Dito van Reigersberg shaved.
In any other city, that probably wouldn’t mean a damn thing. But here in Philly, where “Martha Graham Cracker” (van Reigersberg’s drag alter ego) is king, er, queen, it’s big news.
For the past 11 years, van Reigersberg has been inextricably tied to the Martha character and live performance cabaret he created. But now, it’s a new wig and another woman’s stilettos to join the cast of The Legend of Miss Georgia McBride, which opened Oct. 13 at the Arden Theater and runs through Nov. 27.
Much of Philly knows van Reigersberg as the oversized and unshaven Martha Graham, belting out new arrangements of familiar songs with her backup band of Philly notables at L’Etage. So this creative leap into the arms (and legs) of a different woman—one Miss Tracy Mills to be exact—has been an adventure for the co-founder of the Pig Iron Theater Company in Northern Liberties.
The Legend of Miss Georgia McBride finds van Reigersberg playing a role that can’t be too far afield for him—veteran queen. His character, Mills, takes a young Elvis impersonator, Casey (played by actor Matteo Scammell) under her sequined wings when in a pinch, Casey needs to try out drag to save his place in a nightclub’s performance rotation. Hilarity, angst, gender confusion, and exploration of what it truly means to be a drag queen ensues, along with some very fabulously elaborate costume performances.
The story premiered in 2014 in New York, right around the same time van Reigersberg had heard about the Matthew Lopez play and thought it sounded fun. Terry Nolen, the artistic producing director at the Arden thought van Reigersberg would be perfect for the role and approached him to ask him to take on the character. With Emmanuelle Delpech directing, a veteran of van Reigersberg’s Pig Iron Theatre, the answer seemed obvious.
“There are some differences in the characters,” said van Reigersberg, the morning after one of their first performances, “but I like to think of Tracy as Martha’s southern cousin. There’s a line I say [in the play] about being afraid I’ll have to work at Walmart, so there’s a little more desperation than we’re used to seeing with Martha; [definitely] a little more at stake for this character.”
Beyond the emotional differences in these two characters, van Reigersberg also had to adjust to the physical challenges that come along with playing Mills, with this being the first drag role van Reigersberg has shaved for in many years.
“With Martha there’s confusion, the audience loves Martha for being hairy and being a fail for a woman,” van Reigersberg said. “Here, you have to keep that illusion or lose some of the character.” He then described a time when, as Martha, he had the audience assist him in hooking on straps that went shooting into the crowd. They’ll be none of that (hopefully) for Tracy Mills. “Martha can absorb accidents, here things need to be precise.”
When van Reigersberg’s wig went flying off during one dress rehearsal in Georgia McBride it was met with significant audience laughter and trademark Martha improv, so who’s to say how bad this worst case scenario would be?
Although the dresses, makeup and heels might look glamorous from the audience view, all that fabulousness comes at a stress-producing price. There’s one point where van Reigersberg is out of drag, playing Mills’ character out of costume. That scene of just a few minutes requires van Reigersberg to get out of costume completely—and then—get back into full drag just as quickly, for a subsequent scene.
“It’s a little tricky. The clock is merciless, it keeps ticking,” van Reigersberg explained. “You might be freaking out and racing backstage, but you can’t take that energy onto the stage.”
And then there’s the heat which van Reigersberg compares the feat to that of a swan—above water, floating gracefully on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath.
And then there’s the lip syncing, something that isn’t in the Martha Graham Cracker playbook. “It’s vocally relaxing, but you have to do other things, you have to sell the art, you have to make sure you create the illusion for the audience so that they fully believe the music is coming from my mouth,” he explained.
For the veteran song and dance man, the switch is a fun nod back to his youth. “It’s a strange release that connects me back to my really young self,” said van Reigersberg. “Like a lot of young gay boys, I was lip syncing in my bedroom and in my fantasy, I was that singer.”
For van Reigersberg, this role conjured up memories of the first time he ever dressed as a woman.
“It was in my apartment in New York, I thought I should give it a try. I was with a few friends, we shaved my body and they combed down my hair because we didn’t have a wig,” he explained. “I remember feeling so excited, but also fear about stepping outside of my door. Until you put on clothes of the opposite gender, you don’t realize the taboo; clothes seem so insignificant but it feels risky even though we live in a relatively free society and it’s been going on for centuries.”
However, after living as Martha for over a decade now, transition on many facets has become a familiar part of van Reigersberg’s life and while similar, there is a way that playing Tracy Mills has been a welcome break from the norm. When asked van Reigersberg noted that playing Mills has also helped renewed the other person that lives inside of him.
And perhaps this is way van Reigersberg has become—and not quietly in the least—Philly’s most beloved drag queen, though by listing this city’s scene and a whole ecosystem of performers, he’d never lay claim to the title.
“It’s taken me to places I never thought I would be,” said van Reigersberg. “Like the Mayor’s Reception room, I mean seriously? When I was performing as a kid in my mom’s makeup I never thought my band and I would end up there.”
This is not only an art form van Reigersberg hopes to teach, but a transformation process he hopes to inspire. You simply don’t just put on a dress and become a drag queen explained van Reigersberg, it’s something that has to come from within.
“There is drag that can be offensive, when being in drag is the only punchline, that’s not for me,” said van Reigersberg. “[Like] the football player that gets pushed out into the crowd in a dress, like how humiliating to be dressed like a woman? There’s no sense of humanity, of trying to become this other person.”
But when done right, drag can be an empowering transformation.
“It’s strange but you become more powerful, I may be this humble, quiet man, but I can have this intense change and this feminine energy can allow me to run the room. There’s power in Martha [and Tracy Mills] and the more [both of them], the more I absorb some of that for myself too.”