Life's a Drag

Dito van Reigersberg's cabaret homecoming at GALA Hispanic Theatre

Photography by Todd Franson
December 3, 2008

Dito van Reigersberg has made a name for himself in Philadelphia, a founder of that city’s Pig Iron Theatre Company. Pig Iron performances have earned the company an Obie Award and countless Barrymore Awards from Philadelphia’s Theatre Alliance.

Then there is van Reigersberg’s own Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret, named for his cheeky tribute to the maven of American dance, the late Martha Graham, at whose school he once studied. That show, recurring monthly, won ”Best Drag Act 2006,” as voted by readers of Philadelphia’s City Paper.

But before he was the toast of Philly, van Reigersberg was a D.C.-area denizen. Next week, he’ll return to those roots, taking the stage at GALA Hispanic Theatre. This won’t be an encore of Pig Iron’s acclaimed Poet in New York, about gay Spanish poet Frederic Garcia Lorca who was killed in the Spanish Civil War and which put van Reigersberg onstage at D.C. Warehouse Theater a few years ago. Instead, he brings us Martha. And if Philadelphia audiences are to be believed, we’re lucky to have her.

METRO WEEKLY: You have a fairly exotic name, like a remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Are you, by chance, a duke? A baron?

DITO VAN REIGERSBERG: [Laughs.] I would say a baron. My family is a very strange cluster, very American. There’s some Dutch in there. That’s where the last name comes from. Some Spanish. My mom is this strange mixture of Polish and Russian, but from Missouri. It’s a very strange family that I belong to, but a lovely one. People always think my mom is Spanish and my dad is Dutch. It’s all from my dad’s side, the Spanish and Dutch. My mom has some other crazy stuff.

MW: And the Spanish side got you involved with GALA?

VAN REIGERSBERG: Yes, because my parents are both interpreters. I grew up speaking Spanish with them and I went to GALA shows when I was a little kid. My dad was on the board of GALA for a little bit. I think I even took an acting workshop there when I was a little kid. I was already sort of into the acting thing, but it was the first time I was acting in Spanish. I remember it being very scary, very terrifying that I had to focus on both of those things at the same time. Then I went on to devote myself to the theater, and I’ve always sort of kept in touch with GALA. It sounds like they’re just doing amazingly well — and the space is incredible.

MW: While your Martha Graham Cracker has a reputation, so does your height. Just how tall are you, barefoot and in heels?

VAN REIGERSBERG: Barefoot, I am 6 feet, 2 inches. When I put on my platforms, I’m 6 feet, 7 inches. It’s kind of like interacting with a giant. People say they have to really crane their necks.

MW: That’s a lot of body to choreograph, but you’ve won accolades and awards. How much movement is there in this cabaret?

VAN REIGERSBERG: I like to fool everyone and make them think I’ve choreographed whole numbers. But it’s really much more interactive. It’s really about moving with the songs. There’s not really set choreography. It’s much more improvised. But every once in a while I’ll throw in a little Martha Graham tribute, because I studied at the Graham School — a little contraction or a little spiral to the floor. But the songs come first. I move according to how the song makes me move, or according to how the costume makes me move.

MW: When it comes to stage work, do you prefer the dancing? Or maybe the singing? Plate-spinning?

VAN REIGERSBERG: [Laughs.] What do I love to do most? I love acting, singing, dancing — all of it. Plate-spinning I’ve never tried. My first love is singing, actually. When I was a kid I would sing for hours, and I wouldn’t even realize I was singing. That went on into my teens. People would be like, ”Do you remember what you were singing in the shower?” ”No. I have no recollection whatsoever.” It was just sort of like second nature. It’s something that feels very ingrained in me, very much a part of who I am.

MW: It’s not the same with dance?

VAN REIGERSBERG: Dance was a later labor of love. I think dance is also something I love a lot, but is not something that was as ingrained from as early on.

MW: With a song in your heart and a tap in your toes, you really don’t come across as a ”tortured artist.”

VAN REIGERSBERG: No, I would not call myself a tortured artist. It’s weird. People have said, ”It’s almost unfair how clear you’ve been, almost from ‘moment one.”’ Really, from junior high or high school on, I was like, ”I know what I need to do. I’m slowly building up all these skills so that I know better how to do what I already love to do: performing, acting, singing and movement.”

It’s always been like a slow, steady climb. In that way, perhaps it’s a little boring. But the Martha [character] was born a little late in that whole process. Maybe that was my weird way of busting out and doing something more unexpected, less on the path I was predictably walking.

MW: Your penchant for singing absent-mindedly leads me to believe that, unlike some artists, you would perform even if there was no audience.

VAN REIGERSBERG: [Laughs.] I don’t know about that. I get a lot of energy from [an audience]. Hopefully you’ll see that when you see Martha. There’s a lot of stuff that happens between the audience and me that is sort of the fuel of how she works. Maybe I would sing by myself somewhere in a corner, but when it comes to dressing up in ridiculous clothes and being a total clown, I think that requires an audience.

