John Jarboe: On cabaret and community

The name John Jarboe is synonymous with creativity. The actor, director, choreographer, producer and performer is best known for founding Philadelphia’s own queer theater group, the Bearded Ladies Cabaret. The company of talented singers and comic actors describes itself as a “queer arts organization that sits on your lap and sings you a story. Whether it’s an opera, a home-made cabaret, a musical walking tour, or a show on a truck, we employ song, spectacle, storytelling, and heart to welcome audiences into moments of joy, healing, and subversion.” I think many of us are familiar with the company from their popular Late Night Snacks performances at the Fringe Festival. 

The Fringe festival favorites will be pulling out the mascara again starting Dec. 1 for Late Night Snacks Leftovers, which will run on the first Friday of every month for four months.

We spoke to Jarboe fresh off her successful Fringe run about her life and the theater and what’s next on her dinner plate.

So tell me a little about yourself.
I’m originally from Michigan. I went to University of Michigan and I meant to move to New York but I thought I’d do a little stint in Philly first to cut my teeth and I ended up loving Philly so much, I landed there.

Tell me a little bit about growing up in Michigan?
In Michigan, you’re given a hockey stick and a hunting license as soon as you come out of the womb. I’m a trans person who uses she/her pronouns and [I’m] in a very Republican, Polish, Catholic family so it took me into my early 30s to come fully into my genderqueer identity. 

Understandable. What things brought you joy?
I loved to swim in Lake Michigan. My dad worked in the automotive industry, so we moved around a lot and I never really had a home base except for Lake Michigan. I sang a lot in various choirs. My dad was always trying to really butch me up, so I played hockey and baseball. I did enjoy hockey until the boys started pushing. One game, I got checked in between two boys. It was a sandwich, but not a good kind. So I broke my arm and I developed sports-induced asthma, which was very inconvenient, so I stopped doing sports. I played that for 11 years before I quit.

What was a highlight of your hockey days?
Oh, I don’t know… [Laughing] I was really good at skating backwards.

What other extracurricular things did you do?
I was also a singer and they were doing “Pippin” the musical at my high school, so I auditioned. I got the part of a head in the battle. My whole body was blocked off and I was the singing head. I was terrified but the guy who was playing Pippin was super cute and kind of queer and I was in the middle of people in fabulous costumes dancing and singing and it felt like home.

Did you have any siblings?
Yes, I have an older sister named Michelle. She’s a reporter in Cleveland. One of the projects that I’m working on is about my twin sister Rose, who I didn’t know about until I was in my early 30s. I came out to my aunt and told her that I was trans and using she/her pronouns and my aunt said, “That makes sense. You had a twin in the womb and you ate her. That’s why you are the way you are.” Which is such a weird thing to hear or as I say in the show, it’s a hard thing to digest, and it left me with a strange after taste. So actually, I only have the one sister. But I’ve been exploring this idea of gender cannibalism and the question of what and who we eat as queer people to become who we are. The show is called, “Rose: You Are Who You Eat.” It’s about me eating Rose in the womb and then her eating me from the inside out as I grow older. 

That’s some revelation. What’s a favorite family memory?
I love grandmothers. So seeing my grandmother read romance novels. They were too heavy for her to hold above her head while she was reading, so she used to cut them in half. So you’d walk around the house and see a bunch of scattered pieces of romance novels. 

Poor Fabio! When did you start to realize that perhaps you were different from your peers?
I’m still processing that. I think it was very early on and as with many queer folks, the memory is hazy because there was so much imagination and denial. Certainly there was… well, I remember feeling sick to my stomach when I kissed a girl for the first time. Not about her, but more about me, [chuckles] I think in retrospect I wanted to be the girl. And now I am.

Yeah, it was complicated growing up Catholic and queer. I mean when I first kissed a boy, I washed my own mouth out with soap and started praying. It was scary.

I’m guessing like most people I know, especially in the trans community, there were several chapters to coming out.
Yeah, there were. I think I came out as bisexual first, then as a gay man and I created a company called, “The Bearded Ladies Cabaret” and have been doing gender processing publicly for about 14 years in the city of Philadelphia and it took me about 10 of those years to realize, “Oh, I am a bearded lady! That’s what I’ve always been.” I’ve spent so much of my career trying to redefine what a man is, but I now know that I don’t want to redefine what being a man is. It’s not working because I’m not a man. So that took me a long time to figure out, until I was about 33. It was the amazing community in Philadelphia, especially the trans youth that I was working with and teaching, who were really teaching me. All here in this incredible city that allowed me to get as far from the family tree as I am. 

Are the branches severed from the tree?
No, I’m actually sitting in my sister’s house in Cleveland right now visiting her. So no, not severed just given a little distance. 

