When Dito van Reigersberg — the Pig Iron Theatre co-founder who moonlights regularly as drag god/dess and cabaret chanteuse Martha Graham Cracker — calls something that he’s up to “a first,” you can’t help but prick up your ears in wonder.
Because February 27’s Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret — Full Access at FringeArts isn’t just a way to go deep into the psyche of the big-voiced, hairy-chested diva. It’s about accommodating her audience: enabling those with disabilities to experience MGC in peak form, via American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) captioning, and audio description, plus easy access for those using wheelchairs and mobility devices. It’s happening thanks to a partnership with Art-Reach, a Philadelphia nonprofit that helps people with disabilities and those in low-income communities experience and participate in the local arts scene.
A “rad” trend in theater
“I’m pleased and honored to perform as Martha with so many rad tools of access,” says van Reigersberg. The actor has appeared previously in plays where supertitles were projected and in relaxed performances that allow families with members on the autism spectrum to see shows together, thanks to adjustments in extreme or intense sound and light cues, and house lights that remain on throughout the show.
“This is a great new trend in theater: the understanding for both performers and audience that there'll be less social pressure to maintain perfect silence and that certain sounds from the audience side are not a big deal,” van Reigersberg adds.
Full Access is just as accommodating, and doubly dramatic for a panoramic presence such as Martha Graham Cracker. The show came together courtesy of Jenny Laden, who ran Pig Iron’s development department before moving over to Art-Reach. Laden saw the powerhouse Graham Cracker, in all her catty, larger-than-life but human-sized glory, as a prime candidate for all-access programming, and approached both van Reigersberg and FringeArts.
“One of the strange dichotomies about Martha as a character is that she is a kind of a love bully,” van Reigersberg says. “She definitely runs the room and is in charge in a classic, deluded, diva way, but I think she really wants to make everyone feel seen and like they are part of the event of the show too. She is a big flirt too, so she may find other pathways to communicate her desire. She may want to know how to say, ‘You appear to have a great deal of stamina’ in sign language, for example.”
Aside from his alter ego, van Reigersberg says he has his own obsession with ASL. He’s “intrigued with any kind of translating that takes an abstract concept and makes it physical.” Since his parents are both interpreters who work in three languages, “the obsession with translation may be genetic.” He hopes to learn some sign for the Full Access show.
Fronting a quartet is plenty in itself, but add in several sign-language interpreters, an audio-description specialist, and an open-captioning professional (“whose fingers will be moving very fast”), and it’s a lot for Martha to lead — not to mention questions like what the signs are for “areola,” “lascivious," or "bogus," or how one describes a scene like "hairy woman is on top of three men, singing and convulsing.”
Fighting closed doors
So is Full Access letting van Reigersberg walk in the shoes (or heels) of those who sense and experience the world differently?
“I do feel like there's something that feels especially important as we resist the bully, the xenophobe, the sexist in our society,” he answers. “I think to attempt to make this unusual show available to a wider audience is a nice counterbalance to the strange impulse of some to close doors, build walls, and ferment hatred and ignorance.”
Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret — Full Access is coming up on Monday, February 27, at 8pm at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard. Tickets ($15 to $29) are available in advance online or by calling 215-413-9006.