MW: Aside from being a ”total clown,” you must be offering this cabaret as a sort of homage. You obviously respect Martha Graham’s work.

VAN REIGERSBERG: I do, I do. I have a lot of respect for her. She created her own technique. People don’t even realize she was a pioneer. People compare her to Picasso in art and Stravinsky in music. She really did this revolutionary new thing that people almost didn’t know what to do with when they first saw it. They didn’t understand what they were seeing, but she just plugged away. She was this incredibly intelligent, passionate and tragic figure.

MW: You studied with her?

VAN REIGERSBERG: I studied at the school, but at that point she had already died. I studied with a lot of people who had studied with her. They would tell me incredible stories about how fantastic she could be, and how mean she could be, how brilliant she was.

There was always something tragic about her. She almost found the perfect love: the first man to join her company, Erick Hawkins, this beautiful, beautiful man. He didn’t love her the way she loved him. In the end, they split. I feel like she took on this nun-like existence after that: ”It’s either Erick or nothing!”

It was so complicated, so difficult. She created this world of her dance company, and then she had to live with the consequences of what she had made. And she was an alcoholic. There are a lot of tragic parts to her story.

MW: Are there any tragic parts to your story?

VAN REIGERSBERG: Not particularly, no. I’m either a very happy person, or I enjoy making other people happy even if I’m not happy. That clown aspect runs through everything. I’m the kind of person who wants everyone to be happy. Even if things aren’t going well, my first instinct is to bring out the clown and try to make everyone laugh.

Maybe [my tragedy is] that I came out quite late? I was sort of undecided for a while and didn’t really know what I was going to do about these latent feelings that I had. I went through the bisexual period. For some people the bisexual period is a real period, and for some it’s a gateway drug to gayness. It was definitely that for me. That period of indecision and confusion, not knowing what I wanted in my life, having no clear models for what my life could be.

It was from high school all the way into college and beyond. In acting school, after college, that was really when I came out fully and completely. But it took a lot of examination and tiptoeing before that happened.

MW: With that timeframe in mind, I must ask the rude question: How old are you?

VAN REIGERSBERG: I just turned 36. That’s not so rude. Asking Martha, that would be rude. [Laughs.] And she would never tell you.

MW: But you completed the process, and you’re now completely immersed in gaiety?

VAN REIGERSBERG: Pretty much. I live with my boyfriend in Philadelphia. Everyone knows that I’m gay. It’s really not a big issue in my life, except that there are still struggles. Not particularly for me, but in changes I’m interested in making in the world, [like being able] to be a gay man walking down the street holding hands with another gay man, and nothing awful is going to happen to you. I would love to change that about the world, but that’s a long process.

In terms of my own happiness, I think I feel pretty lucky. I’m also surrounded by a bunch of artists. We have a great artistic community in Philadelphia. There’s a lot of support and understanding, whereas if I was an investment broker, I might feel differently.

I don’t know what it is. Maybe I just have some chemical in my body that makes me happy all the time. As tacky as this may sound, acting is a gift. No matter how hard your life is, no matter if you don’t feel up to it that day, or whatever, there’s change happening that’s larger than you are and you are just a conduit for it. Martha Graham has this quote about being a conduit for your work and that you’re not supposed to judge your work, you’re just supposed to do it. ”Otherwise the world will not have it!” It’s sort of a cross between pretentious and true.

Anyway, the reason I think Martha Graham Cracker has become this thing I’ve really gotten into, that has become a really important part of my life in Philadelphia is this sharing. It’s me and the audience in cahoots together, laughing together. I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures, but I’m not a perfect woman. [Laughs.] I have a hairy chest. Sometimes some shoulder hair is sprouting out the side.

MW: The illusion is not complete, I’ll grant you that.

VAN REIGERSBERG: The illusion is not complete. That’s part of her charm, that she’s a little bit imperfect. Even her rapport with the band is a little bit imperfect and not helping her, actually, but holding her back.

MW: What else can you tell me about the show?

VAN REIGERSBERG: The character is ”Martha Graham Cracker” and the show is The Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret. There are a lot of variables. Basically, when the curtain comes up, there will be a giant, imperfect drag queen standing before you. She will probably begin with some rude patter, or she may launch right away into a song — and you may be surprised by her incredible, incredible voice. [Laughs.] Then she will slowly, but surely, over the course of the evening, through song and patter, wink and nudge, have the entire audience in her arms. Somehow, some way, she will get them all into her embrace. There are times when she does mirror the original Martha Graham. She has moments of deep tragedy that she expresses. She has moments of intense joy, moments or real humanity where she lets her guard down. And she has moments of real hauteur. That’s the word I want to use: ”hauteur.” She’s always trying to learn about the audience, and teach some ridiculous lesson along the way.

