Taylor Mac explores Walt Whitman’s queer identity in new film

Taylor Mac explores Walt Whitman’s queer identity in new film

Taylor Mac, ALL ARTS’ first artist-in-residence, presents “Whitman in the Woods.”

Walt Whitman as the “turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding” bard in his book of poetry “Leaves of Grass” comes to life through a fantastical drag performance in Taylor Mac’s “Whitman in the Woods.

Imagined as an exploration of the poet’s queer identity, “Whitman in the Woods.” begins its roll-out on ALL ARTS April 4 with a slate of short films that will be streamed on YouTube and Facebook, with the series culminating in the release of a full-length film on the ALL ARTS broadcast channel, website and streaming app May 2 at 10 p.m. Eastern.

[How to watch ALL ARTS, wherever you may stream.]

“Whitman in the Woods.” marks the debut of Mac’s project as the first ALL ARTS artist-in-residence. To encourage full creative freedom of expression, ALL ARTS tasked the veteran theater artist with creating video content for the ALL ARTS platforms, but no other parameters were given. In the resulting film, Mac performs favorite poems by Whitman in glamorous drag costumes and makeup outside in nature. The performance brings a lighter, more comedic and directly queer lens to the 19th-century poet’s work than is often seen.

Taylor Mac stands next to a tree in a still from the film "Whitman in the Woods."
Taylor Mac in “Whitman in the Woods.”

“Like many others, my introduction to Whitman happened indoors and through an academic, humorless and heterosexual lens,” Mac said. “Whitman was so clearly in love with the outside world and with men, and he had a unique sense of humor. This is our way of finding the fairy in Whitman, by which I mean, the queer and the wood spirit. I sing America indeed.”

To realize this vision of the poet, Mac collaborated with director and cinematographer Noah Greenberg, who makes his directorial debut with “Whitman in the Woods.”

“It was important to find a way to let both Whitman and Taylor breathe,” Greenberg said. “I wanted to develop a visual language that complemented and unified Whitman’s words and Taylor’s unique and brilliant performance. I had a careful plan for how to film each poem and a loose idea of how they would all fit together in a larger film, but mostly, I wanted to give Taylor room to improvise and play — to make room for both of us to discover something new together.”

Taylor Mac in "Whitman in the Woods."
Taylor Mac in “Whitman in the Woods.”

Produced with Pomegranate Arts, “Whitman in the Woods.” was filmed in Clarence Fahnestock State Park, Glynwood Center for Regional Food, and Farming and Saunders Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley in July 2020. The work features poems drawn from the collection “Leaves of Grass,” including Whitman’s “Native Moments” (interpreted three ways), “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” “To A Stranger” and section XXIV of “Song of Myself.” Mac’s drag wardrobe and makeup are inspired by the woodland surroundings of the Lower Hudson Valley, with costume designer Machine Dazzle and makeup designer Anastasia Durasova incorporating local ferns, pinecones, snake skins and other natural elements found on set.

Below is the full multi-media schedule for our YouTube and Facebook releases. Check back here for more updates as the project rolls out on the site.

You can catch all the films on the ALL ARTS YouTube, Facebook, website and streaming app.

April 4 to 8

“Native Moments”

Taylor Mac performs the first of three interpretations of Walt Whitman’s “Native Moments.” Costume designer Machine Dazzle and makeup designer Anastasia Durasova created looks inspired by the woodland surroundings of the Lower Hudson Valley. Stream the explorations on the ALL ARTS YouTube and Facebook.

April 4: “Native Moments 1”

April 6: “Native Moments 2”

April 8: “Native Moments 3”


April 9

Taylor Mac Discusses “Whitman in the Woods.”

Taylor Mac shares what drew the artist-in-residence to the poems of Walt Whitman and the decision to perform the works in nature and drag.


April 11

“To a Stranger”

Taylor Mac performs Walt Whitman’s “To a Stranger,” a poem that imagines a shared history with a passerby.


April 18

“When I Heard at the Close of the Day”

Taylor Mac performs Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” a poem that moves from sadness to happiness.


April 25

XXIV of “Song of Myself”

Taylor Mac performs the XXIV poem in “Song of Myself.”


May 2

“Whitman in the Woods.”

A compilation of Walt Whitman poems performed by Taylor Mac in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Top Image: Taylor Mac in "Whitman in the Woods."