My first meeting with Machine Dazzle took place at a still-under-construction Curran, on a characteristically foggy July afternoon in 2016. Work for the day had ended several hours earlier; the theater was almost completely dark and eerily quiet, aside from the faint hum of a stereo emanating from somewhere backstage. After following that sound, I discovered the lanky 6’4” costume designer sitting alone in one of the dressing rooms, huddled over his sewing machine as he happily sang along to ’80s pop music.
Machine had flown in from New York the day before, and was now faced with a self-imposed thirty-six-hour deadline to create a dress for my mom, Carole Shorenstein Hays, with the bulk of his materials foraged from the Curran’s remodel-in-progress. In spite of the stringent time frame, Machine appeared unfazed. When cloth bunched up in the sewing machine, he would react with a matter-of-fact shrug, fix it, and then get right back to work.
A few hours later, Machine’s dress would stand as a kind of miracle of transformation. Surgical-looking dust masks became delicate corsages; a faded blueprint was folded into a crisp bow; even the glamorous, ruffled skirt was crafted from a plastic tarp that the construction crew had been using to collect debris.
Machine was kind enough to let me interview him that day, as the dress came together; I spoke to him again more recently, to hear about his experience with the twenty-four hour marathon. Our combined conversation follows. —Gracie Hays
GH: Where are you from originally, and how did you get into designing?
MD: I moved around a lot growing up. I was born in Philadelphia, but I was raised in Texas and Idaho. I've been living in New York since 1994. I'm basically a queer refugee from Middle America. I escaped to New York when I was twenty, and I just never really left. I always wanted to be an artist. I was always pretty creative, but it took me a while to find my path.
GH: How did you learn to sew?
MD: I taught myself how to sew. I've never taken a class in my life.
GH: Was that a difficult thing for you?
MD: No, I just do what I do. I just make things and I love it. I use a sewing machine like a lot of people would use a hammer. I destroy my sewing machines. I was sewing through plastic all day yesterday, thick plastic, like multiple layers at the same time. It’s very unrefined. I mean, I have skills, but I'm a costume designer; I'm not a tailor. I make headpieces, but I'm not a milliner. My costumes are different from anything else you’re going to see, because most costume designers go through a program. They’re taught. They go to fashion school and costume school. And I never did that. I didn’t have the luxury of doing that. I taught myself. I’m more interested in what a costume is about, rather than how it’s made. I don’t need precise lines. I want the story.
GH: Can you tell us how you got the name Machine Dazzle?
MD: It has to do with a group called the Dazzle Dancers, sort of. When I first moved to New York I was doing a lot of clubbing, and everyone was inspired by the way I danced—I was just nonstop. People started calling me the dancing machine, and then it got turned into Machine, because people are lazy. (to sewing machine) Oops, it got caught. Then I joined the Dazzle Dancers, and all the Dazzle Dancers had Dazzle names. There was a Cherry Dazzle, a Pretty Boy Dazzle, Chunky Cupcake Dazzle, Edible Dazzle—and I was already Machine, so it was just easy. I didn’t really get to choose the name, but I liked it. And then, after the Dazzle Dancers stopped dancing, I was stuck—I felt on a professional level that it’d be silly to change the name, so I just stuck with it. I still have it and I'm really proud of it.
There's a story there, though—the Dazzle Dancers were performing a lot during a pretty extreme post-9/11 time in New York, and that’s when we started to get big. The city really needed something—we would cover our bodies in glitter and we always ended up getting naked. I always liked to say the Dazzle Dancers are to parties what Hamburger Helper is to ground beef. We just made it a little more interesting!
GH: Do you think your experience as a performer influenced the way you approach your designs?
MD: Well, I do think it helps to know what it's like to perform in a costume when you're designing one. It gives you a better knowledge of how things move—you know where restriction can happen and where it can’t. With Taylor, you’re like, “Okay, does he want to do high kicks here? Great, that means I can't do this.” Or if he’s a little more still, then that means I can do this. I'll make something and I'll watch him onstage and be like, “You can't—oh no! Don't do that! You're going to kill yourself!” Every night Taylor just likes to surprise me with his moves. He’ll get all rock n’ roll and sometimes—I swear to god—like he’s actually trying to rip the costume. And some times I can allow for that more than others. Some things just rip anyway. I’m very into that, too. Things change. That's the only thing you can really count on in life, you know?
GH: How did you and Taylor meet?
MD: We were both queens on the downtown New York scene. We happened into each other and we just clicked immediately. It's really just that we met each other in the nightlife, doing what we both love to do.
