Miss Tracy Mills

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.”

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