“You can’t put a show like this in a box,” proclaims actress Billie Aken-Tyers of Ragtag Theatre Company’s The Commedia Cinderella. She’s sitting in the basement of the SoHo Playhouse, sporting painted-on lower lashes, pin curls and a blacked-out front tooth for her stock character Rosetta’s role as the Evil Stepmother. Aken-Tyers, along with the rest of the cast of the show, needed to decompress after a particularly boisterous performance (which takes the well-known Cinderella story and reimagines it to include a Fairy Godmother in drag, an alligator who just wants a hug and a Carol Channing impersonator).
Ragtag Theatre Company aims “to empower and inspire all youngins and grown folk alike to embrace what makes them different.” The troupe tells classic fairytales (they opened in 2015 with The Commedia Rapunzel) in the style of Commedia dell’arte, an improvised style of Italian street theatre based on stock characters and plots adapted to address hot-button topics. Co-founder/co-director/actor/playwright Sam LaFrage adds elements of modern drag to the storytelling style, including dramatic dance moves and insult comedy.
“Commedia dell’arte was almost like the birth of like drag,” explains LaFrage. To his mind, they both include “audience involvement, big voices and improvisation. They just blend together perfectly.” Aken-Tyers adds, “What’s so great about drag is that it lets you say things that you can’t say when you’re not in drag. There’s something great about when a little kid is watching the show and they’re like, ‘Can I laugh at this?’ and they’ll look at their mom and she’s like, ‘Yes, you can!’”
Members of the company hope that by defying gender norms onstage they will then create a safe space for people of all ages to express themselves without fear of judgment. “It’s about giving back to the little kids, especially [those who identify as] LGBT,” says LaFrage. “[It’s important] to have someone that comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, you’re fabulous. Hey, you’re enough.’”
“Part of our message, and why drag works with that, is that we’re telling kids: Express yourself however you want to,” says co-director/co-founder Dennis Corsi. “If you’re a boy that wants to dress up like the Fairy Godmother, or if you’re a girl who doesn’t want to wear a ball gown, you can do that.”
Gender creativity and the word “queer” (used in Cinderella as both an identification term and a word meaning “weird”) are at the forefront of all of Ragtag Theatre Company’s productions. The terms are used to educate children on gender spectrum. “I think that even when we’re talking about drag, we’re still putting boundaries around how you can express yourself,” says Corsi. “The idea of gender creativity or the word ‘queer’ [help you] be whatever you want to be. Cinderella says that sometimes she likes dressing up in nice clothes, but other times she likes just wearing her boots and chilling out. You don’t have to be one or the other. You can be queer. You can be gender creative, gender fluid or however else you want to express yourself.”
Despite an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the company’s productions, some adults, including reviewers, still feel that the subject matter and jokes presented are “too mature” for children to fully understand. Actress Natasha Nightingale, whose stock character Columbina takes on the role of Cinderella, disagrees. “I think it’s good to have a kids’ show that’s also so funny for the adults,” she says. “Kids get a rise out of watching their parents laugh.”
“Most children’s theatre treats kids like they’re less intelligent than they are. It tells very simple stories, and we’re [trying to change that],” says Corsi. “We’re showing that children’s theatre doesn’t have to be what it always has been. We can come at it with a new perspective that is going to challenge kids and make them think differently, instead of reinforcing the same stereotypes.”
Children are embracing Ragtag’s stories. “One thing that I really like is that the kids are on our team immediately,” says actor Sean Parsons, whose childhood inspirations included Ursula the Seawitch and Winnifred Sanderson. “Little kids are on board immediately because they just love the spectacle of it. We had one week where the stepsisters came out and were mean and a little girl yelled, ‘Shut up!’”
Some children have taught members of the company lessons of their own, like the little girl with chipped pink nail polish who enlightened Parsons to the fact that “you’re never going to get anything if you don’t ask for it,” while other young ones have been inspired by Ragtag lessons. LaFrage remembers a little boy who came to the show wearing sparkly tights and cowboy boots. “His mom said, ‘You know, he wants to be just like you when he grows up,’ and it was one of those really special moments,” he says.
The members of Ragtag Theatre Company hope to build a brighter future for children in their audiences and in the outside world. LaFrage is already hard at work on their next production, The Commedia Snow White, which will further spread their message of acceptance and self-love. “You are enough just the way you are,” says LaFrage. “Whether you’re weird or wear a big purple tutu or funny hair or whatever the case may be. Be weird, be yourself.”
For more information on Ragtag Theatre Company visit RagtagTheatre.com.
Joe Gambino is a New York City-based writer, illustrator and performer who still hasn’t won the Hamilton lottery. Follow him on Twitter @_joegambino_.