Martha Graham Cracker’s Newest Gig: Kimmel Center Leading Lady

Our chat with Martha's alter ego, the fabulous Dito van Reigersberg, on his new show with original music.

Martha Crop

My chat with Dito started a few minutes early because he feared he’d face a long commute going to his gig at People’s Light: It was the day that a man shot at a police offer on 676, and then proceeded to ram his car into a school bus.

“This is why we need art,” I said.

“Exactly,” he replied. “There’s a Leonard Bernstein quote about this.”

I believe I found the quote after a little searching: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Ironically enough, that’s exactly what van Reigersberg will be doing during his new show playing the Kimmel Center’s SEI Studio in December.

It’s called A Drag Queen with a Very Large… Vocabulary, and it’s the product of van Reigersberg’s fellowship with both the Kimmel and Joe’s Pub. It provided him with the opportunity to develop an entirely original series of songs and create a narrative that blurs the line between his drag alter ego, Martha Graham Cracker, and himself. We chatted about about the process of crafting the new work, how the Kimmel supported his vision, and the best kept secret about being an artist in Philadelphia.

How did the synergy between yourself and the Kimmel get started? Basically, the Kimmel and Joe’s Pub joined forces and were able to host three or four New York artists who were regulars at Joe’s Pub, and one Philly based person, and I fit both camps. We had two weeks of free rehearsal time, and got to know each other as people and talked about goals during the time. It was pretty loose. I knew I wanted to write songs, and I didn’t know if they were Martha songs or Dito songs. I got to work with Dave Sweeney, who is a brilliant songwriter, and Vince Federici, a great guitarist, and Eliza Hardy Jones, who has an incredible voice, is a songwriter, and she knows how to play piano. All of those things got me so excited. We essentially assembled a songwriting supergroup.

I wanted it very loosey-goosey: I didn’t want to narrow the perimeters too much, so I sat everyone down asked them what their favorite albums were. Dave said Thriller; Eliza said Blue; Vince said a recording of live music by Jobim. When it got to me, I said, “Well, guys, my favorite album is a random Aretha Franklin one called Hey, Now, Hey: The Other Side of the Sky.” We pretty much ended up writing songs that could be pulled from any of those albums. We wrote eight or nine songs over a week and a half. We sat in a rehearsal studio, a big dressing room with a piano right next to Yannick’s office. I would salivate every time I would walk by!

People really seemed to dig the songs, though. Jay Wahl [the Kimmel Center’s artistic director] asked if I would like to do the show again and add a couple of more. We wrote a few other songs and we’ll sing them all in December. It’s been really fun, and I’ve learned that when you pick good collaborators, you can relax. If you pick the right way, it will happen. These guys are so good, we just need to be in a room together and away we go.

Dito van Reigersberg

Dito van Reigersberg

In what ways was the Kimmel able to support you during this process? It’s just one of those things. You don’t have the money to pay two weeks’ salary to these artists and the space and the piano. It was all right there. It was a lovely gift to have that time. We were able to hand-pick artists and they’ve been paid. It was really a gift. It’s a really low-risk environment where I could jump into a collaboration. There was never anyone saying, “Yo, guys, we need you to make this piece.”

So, who exactly do you play in this show? People see you so aligned with Martha at times. I was toying with the idea of playing Dito and I was debating playing these songs as Martha. Some of these songs blur the line. I would think, “Oh, I want to say something that Martha wouldn’t say, but Dito wants to say.” However, the more we explored, it seemed possible that Martha could express all of those things. Without her, other parts of the songs couldn’t come to life.

At some point, I’ll write the Dito musical, but for right now, this is the Martha musical. Usually she’s pretty goofy, but I try to find at least one number in the set to bring it down. There’s more than one in this show that’s like that. It’s a new thing for Martha not to be a cover girl. Many of these songs were developed so deeply from the character, which makes it that much more exciting.

You always seem to be working as an actor, and that’s obviously awesome. There’s been a lot of talk that Philly is a good city to work as an artist. What do you think?  Absolutely. So many New Yorkers are super jealous. In a weird way, I keep it under wraps. Don’t let everyone figure this out all at once! But there is this feeling that, oh my God, we have this incredible city. Also, the FringeArts festival is a place where people have learned to become a sophisticated audience. There’s a real training where you have a more astute audience member who is more comfortable seeing complex material. People want to see work that challenges them and excites them, and Philly audiences are up for that calling. There are other cities who might think, “I want this to be clear and easy to understand. I want this to be a thing to take Aunt Mabel to.” That’s one kind of theater, but I take pride where people are experimenting and making work that wakes you up intellectually and is esthetically challenging. I take a lot of pride in this here city, but I’m also like, “Shhh…don’t tell everyone!”

You can catch Dito/Martha’s newest show at the SEI Innovation Studio at the Kimmel Center on Friday, December 4. For tickets and more information, visit their website.