Entertainment » Theatre

All She's Cracked Up to Be :: Dito van Reigersberg Talks Martha Graham Cracker

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Oct 2, 2019
Martha Graham Cracker heads to Club Oberon Oct. 3 and 4
Martha Graham Cracker heads to Club Oberon Oct. 3 and 4  (Source:American Repertory Theater)

Martha Graham Cracker has been regaling audiences with her cabaret shows for nearly a decade and a half, during which time drag has grown into a cultural and entertainment juggernaut. But drag's success has not left Martha Graham Cracker - or the performer who brings her to life, Dito van Reigersberg - behind. Still at the art form's leading edge, entertaining crowds with musical mashups and innovative arrangements of popular songs, Martha Graham Cracker is set to bring a little light (and a whole lot of musical joy) to the American Repertory Theater's Club Oberon at Harvard Square for two nights only, Oct. 3 and 4, as part of the Afterglow at Oberon series.

Dito van Reigersberg chatted with EDGE recently, answering questions about his fabulous alter-ego, his theatrical career, and the art of drag.

EDGE: Tell me a bit about Martha Graham Cracker — is she a persona who comes out to play when you step back and give her the reins? Or would you say she's a persona who appears as the makeup, wig, and wardrobe come together?

Dito van Reigersberg: Martha is a bit of everything: A possession of my body by my late grandmother, an imitation of Norma Desmond, a circus clown, a scholar, an aspiring teacher, a gadfly, a terrible gymnast and a flirt. She is tall and hairy and loud and outspoken. She wants everyone to play. She wants everyone to feel the throb of rock and roll. She wants everyone to think: I knew that song before, and at first, I didn't recognize it when she started singing, but now I really can hear the words and it means something new to me now. She wants everyone to feel the thrill and sweat of us all being our messy selves in a room together and then to leave with a huge grin on our faces.

EDGE: I think you said that what you're doing as Martha Graham Cracker is "monster drag" — what does that mean?

Dito van Reigersberg: I am sure that there is a more elegant way of talking about the various types of drag, but I guess I learned a while back that I am a "monster drag queen" as opposed to an "illusion" or "realness" drag queen. In other words, the presentation of Martha is not entirely convincingly feminine, what with her hairy chest and legs and shoulders. But I do wear a full face of makeup and a wig, so I guess I like flaunting both extremes of feminine and masculine at the same time, to delightfully confuse the onlooker.

Certainly Martha sees herself as every inch a lady.

EDGE: Drag is huge right now, in terms of theater and even televised entertainment. It's become a phenomenon! To what do you attribute this?

Dito van Reigersberg: Drag does seem to be growing at an incredible rate. I do think drag and gender play has always been part of the DNA of cabaret and burlesque performance, but somehow Rupaul has made drag unavoidable, part of the national conscience, part of our pop culture. Which of course is a curse and blessing, since the explosive growth of drag allows some drag artists to really make a living in the medium or become household names, while it also may dumb down or water down or make basic something that needs a live audience to really thrive.

We are also in a time of a real explosion of understanding about the gradations of gender - non-binary, trans, etcetera - so it makes sense that drag has blossomed even more as these questions of gender are more in the forefront of our minds.

EDGE: What does drag do for us as a culture that other forms of creative expressions might not?

Dito van Reigersberg: Like anything, there's good and bad drag. But the best drag artists that I see - Joey Arias, Dina Martina, Christeeene, Taylor Mac, Jomama Jones - aren't just parading around the stage in a dress, they are living and breathing and questioning and teaching and pulling the rug out and philosophizing and breaking convention and sidestepping expectation.

Drag sometimes comes to us on TV, sure, but for me, it can only truly be experienced live. And that kind of live experience that happens in the cabaret with all of us together is a real antidote to our lonely iPhone echo chamber lives. It's so exciting to be surprised, and the best live drag does that in such an unbelievable way.

EDGE: You worked in Philadelphia for years, because you were there with an interdisciplinary theater company, Pig Iron Theatre Company, which you co-founded. You're still with Pig Iron — how much of your time do you spend doing work with them, as opposed to touring with your band?

Dito van Reigersberg: It's true. I co-founded the company in 1995 and I still make work with the company, but I no longer am an artistic director. In fact, they gave me the title Artistic Director Emeritus! Which I thought sounded pretty fancy.

I probably divide my time pretty equally between Martha and Pig Iron now. And I also sometimes work as an actor in theatre in NYC and Philly.

About two years ago I even created an original performance for Martha with 11 original songs called "Lashed but Not Leashed." It has songs in almost every style, from country folk to rock anthem to disco to jazz standard, and it tells the story of Martha's desire to quit show biz and become a librarian. Which sounds like a romp and a joke, which it is a little, but it's also a kind of serious. It's kind of political in a way: A reminder of our duty to ourselves and to each other to self-educate in the face of utter ignorance and rampant hypocrisy.

EDGE: You also did a long stint of about half a year in Vegas a year or so ago. Was that as much fun as it sounds?

Dito van Reigersberg: It was wild and crazy as you might expect. And a little grueling, ten shows a week! I did a show called "Opium," an '80s sci-fi/space-themed cabaret that is still running at the Cosmopolitan. And I got a new name: Dusty Moonboots. I loved singing to a different crowd every night, it was kind of amazing how much turnover there is in that strange jewel of a town. It means the performers are one of the only real constants in terms of the population there, and so I really bonded with the totally amazing family-like performer community in Vegas.

EDGE: You have toured around the country and to Europe, and now you are coming to the A.R.T. for two nights. Are you looking forward to Boston?

Dito van Reigersberg: Yes! I have done four stints in Ptown as part of the afterglow fest. And I love the Boston crowds. They are as erudite as they come, but they also like blowing off steam.

EDGE: The two nights you'll be performing are going to be totally different from each other. Does that mean you have a setlist and everything already worked out for two extravaganzas? (And why not — it is the American Repertory Theater, after all!) Or are your shows always different because each performance is unique?

Dito van Reigersberg: Every show is unique, that's for sure.

Yes, the setlists for our shows are always planned from top to bottom! Which doesn't mean we can't change course between now and then. But we usually commit to a roadmap and stick to it. I have this killer band, and I like to stump them every so often by just starting to sing something random that comes up during the show. But mostly we have all these crazy arrangements and we like wowing the audience with our music. The music is pretty precise and in all kinds of meters and styles and feels - my god, the band is tight! an audience member once exclaimed - and what is loose are my lips. I am freefalling between songs, that's for sure. No two freefalls are ever the same.

EDGE: These are tough times right now for LGTBQ people, minorities of all kinds, creative types, people with a deep sense of empathy... is a little fierce female energy what we need right now? Is that what you're bringing us?

Dito van Reigersberg: Oh man, it's rough out there right now. When a certain person took office 3.5 years ago, I was so worried about the tone that would be set, the kind of behavior that would be modeled by the man at the top. I think my fears were justified. We need female energy more than ever, for sure, and we all could use a reminder that being vulnerable, being playful, being free - they're all virtues and survival skills.

The Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret performs at the A.R.T.'s Club Oberon in Harvard Square October 3 and 4, 2019. For tickets and more information, click here.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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