I Love My Job: Martha Graham Cracker

Fresh off a five month Vegas gig, the Philly drag queen is back with a big show at the TLA this weekend.

Philadelphia drag queen Martha Graham Cracker. (Photo by Michael DeMirjian)

This weekend, prominent Philadelphia drag queen Martha Graham Cracker, whom you might remember from this 2014 feature we did in the magazine, celebrates 13 years in Philly with a blowout at the TLA.

We caught up with Dito van Reigersberg, the man under the Martha Graham Cracker wig and co-founder of Pig Iron Theatre Company, who just came back from a five-month stint at the Cosmopolitan casino in Las Vegas. It should be noted that his band, The Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret, was co-founded by Philly Mag writer Victor Fiorillo, who still plays keys for the diva in question.

My full name is… Fernando Steven van Reigersberg. But because my father is Fernando, I am Fernandito, which then got shortened to Dito. My mother is Stephanie, and my middle name comes from her.

I was raised in… Virginia. Outside of D.C. I came to Philly because I went to college at Swarthmore. Then I moved to New York, and then the theater company I was co-founding, Pig Iron, was starting and we were deciding where to put down roots. Philly seemed like the right place.

Martha Graham Cracker dancing with Pennsylvania State Representative Brian Sims.

If I were invited to be on RuPaul’s Drag RaceI would probably be at a disadvantage. I’m a singing drag queen, and I don’t think that happens much on that show. And I’m also not very crafty. A lot of their talents are making stuff. Can you make a gown out of these fish hooks and this tire? No, I cannot.

During the first drag show I did as Martha… I put on my makeup badly. I didn’t brush out my wig. These days, I look a lot better, because Max Brown is my stylist. She’s a doctor of archaeology but also my stylist, a good designer and a wicked sewing machine user.

Most of our song arrangements come from… how great my band is. The answer is complicated. Sometimes we’re rehearsing, and somebody will yell out, Oh, we can mash that song up with this one. Sometimes, I’ll have an idea and call my bass player, Andrew Nelson, and he’ll put an arrangement together. Sometimes, Victor will say that he’s been plunking on the piano and let’s make this Madonna song real sad, sometimes my guitar player Rich Hill comes up with great arrangements on the fly, and my drummer Ned Sonstein always keeps things lively and has a weird savant-like ability to tell you exactly how something sounded on an album.

The artist we cover the most is… Prince.

The type of drag I do is known as… monster drag. As opposed to illusion drag. I’m really having fun being playful with the gender signifiers and the way I am speaking and behaving. I’m being as feminine as possible trying to seduce someone while also telling them to touch my shoulder hair. I like confusing people.

Martha Graham Cracker on stage at L’Etage.

The Philly stage that feels most at home to me is… L’Etage, where Victor and I started this 13 years ago. I know that room so well. It’s intimate.

If you ask me to recite part of a poem for you right now, I will respond with…

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; —
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.

That’s Wordsworth.

I came out… kind of slowly. My mom has said that they knew when I was pretty young that I was gay. But I didn’t really come out until college.

My boyfriend is… an amazing choreographer named Matthew Neenan. He founded Ballet X and now he’s choreographing all over the country. He just got a commission from the New York City ballet! His career is crazy and crazy exciting, and if he weren’t my boyfriend, I’d still be a huge fan.

The best part about performing is… when there’s a kind of feeling where the band is together and I’m singing and the audience is into it… I feel like I’m flying.

The worst part of performing is… the waiting. You get there, you do all this prep, and you have two hours to kill before the show. Waiting. Just waiting.

I’m inspired by performers who… hold nothing back.

The most touching thing anyone has ever said to me about my work as Martha is… I had such a horrible week and I came to your show and laughed for two hours straight. Thank you for reminding me that life can be joyful. But they don’t say that all the time. Sometimes they tell me I’m too loud.

The biggest difference between Philly and Vegas is… the way people dress. Philly is a place of realness and Vegas is a place of fantasies. People dress more impressively in Vegas partly because they’re trying to fulfill the fantasy that they’re trying to live out for the two to three days that they’re there.

My biggest dream for Martha is… to record an album, but my fear would be that no one would feel the need to see us live. But nowadays live experience is unsurpassable. We spend so much time on the Internet alone and only connecting with each other virtually. The more everyone has an iPhone, the more important it is for people to have live experiences of community and being together. The messy experience of live performance reminds us that we’re part of something larger. It’s a kind of church, a kind of communion.

The worst gig I’ve had as Martha was… ten years ago at Wharton. It was a bunch of Wharton students who only wanted to talk to each other. They didn’t want to engage with me in any way. They were like, Who is this annoying person? It felt a little like we were unwanted, so it was the longest hour of performing I’ve ever done. That was a rough one. If you’re an audience-interactive performer, and start to feel like you’re losing them, you feel like the show is going to die if you don’t do something drastic to save it. My worst nightmare is not being able to connect with my audience.