You mentioned that you went to the University of Michigan. What did you study?
I have a degree in theater and English. I thought I was going to be an actor but I remember being in a show where I was supposed to play the husband in a scene, the director kept saying to me over and over again, “Can you make that — it’s a little gay. Can it be a little less gay?” Then I was in a play at the Media Theatre and the head of the theater asked if I would do a cabaret. I didn’t really know what cabaret was at the time, but I came up with one.

What was the first cabaret?

That first one was called “Back in the Army” and it was about how queer the music of Irving Berlin was during World War II. All of the queer overtones and undertones in that wartime era of music. It was right after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed.

Do you recall any of those lyrics?
It’s been 14 years but they were so good. Hold on, I’ll look them up. There’s a song called, “Why do they call a private a private?” It’s an unsung song from him so it’s hard to find. I originally found it in the Philadelphia Public library. 

Yay for a library plug! I think not a lot of people know that they have a huge collection of sheet music. The music department even has its own Facebook page. It’s a great resource.
Yes, it’s amazing. OK, here we go, thank gosh for Google doc! “100 other rookies, enjoy their mother’s cookies and read your mail and borrow your underwear” and there’s another that goes, “And in the morning when you wake, with every shower that you take, there’s seven other fellas standing there. You’ve got my towel.”

Oh, that Irving!
Yeah, so I used those songs to tell the story. And there was that famous letter that was found from one GI to another that someone published during WWII that we used to create a character. 

So that was your first cabaret. When did you form Bearded Ladies?
It was just a bunch of disgruntled actors who were doing a bunch of mediocre Shakespeare and musical theater who were searching for some kind of forum where their voices could be heard. It’s interesting because a lot of those folks who intersected with the Bearded Ladies in the beginning didn’t identify as queer at that time and now most do. So I think it was also a bit of a frog pond around queerness. We’ve done so much stuff since then, along with many others. We’ve performed with Opera Philadelphia. We’ve partnered with the Eastern State Penitentiary, and of course the Fringe Festival. I like to say we’ve slept around with every arts organization in the city. In January, we’re going to be touring to the Radar Festival in New York with my piece, “Rose: You Are Who You Eat” in January and then in May, I’ll be at the Fabric Workshop and Museum on Arch Street with several short films I’ve made about gender cannibalism. 

Speaking of fabric, do you make your own costumes?
I work with the amazing Rebecca Kanach. Some other designers as well, but mostly Rebecca. She designs and fabricates most of the costumes we wear. 

I’m sure your performances have been moving for people. What moments have moved you?
I think mostly when I’ve had people, mothers or fathers or caretakers come up after the Rose show and say, “I need to go talk to my queer kid.” That’s a desired result of the show — when I see people dancing — and one time, a 15-year-old trans kid saw me in a production of a “Cabaret” at the Arden Theatre and they kind of attached themselves to me and the company after that. They did a bunch of their high school credits with us and they really mentored me through my transition. Anytime I get to work with young folks, it’s really meaningful. 

I’m sure. OK, let’s do some random questions. Any superstitions?
The hard part for me as a recovering Catholic…and Catholics believe in transubstantiation. I feel like we’re believers, like “the magic can happen!’ so I have to be wary of tarot or fortune readings or anything like that because I take them SO seriously. [Laughing] So I guess in a way, I have a lot of superstitions?

Have you ever asked someone for their autograph?
Yeah! I just recently asked J Mase III, who is an amazing poet for his autograph. 

You are John Jarboe. What’s something you love that starts with the letter J, not counting yourself.
I love the word “jawn.” It means so many things and I often think people are referring to me when they’re not. 

I forgot to ask. Are you partnered? Single?
I live with my partner, Pax Ressler. A brilliant local artist who runs GenderFunk Philly and Rise Choir and is one of the composers on Rose. A real mover and shaker on the arts scene. 

I know Pax! I did their Portrait in 2020! What’s something of yours Pax would love to throw out?
Sooo much. So I’m a drag queen, so I think they would want to throw out or store elsewhere most of my drag. And I love to cook, so sometimes I have an overabundance of kitchen equipment, which they probably want to get rid of. I think they’ve learned to love our cats. They were mine first, but in the beginning, I think they could have done without them too…

What does cabaret mean to you?
Someone that was working with me, who’d seen me in a ton of other things in Philadelphia before she saw me in the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, once said to me, “You know, I’ve seen you so many times in so many things and I just didn’t know who you were. I didn’t remember you. And then I saw you in a cabaret setting and I was like, “That’s John Jarboe. That’s who you are. This is who you are.” Basically, I think she was saying, “I heard your voice.” And I didn’t even — what’s amazing about this, I didn’t even know that my voice wasn’t being heard in the other projects until someone said, “That’s your voice.” Doing cabaret has allowed me to be who I am with integrity, allowed me to not have to compromise constantly on my artistic vision and also my voice and the voices of the queer people that I work with in the city. It’s really special to be part of that.

For more information on the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, visit