In the play, Gary gives a beautiful speech about noticing the sky for the first time in his life — he wonders not so much at the sky but at his own capacity for wonder. Its simplicity is arresting amid all the gore, like a breeze blowing through the morgue.
“When you don’t see maximalism,” Mac continued, “I just always feel like you’re not really giving it all to me. You’re hiding. You’re hiding from me! Because I know there’s craze in your life. It drives me crazy in the theater because — ” Mac was animated again. “You go to the theater to see a part of yourself you haven’t seen before.”
Mac was reticent when I asked him about his early life, hesitant to put forward the story of a queer kid who overcomes obstacles, because “we’ve heard that five million times!” It is what happened to him, but he was much more interested in talking about ideas, his work, how he “found my way to love.” He was brought up by his mother, an art teacher (his father died when he was 4). She was complex and contradictory — encouraging his creativity and squashing it. He described her as loving, but “she didn’t always understand what that meant. She had a sentimental concept of love.” She found his gayness terrifying. They lived in Stockton, a conservative, conformist place, and Mac stood out for being theatrical and effeminate. It was the ’80s, a time when “queerness was a national conversation because of AIDS, but a negative national conversation. So it was really present in the consciousness of a lot of people, but not in a nice way.”
When he was 9, Mac got involved in the local children’s theater run by a man who had attended Juilliard and was a dynamo and a sophisticate. There he met his three best friends — Marcy, Kat and John, all of whom were queer but not yet out — and they became his chosen family. If his home life was repressive, the world he created with them was openhearted, intellectually curious and supportive. They are still close.
In 1987, when he was 14, he and Marcy went to San Francisco to attend the AIDS Walk. It was only an hour and a half’s drive from Stockton but felt like a world apart. Seeing thousands of gay people marching in the street was thrilling. “I’d never seen an out homosexual before,” Mac told me. “I hadn’t seen them on TV. I hadn’t seen them in movies. I never met one.” He was overjoyed, but the scene was also devastating. Amid the displays of celebration and pride were hundreds of people dying of AIDS, their partners and friends pushing them in wheelchairs. “It was ironically more beautiful than anything I’d ever encountered,” Mac said, “because I knew that my family wasn’t going to rally around me if I was ever dying of AIDS. I mean, my sister would, but my extended family wasn’t going to be pushing me in a wheelchair, fighting for my rights. They just would have been ashamed.” It was his first experience of what he called “real love, not the pretend love that family often claims.” It also introduced Mac to an idea that would become a fulcrum of his work: using your brokenness to build.
All through high school, he and Marcy would drive to San Francisco, sometimes just to walk around for a few hours. They weren’t able to articulate it at the time, but they longed to be among other gay people, to see a possible future for themselves.
He eventually made it out of Stockton, to San Francisco, and a few years later to New York City, where he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Students were given free tickets to the theater, and Mac went to shows at least four nights a week, seeing everything from lavish Broadway productions to obscure basement experiments. But there was one show he returned to more than 40 times: Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s “Fool Moon,” a series of clowning vignettes. Mac was particularly fixated on one bit when Shiner called up several audience members to participate in the making of a silent film. Two people would play a pair of lovers, another a murderous, jilted husband, and Shiner would direct them in a scene. Seeing this night after night, Mac noticed that Shiner had developed “a Rolodex of possibilities” — dozens of strategies for handling the people he invited onstage, depending on their reactions. It was improvisation guided by mastery. “And what I noticed about the audience was that even the smell in the room would get different,” Mac said. “When he would call the people up onstage, everyone would lean forward, and people would start to get nervous in the room for the people on the stage. And I thought, That’s super fascinating.”