MW: What do people need to know about the actual Martha Graham before they see your show?

VAN REIGERSBERG: Very little. I think they just need to know that she was an intense, slightly alcoholic, self-dramatizing woman.

MW: Beyond the performance, you’re also going to be teaching a class on movement, the ”spatial reading of bodies,” specifically. What does that mean?

VAN REIGERSBERG: I know, it sounds like Braille. This comes more into my expertise not as a drag queen, but as a physical-theater practitioner. My company, Pig Iron [Theatre Company], we’re interested in the body and space and how the body in space makes different meanings. Bodies in space can create different senses of who someone is, or the relationships between people. It’s somewhere in the land between choreography and theater. It’s how bodies in space can tell stories, or physicalize an experience or a journey.

MW: Are you still?

VAN REIGERSBERG: Am I what?

MW: Still. Over the phone, it sounds like you might be in motion.

VAN REIGERSBERG: Oh, I’m moving. Could you tell? I’m pacing, because I cannot stand still for very long. I’m walking the length of my living room, over and over and over again. I feel like I’ve been caught. It’s just me, and the cat watching me pace.

MW: What’s your cat’s name?

VAN REIGERSBERG: Frosty, because he came on the coldest day of the year two years ago. And also because he’s mostly a gray tabby, but he has a little white spot on his nose. He’s incredibly cute. He could be a cat model. He literally came to the back door of the house and did a little scratching on the windowpane. We were like, ”Let’s just let him in for a little bit and feed him something.” The rest is history. But we cut his balls off. He paid the price.[To Frosty.] How do you feel about that, Frosty? He now will not look at me. He’s turned completely away.

MW: Pre-Frosty, let’s return to your GALA-workshop youth. Were you born in D.C.?

VAN REIGERSBERG: I was born in Georgetown University Hospital. I grew up in McLean, Va., of all places. I went to Langley High School, class of ’90. Then I went to Swarthmore College, right outside of Philadelphia. Then I went to acting school in New York. I spent a total of three and a half years in New York.

Pig Iron was at first just a summer gig, but the third year we were together, we were like, ”You know what, Philly has this new Fringe Festival that’s starting, and we get free [theater] space every summer at Swarthmore. Let’s stick around and see if we all like living in Philly.” We knew that New York was going to be rough, so Philly seemed like a cheaper and more practical alternative.

MW: And it’s easier to get scrapple.

VAN REIGERSBERG: Exactly.

MW: Would it be fair to call you a Philadelphia institution?

VAN REIGESRBERG: Hmm? Yeah. [Laughs.] I think that’s true. And Pig Iron is such a strong institution here. We’re now in our 13th year. Thirteen years’ survival in theater is pretty good. I’m known as an entity with Pig Iron, and with Martha Graham Cracker.

MW: How often does Martha Graham Cracker appear in Philadelphia?

VAN REIGERSBERG: Well, there’s a creperie called Beau Monde. Above Beau Monde there’s a bar-slash-cabaret space with a velvet curtain and whatnot that’s called L’Etage. I’m there every second Thursday of the month. Usually we’ll have an opening act and then we’ll perform – it depends on how much I improvise – between an hour and a half and two hours of material between songs and things that come to mind.

There are songs we do quite often, and there are songs we do for each individual cabaret. There’s a lot of sassy talking, either between me and the audience, or between me and the band, or a combination of all of those things. I don’t want to make it seem that everything is improvised. There are set pieces and there are definitely very tight musical arrangements of songs.

MW: And you have a following. I noticed the ”We have a crush on Dito van Reigersberg” page on Facebook.

VAN REIGERSBERG: My evil nemesis-slash-friend, Cybele, started it. It just spread in the way that stupid things on Facebook spread like disease. It mainly makes me embarrassed. I should just say ”thank you,” like my mom taught me to.

MW: Would you ever consider moving back to Washington?

VAN REIGERSBERG: One cannot predict my movements.

MW: Fair enough. Would you like to add anything about the cabaret before I let you go?

VAN REIGERSBERG: I don’t know that I’ve given the clearest picture of what an evening with Martha will be like. Some people have described it as a cross between standup and a rock concert, but I hate standup comedy. How about a cross between something funny and something melodic and beautiful?

People have tried to psychoanalyze me. They say, ”There’s something that comes out of you when you’re Martha.” And I think that’s probably true. Martha definitely has more of a potty mouth. She’s definitely more sexual, and is much more upfront about how sexual she is. I think I do take ”drag liberties,” but hopefully not to the point of abuse. I just try to make everyone feel at home. And then just remind them that they are sexual creatures.

Dito van Reigersberg performs The Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret at 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 12, and Saturday, Dec. 13, at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Tickets are $25 for onstage cabaret seating, $20 for general admission. Call 1-800-494-8497 or visit www.galatheatre.org.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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