustics are amazing for low-voice singer and piano! On piano is Matt Ray – the musical director.

There, they performed three decades that they have never performed before: 1776-1786, 1786-1796, and 1796-1806. Since these are near the dawn of US independence, many songs performed at these performances were patriotic. Taylor wore no costume for this performance; instead, some of the costumes were displayed stage-side so that the audience could imagine what this performance will look like as a finished work.

On the second night of this performance, during the “encore”, Taylor performed a song called “Pussy Manifesto” by Bitch and Animals from the 1996-2006 decade. During this song, he asks the audience to explore our various “pussies,” regardless of gender, in positive light. While Taylor asked the audience to explore our “mouth pussies” and sing the last phrase of the song, one audience member – a middle-aged man – showed strong discomfort. In response to this, Taylor said, “Whatever you’re feeling is appropriate,” meaning that audience members don’t have to necessarily like the performance. They could feel uncomfortable, disgusted, confused, or have any other emotion. Regardless of these emotions, as a theater artist whose art serves to challenge daily narratives, judy will have succeeded. This was quite a lesson for me.

Bringing This (Back) to Ann Arbor

tsukumo niwa and taylor macOne of the biggest takeaways from this internship is that performances don’t always have to be perfect. Taylor calls judy’s performances “workshops,” implying that judy brings the performances closer to perfection through testing with the audience members. It takes courage to present something that you know isn’t perfect, and as a classical musician myself, I usually would not take this approach. However, now I feel more compelled than ever to show my imperfection, with the knowledge that I can get better with the help of audience and constructive feedback.

Speaking of audience, Taylor’s performances are full of audience interactions. Audience members can’t sit in their seats without doing something, whether it be manspreading, singing with Taylor and the band, or even sometimes slow-dancing with another audience member. Kids, elderly, moms, and LGBTQ+couples, and everyone in between get pulled to stage. Prepare to be challenged, and be comfortable being yourself.

Taylor Mac performs in Ann Arbor on February 5, 2016.

Interested in more? Explore more photo essays by students embedded with UMS artists.


Tsukumo Niwa is a junior at the University of Michigan, pursuing degrees in Oboe Performance and International Studies. She is an active member of the UMS Student Committee and also sung in the UMS Choral Union.