MARTHA GRAHAM CRACKER

[ 0 ] January 3, 2018 |

A MAN, A WOMAN AND A SONG
Dito van Reigersberg’s Wild Ride

by joel martens

Martha, Martha, Martha… She’s outrageous, she pushes the boundaries of convention, is funny as hell, can sing a power ballad, kill a mad rock tune and serenade you exceedingly well with a love song—maybe even challenge your comfort levels a bit along the way—perhaps even a little physically as she crowds her way into your psyche.

We love entertainers who challenge preconceived notions and Martha Graham Cracker knows how to do that with aplomb. A drag performer yes, but not necessarily in the conventional sense. Fab costumes, wigs and a dash of color on the face to be sure, but even for a drag queen, she’s outside the box. Under all that glitter and glitz, there’s a hirsute (and it shows), handsome man by the name of Dito van Reigersberg, who is an engaging, funny, creative master of disguise, with a wonderful, generous heart and a great story to tell.

Here’s what he had to say about his journey so far.

As it often is with super creative people, I wonder, were you a curious kid or were you an introvert?

I was very curious, I was a big reader and also a big introvert. It was really only later in junior high/high school that I found this acting thing and did plays and became much more of a blend of extrovert and introvert. But I was always introverted and very bookish…And then I learned how to put on eyelashes and as they say… “The rest is history!” (Laughs)

Martha Graham Cracker is such a vivid character, can you tell me a little about how you discovered her? Did you just wake up one morning and go, “Ah-ha, this is what I am going to do with my life?”

I had the classic thing where I would dress up in my mother’s clothes when she wasn’t there and try on make up when she was at work, so as a kid I was definitely drawn to it. Back then though, it was still more of a “dirty little secret no one should know about.”

When I moved to New York after college for acting school, I would go and see these drag performances on the weekends and I was like, “Oh, that’s what I really want to be doing.” All this Stanislavski scene work is interesting, but I actually really just want to dress up like a lady and sing songs. (Laughs)

There was also an amazing drag queen, Joey Arias, who made me want to be a drag queen, because he was so hilarious and funny, but he was also super-talented and a really great singer. He did this bit where he would channel Billie Holiday and it was like, “Oh my God, that’s exactly how she sounds,” he was so bizarrely good. He and this other drag queen named Raven O, were performing in New York in the mid-90s and because of that, I realized it was what I wanted to do. At the same time, as a part of my acting studies, we had modern dance classes and we studied the Martha Graham technique—I was a bit of an over achiever—I had a lot of thirst for knowledge. (Laughs) The Graham Technique really helped me and helped my acting in some way and because of that I learned a great deal about the woman as well, which really ended up influencing me and Martha Graham Cracker.

My grandmother was an actress too, she was a kind of larger than life, Norma Desmond-like character with long red fingernails, perfect hair, fur coats and drank a lot of martinis…one of those people. (Laughs) She was famous for saying things that were kind of appallingly entertaining like, “Who do you think you are?” I think between my Grandmother’s diva moments and the stories about Martha Graham and her haughty, larger than life mythology, something stuck…and in turn I discovered there were divas inside of me who really wanted to express themselves!

When I was testing that all out and what it would be like to do drag, that’s when I discovered the Martha Graham Cracker name. It was a sort of a “finding who you are journey” I guess.  You never know who in your family has the most influence on you… (Laughs). It’s funny, my dad at first wasn’t willing to see me do drag, he was like “I don’t know if that’s something I need to watch, my son doing drag.” Eventually after my mom told him “It’s okay, it’s okay, you’ll like it, I think you should come and see it…It’s more like a concert.” (Laughs) When he saw me the first time, it was so obvious to him what was happening and he said, “Oh, it’s just your grandmother coming through.” (Laughs)

Where did Ms. Graham Cracker and you, of course, go from there?

I went to college outside of Philly at a place called Swarthmore and along with my acting friends, we formed a theatre company and during the summers, we would rehearse an original play and then take them to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. That happened for the first two years and then in ’97 we decided that since the theatre company was doing well, that maybe we were a real theatre and that we should try to do a full year of programming together, which we still do.

A guy I knew ran this small club with about 120 seats above this crepe restaurant called L’etage, asked me if I wanted to have a monthly show there as Martha Graham Cracker. That really was the beginning, that’s where I found my band, but at first the show was mostly me and my pianist, Victor, but back then I didn’t look at it like, “Oh, this is going to change the course of my history.”

It was really like going to school, you have a habitual process with this imposed deadline and you have to continuously put out. After twelve years of doing it once a month, we have a big repertoire and the ability to be spontaneous. I’ll just break into any random song and they come in and play along with me…things might go totally off the rails but we enjoy the feeling of danger! (Laughs)

It sounds like immersion school in many ways…

Exactly. We produced a new show every month and it got better and better as we put together set lists, interacted with the audience and found a flow that worked with Martha and this band of four incredible musicians: Victor on keys, Rich on guitar, Andrew on bass and Ned on drums., We’re really like a full-on rock band and we started at L’etage over 12 years ago.  We’ve had our share of fights along the way and have been pretty close to breaking up, but we’re still miraculously together.

One of the things that I love the most about cabaret in particular, is that there’s such a permeable wall between you and the audience. I find it really refreshing to be in a space where I can see the audience and comment on “the woman who just spilled her drink” or notice the “very attractive man over there with the mustache…” it pulls us very quickly into the moment. I’m in the room, you’re here too and we’re in this together, there is a sense of community and connection that I feel is really rare these days.

Get up close and personal with Martha Graham Cracker at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, during their 2018 Off Center Festival on Friday and Saturday, January 19 and 20. For tickets and more information, call 714.556.2787 or go to scfta.org.

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