GH: What drew you to the idea of the 24-Decade show?
MD: Well, it's a fascinating project. I do a lot of research when I'm doing a costume—my idea of a period piece is generally not like other people’s. Anyone can research what people were wearing back then, but I like to take a more abstract, organic approach. I'm more interested in rearranging and re-creating. One of the things we do during 24-Decade is retell American history through a gay, queer eye, which is the history that was never told. It just wasn't there. It's not in any of the books. So, we're reimagining that. There are all these creatives in history who might have been looked at as being crazy—there have always been people who think differently, and I feel like I’m representing them. I love the counter-culture: the punks, the DIY people, the people who never really fit into society. I think about that every time I sit down to my sewing machine.
GH: How did you approach the historical research, here?
MD: I researched mostly online, and I also visited a couple museums. I would look at what people were wearing for a start, just to get the general silhouette. I tried to figure out what the trends were—I’m always trying to understand, well, why the bustle? During certain decades when the economy was good, there was this sense of optimism, and the fashions lighten up. One of my favorite things to do during research was to look at inventions of the time. For example, during the Reconstruction era, after the Civil War, the typewriter was invented, so I wound up incorporating that into a really fun costume. I get a lot of comments on that one.
GH: Does Taylor give much input when you're creating your pieces?
MD: No, not really. If he needs the costume to do something he’ll tell me, but usually he doesn’t give me any directions at all besides the subject matter—which is essential. of course. Very rarely has he asked me to change something. If he does, it's because the subject matter changes. For the most part, he'll wear anything. And I've abused him, too. I try not to as much, now, but I've definitely put these impossibly heavy things on his head. I’ve gotten better about that. I'm an audience-oriented designer, is the thing. I love Taylor—don't get me wrong—but I care more about the audience than I do about him when I’m making a costume. The costumes are as much a part of the show as anything else.
To be honest, when I first started, I didn’t really have a full sense of what this performance was. Taylor obviously had a much bigger idea of what it was going to be, but he hadn’t shared everything. He likes to feed people bits and pieces. I think he does that on purpose, so that it’s not so daunting. But we’ve been workshopping this project for over five years now, and I feel like I finally have the language I need to make the costumes, so I’m going back and making changes.
If I change anything major, Taylor just likes to know in advance, because at this point he has real muscle memory on how costumes go on in a hurry, and how they feel, and how that translates. If everything’s new all the time, he kind of starts to forget the words to the songs. If he has no idea what he looks like, he becomes a little lost, so I can only change things so much. I would never totally change a headpiece, now, and if I did it would only be to make it more lightweight, and easier to wear.
The main thing is that I want each decade to be very different. The show is twenty-four hours, and there need to be twenty-four different looks. I can't use the same tricks in all the costumes. It's like, “Oh, shredding fabric? Okay, that can happen once in the twenty-four hours.” I just love shredded fabric, though! (laughs) But every decade should present new material and new inspiration. And it’s still only twenty-four outfits. It could be 124. If I had my way, Taylor would wear three outfits for every decade, and constantly be changing like a crazy person. But maybe that's a little irresponsible. There're more important things going on, in the show. I'm very happy to provide the garnish, though.
GH: What was it like to be a part of that twenty-four-hour-straight show, when it was performed in New York?
MD: I was a bit nervous, because the longest show we had ever done was twelve hours. Taylor, [music director] Matt Ray, and I all got ready in the same dressing room, and we held hands and had a little prayer right before. Then it was time to go and the audience just went crazy. That’s when we knew we were where we wanted to be. There’s nothing better than a great audience that wants you there.
My job during the show was to change Taylor every hour, and I also changed my own costume every hour. I was constantly moving, but I never really got tired. I didn’t really get hungry either. People kept saying, “You’ve gotta eat, you’ve gotta eat,” but I just wasn’t hungry. I did keep drinking water, but I don’t remember going to the bathroom once. Not once. I was very focused. There was nothing more important to me than doing my job during that twenty-four hours.
I can be very modest about it, but I have to say that I was very proud of myself. Oftentimes at the end of a show, I think, “Oh, I could have done that so much better,” or “I could’ve changed this, I could have changed that…” I’m always kind of down on myself. At the twenty-four-hour-show, though, I actually let myself enjoy it, afterward. And that rarely happens.
GH: How do you go about finding your materials?
