The Mask and Wig Club, Penn’s musical comedy troupe, recently opened its doors to members of all genders after roughly 133 years of restricting its membership to men. Much of the club’s repertoire consists of comedic musical shows steeped in satire. Mask and Wig is made up of a performing cast, a stage crew, a band and a business staff who are undergraduates of the university.
“I think the main reason was definitely to better reflect the diversity and the talent pool of the university,” said Eli Cohen, cast member and the club’s secretary-treasurer. “Mask and Wig is a 130+-year-old organization, and a lot of its traditions, which are very closely valued, are reflective of that history. It was just time for a change and to improve the quality of the group experience and the products that we put on in the performances.”
Cohen said that in deciding to include all genders, Mask and Wig members took into consideration the group’s tradition of cabaret performances and cross dressing styles.
“We basically look to productions like SNL and Broadway,” Cohen said. “And just [acknowledging] that a character can be played by any actor or actress regardless of gender identity, as long as they’re comfortable and confident in doing it. We’re a comedy group after all — if they make it funny and respectful, then that’s all that matters to us.”
Because of the proximity of its clubhouse to the Gayborhood and its healthy LGBTQ+ audience, the Mask and Wig team is planning its first Pride night to take place on Feb. 24. A med student night and a Valentine’s-themed singles night may also be in store.
“With the theme of progress and inclusivity, we thought that hosting a Pride night would be a really great opportunity to bring together Penn students and Philadelphia residents that are part of the LGBT community,” said Vivian Li, who joined Mask and Wig’s business staff a few months ago. “It’s something we thought about doing last year, but this year we’re really just going for it.”
LGBTQ Mask and Wig membership has gone up in recent years, Cohen said, including proportionally within the cast, crew, business staff and the band.
“Mask and Wig is definitely one of the most welcoming spaces I’ve been in at Penn,” Li said. “If someone out there is a member of the LGBT community or non-male-identifying, the space is so welcoming and supportive. As someone who is queer and a woman of color, I’ve never felt in any way not supported or not accepted because of my identity. In fact, I feel the exact opposite. I’ve been able to connect with other people that share the same identities and values.”
All Mask and Wig shows are written by its membership, with a lot of the music written by its band members and much of the lyrics by the cast. Some of the more orchestral arrangements are outsourced, and a few alumni producers continue to help with productions. Mask and Wig’s 134th annual show, A Doomsday in the Life, opens on Jan. 21 and runs for nine weeks. It takes the form of a musical comedy review-style show with a thematic plot, as well as some more sketch-like components on the subject of apocalypse, and how that manifests in a society that has gone through events like the January 6th riots at the U.S. Capitol.
“We like to say that theater holds up a mirror to society, but with satire and comedy, it’s more like a rearview mirror,” Cohen said. “Everything is closer than it appears — objects are larger, things are exaggerated.” The show explores, “what does Apocalypse look like? What does end-of-times society unraveling [look like], how can we play with that, exaggerate it, poke fun at that?”
Cohen echoed Li’s sentiment regarding the sense of support that Mask and Wig offers.
“We hold our auditions around Labor Day weekend, so classes have basically just started and everyone’s very fresh and new to campus,” Cohen said. “Almost immediately, you feel like you have this network of support around you, which is very reassuring.”
For more information on the Mask and Wig Club, visit https://www.maskandwig.com/.