“The show must go on” is a battle cry and a way of life in the performing arts. Even as that credo continues to be tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, the artistic community has been steadfast in finding ways to combat the prolonged closure of theaters, clubs and music venues around the city. Zoom has emerged as an important technology for transmitting live experiences to audiences sheltering at home.
The Wilma Theater took the bold step of shifting its annual spring Fête Fundraiser from an in-person gathering to a virtual event last month. The party, which will be held on May 3, will feature a “desktop performance” from legendary local drag artist Martha Graham Cracker. Anyone who’s caught a Martha set around town knows that she is a mother of (re)invention — her presence promises to be compelling and cutting edge.
PGN spoke with Martha’s alter ego, out performer Dito van Reigersberg, about adapting art to unfamiliar mediums, the unintended silver linings of the new normal and the importance of taking things one day at a time. Some responses have been edited and condensed.
What does it entail to take a performance that was meant to be live and in-person and transfer that to a virtual setting?
I’ve been going through a strange process of mourning the possibility of a live performance. The way Martha works is through an improvisational relationship with the audience, which is not going to happen. I’ve been recording a bunch of things — especially the songs — because it was going to prove too difficult to do them live and guarantee it would be of the quality everyone would expect. If everyone in my band were playing live at home, there would be the possibility of glitching or tempo problems. I guess it’s kind of like being a — I was about to say that it’s sort of like being a porn star. I have to get it up, but I don’t have a fluffer.
Martha and her band have been around for a while, though, so you must be very comfortable with each other and able to roll with the punches.
We’ve been together for almost 15 years. It’s been nice, actually, to get some of our arrangements down and get versions of them recorded. That’s not really something we’ve done before. That’s a good thing in terms of posterity — capturing some of the work we’ve made and the creative arrangements we come up with along the way.
So much of Martha’s act, too, is built on what’s happening in the world and current events. Given the moment we’re living in, are you leaning into that? Is there anything you’re shying away from?
Martha is a comedic figure, and I’ve definitely been drawn to joking about certain things. I don’t want to make light of the virus itself or its impact. But there are the repercussions of being trapped at home — if you’re single, you’re probably having a lot of yearning for a touch that’s not able to be consummated. Martha is always yearning for love, even when there’s not a quarantine, so that feels in line with something she cares about a lot. “Why do I have all these desires if they’ll never be fulfilled?” It’s just in sharper focus right now, after 40 days and 40 nights in. By the time we get to the Wilma, it will be beyond biblical proportions!
Has Martha selected an outfit yet?
No! Although I would say that it looks like an explosion happened in my office area. It’s exploded with all of Martha’s make-up and dresses. I’m just trying to close the door and pretend the explosion hasn’t been happening.
But it’s great that you’re managing to be creative. How else have you been keeping your equilibrium these days?
I take a mental health walk every day — at least one, if not two — and I’ve been discovering little corners of the city that I didn’t know before. That’s been a silver lining of quarantine. One of the things you can’t think about — because if I do, then I start getting in despair — is the long game. You sort of have to go one day at a time. I think, “Today I’ve got to give myself this project, which will occupy my body or my mind.” I’ve been reaching out in new ways to people, having Zoom dates, playing games over Zoom. This quarantine hits Martha particularly hard. My home base is L’Etage, which is a small club where everyone is on top of each other. That makes it joyful, like a messy and sweaty party, but that’s kind of dangerous right now. But we’re doing what we can do, and I’m trying to translate what we would normally do to the internet. I’m not going to say it’s ideal — but, as Hedwig says, “It’s what I have to work with.”
The Wilma Theater’s online Fête Fundraiser will be held on Saturday, May 3 at 5:30 p.m. Tickets (beginning at $100) can be purchased online at wilmatheater.org/fete.