MD: It varies. I have bought things and I continue to buy things, but I do have a budget. If it's the right thing, then I just do it. I'm inspired equally by garbage, by found objects. I'll just never get over using garbage—it's the best thing ever. And so I find things, people donate things, I purchase things, and it all just comes together. People ask me how I do it and I don't know. The inspiration just comes, and I hope it continues to for the rest of my life. I make relationships with materials. That’s my gift; that’s what I have. I’ll often just lay things on my desk and try to figure out how they’ll come together. The materials themselves start to form a sort of poetry, and then the poem happens.
GH: What were you doing as a day job before you started designing costumes full time?
MD: I was working as a jewelry designer. It was always just a job. I was just there. It was a business and I was being micromanaged, and I'm a big creative person. To sit in that design room being told what to do was like being in a cage, boxed in, and I just couldn't do it anymore. I did it for fifteen years. I put in my time in the full-time day-job situation. Half of the reason I did it was for health insurance. Right now, I don't even have insurance, because I left. 24-Decade is important enough that I really want to give it the attention it deserves, and I just needed a break from the racket. As an artist, it was killing me. I needed something else.
GH: How did you find the time to focus on your own projects, while you were still working that job?
MD: I had the will to do it. (long pause) I had the will to do it. Trust me, I was exhausted. Sleepless nights, lots of Red Bull, caffeine, and just the will to do it. No weekends, because I would always be doing my work on the weekends. My version of the weekend was working on my own thing. But it's still work and it's still exhausting and taxing, and I’d still get anxiety. But at least it was mine.
GH: How do you think your work has changed since you first started out? Is the process at all different?
MD: Surprisingly, the process is remarkably similar. It's more refined. I keep using that word, but it is. Even my punk way of doing things is more refined. (gesturing to sewing machine) Um, did you notice that I'm making roses out of dust masks? This is very typical, very typical of me. I like to do things for a reason. I don't want to just create something. That's another reason why I don't want to just be a commercial designer. I don't want to make something and just have it sit on a rack and wait for someone to buy it. Before I might've just done things for fun or aesthetics or just to see that I could do them, but—(to sewing machine) Oh my god! Look at my rose! I'm so excited! Look at my rose.
Luckily I have Taylor who understands me and is willing to be open. I don't want to change for somebody else. It's important that I am my own artist and that I am my own person with my work. It takes someone really special to hire a costume designer and just let them do whatever they want. A lot of directors have ideas of what they want to do, or they're very strict or they're just not very open-minded, and Taylor is the opposite. I feel like I'm the luckiest costume designer, to work with somebody like that.
I'm writing this down, sorry—More dust masks, because five only made two and a half roses.
GH: The piece you’re making right now, what’s it going to be?
MD: It's going to be kind of like this amazing, crazy corsage kind of thing. But it's asymmetrical. I'm basically creating a bunch of different pieces, and by tomorrow morning we'll figure out how they all go together. I'm going to make different headpieces, different dresses and outfits and crazy things—I just want to be prepared for anything, depending on the lighting, the mood. Maybe I'll want to make this into a headpiece or maybe it'll look too silly or maybe we should have something that's funny. I love a sense of humor, but then I also have a belt that's not really the same color, but whatever. I’ve made things mostly out of construction materials and what was lying around. There's an old curtain, an old cushion, and I found this old usher jacket that I made a vest out of.
GH: Talk about some of the materials that you’re using.
MD: Some of the construction materials were aside for me. I was like, Ooh, this is good. They're using this teal duct tape! I’m also using some old blueprints that they were going to throw away. These were construction vests that they had some employees wearing. Everything has a reason.
I saw some pictures of the theater under construction, and I was like (gasps). I immediately started seeing things that I wanted to use. Some of them are impossible, like I made a skirt that I can barely lift. So Carole probably will have to stand there, and I'll put it on her. It’s so heavy that she’ll probably only really be able to stand and maybe walk a little. But you know it's about an image. There's a lot of fantasy in it. So, all I really needed to see was the theater with scaffolding everywhere. Imagining the possibilities is the theme, so I'm just using stuff that was literally lying around. The only things I bought were practical things. I just wanted to create fantasy within the realm of possibilities.
GH: How do you feel about 24-Decade History coming to the Curran?
MD: I’m so excited, because the Curran is my favorite theater in the world. The audience here will be the first ones to see all the new changes we’ve made, since that New York performance. We’re still working on what the show is going to look like, in San Francisco. It’s all still experimental. It's still a radical show. And even at six hours it's still durational, still very much a commitment. That’s longer than most operas.
Taylor Mac brings A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC to the Curran for four performances only, starting Sept. 15. Buy tickets here.