Martha Graham Cracker—being her own kind of performer
Martha Graham Cracker’s drag is irreverent, dynamic, and ironic. Dito Van Reigersberg (Martha’s alter ego) has channeled a hybrid of David Bowie and some of your favorite old-Hollywood screen sirens to craft a truly different kind of drag queen. With a full (and equally amazing) band behind her, Graham Cracker will channel her inner riot girl to sing anything from classic rock to the true R&B divas.
I grabbed some time with Martha as she headed to rehearsals for the big show, and we got to talk about how Martha was conceived, how drag scenes in different cities differ, and how carving out her unique kind of drag performer is truly rewarding.
For those that have never gotten the true Martha Graham Cracker Experience how do you describe the show to fans?
Martha Graham Cracker: Well, I think the main thing that I would say is that I am very penetrative, in all the senses of the word. I penetrate the audience with my presence. I am very flirtatious, and I sing with an absolutely incredible band. I really rely on the audience also. I am improvising the show every time, so there is a real reliance on what is actually happening in the room. No two shows are alike; in a real way, I am going to be jumping off the diving board at the Borgata and seeing what happens!
I have nothing bad to say about being completely prepared or doing a scripted show, but part of what I am doing is that I do prepare in some ways. I try to think about things that I can talk about and there are definitely some things that are at the forefront of my mind or on the tip of my tongue. I do try not to plan too much because I want to be alive to what is happening in the room, who is there, and really play off the audience. I think the audience can feel when things are canned or pre-scripted versus when they are really happening for the first and probably the last time.
So take me back, when and where was Martha Graham Cracker born?
MGC: I was studying at an acting school called The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City and I had unlimited energy back then. I would run at night to the Martha Graham School and take dance classes. I would hear all of these wonderful stories about what a weird and lonely genius she was. Saying all sorts of high falutin’ things, perhaps a little self-deluded, but it was hard to tell if her pretentiousness was deserved because she was a genius, or if she was living in her own weird Sunset Boulevard-style fantasy. Even then I thought “Martha Graham Cracker” would be a good drag name. I started seeing drag shows and a lot of drag queens who sang as opposed to lip-syncing and I thought “I think I want to do that”. I moved to Philadelphia to be with my theater company, Pig Iron Theater Company, and when I was working with them I would start doing these shows. I got a regular gig at L’etage on Sixth and Bainbridge. The owners are a couple named Jim and David and offered me a regular monthly gig. We started on the first Thursday of the month, which then became the second Thursday of the month, which it still is to this day. That was fourteen years ago.
I have now been doing Martha at least once, if not more like three or four times a month ever since then. I think I got really strong and good at what I was doing because I was just practicing. Even on the days, I may not have wanted to, it was all about the practice. There were days I did not know what I would do, but that was its own kind of pressure and test. You rise to the occasion though. I made tremendous discoveries by getting a regular gig and being able to practice Martha. About five years ago, we started performing regularly at Joe’s Pub. I think it has been something that has been growing more and more. Last year, I was hired to work in Las Vegas for the first time in a show called Opium. I performed there, which was very surreal and weird. I got to premiere a new show and live the strange “Vida Loca” that is Vegas. All of this prepared me and has been leading to this moment where I get to perform in Atlantic City at Borgata, which is the Vegas of the shore.
The drag scenes in both New York City and Philadelphia are both legendary and diverse; New York City has so much rich history in their drag scenes, while Philadelphia has so many scrappy and young queens who are full of talent. What do you see as the starkest differences between the drag scenes in those cities?
MGC: I feel like it is less and less apparent really. New York City used to be the place where
people would kind of play it cool, and in Philadelphia even if the people are in your business they are just a bit warmer. The first side that people show from their personality is usually the warm friendly side in Philly. New York City is a bit cooler, a bit more like, “impress me.” Philly is my home though, I love it. I feel like because Philly is still relatively reasonable as a city to live in, that there is a lot more risk-taking and an ability to be experimental. New York is harder to be an artist and live a decent life because it is just so expensive.
Where do you want to take Martha Graham Cracker and your career?
MGC: I have had a great time in other cities, but there are other cities I would like to explore. I have never played Chicago or San Francisco. I think there are other places in the United States and maybe even Europe that I would like to perform in. I think also because I am an actor I have dreamed of maybe doing a movie or making a music video. I actually just wrote some original songs with some friends of mine. We made a show and recorded the album, which is coming out this fall. The title of that show and that album is Lashed But Not Least. I have definitely dreamed of making a music video, for at least one of the songs. I don’t know, shouldn’t I be in a movie? Shouldn’t I be in a remake of some old forties Katherine Hepburn movie?
Drag has absolutely exploded and become a viable art form to actually make a living from and has become literally known worldwide. Does it feel like the world has finally caught up with the art that you create?
MGC: I feel very torn about it. There is both excitement and worry. It is something that was created in a way to reinforce a small subculture’s feelings and connection, that is how gay men spoke to each other, through drag. I remember going to see this one drag queen named Raven O, and she would sing Elton John’s “Rocketman”. She would get to the line “I’m not the man they think I am at home..no no no no, I’m a Rocketman”. We would all wink at each other over what the song was about and we were speaking in a kind of code. Now, the worry about anything that ends up getting accepted by the larger culture is that it could end up watered down or made less specific or becomes a parody of itself. There is that small worry, but I think it’s nice. The way the world is opening up though is exciting. it will invariably bring new accommodations and new ways in which the culture expresses itself and that is exciting.
I was still dis-invited from reading Dr. Seuss to children (laughs). It was a school in New Jersey I think, I was invited and then when someone up in the administration heard about it they said no. People in Philly thought I had to read to the kids, and we ended up having an alternate event where parents brought their kids and it was absolutely amazing. That reaction comes from a weird old fashioned notion that you “make kids gay” I guess. Gender is not something that has to be as strict; there is more playfulness around gender than people walk around with. I think drag is good for everyone!
What gives you the most pride in your career and your path right now?
MGC: I think one of the things that gives me the most pride is that I am able to make people laugh and to bring people joy. I think the world, especially under this administration, has become so dark and humorless and lacking in empathy. I think setting a tone full of joy, comedy, and empathy is really political and important. I think people feel a release about that. I am so happy to make the caliber of music that I make with my band also. I think we make really complex and beautiful arrangements of songs and people will say how incredible and funky the band sounds, so I am so proud of all that. I am just feeling grateful for the people that came before, decades and decades ago, when there was no safety net. I am proud to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers and I am so grateful to them.