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Alice in Drag — Curiouser and Curiouser When It Becomes a School Field Trip

This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.

If Lewis Carroll were alive today, “curious” might be the word he would use to describe the People’s Light Theater performance of his world-renowned novel, Alice in Wonderland.

The theater, located in Chester County is currently running a holiday, pantomime rendition of the classic. The website says the show is appropriate for ages five to 105 and includes a drag queen performer in the cast. Eric Jaffe, according to the theater’s casting page, “is a genderfull [sic] glamour monster and the recipient of the 2018 Philly Drag Awards, Best Host, Best Alternative Drag Queen, And Drag Queen of the Year as well as 2020’s Performer of the Year.”

Just as curious is the fact that multiple school districts in Chester County are sponsoring field trips for students to attend the performance, including West Chester Area, Tredyffrin/Easttown, and Downingtown. Students as young as second grade and up to sixth grade attended the performance.

The theater website makes a point to highlight Eric Jaffe’s role on the main page. “This year, People’s Light is thrilled to welcome award-winning drag performer Eric Jaffe as the audience’s new guide through the magical mayhem in the role of Dinah/Cheshire Cat.” None of the other performers are mentioned in the overview.

Controversy erupted after some children attended the show with their school and informed parents that they were required to wear masks at the performance. As parents started looking further into the show, they realized that a drag queen was appearing as one of the main characters and that the theater was promoting this performer above the rest.

A public Facebook group posted about the issues with parents weighing in on both sides.

While the majority of comments were very concerned about the field trip, Meghan Reikob disagreed about the content of the show.

“WCASD did list the show name on permissions slips. I do agree that there should have been advance notice provided by the school about People’s Light mask policy.  But I genuinely don’t understand the rest of your argument,” Reikob said. “Has no one complaining ever heard of a panto before? Nothing about this is new or woke.” ”

Her comments, however, did not address others’ concerns of a drag queen performing for children or the fact that the theater advertised the show as such.

No one is questioning or concerned about pantomimes as a theatrical modality or the fact that someone of one gender can play a different role in a performance. Theater has a long tradition of men playing women’s roles, dating back to the Greeks and Romans. In more recent history, the theater term “transvesti” is used to describe the portrayal of a character of the opposite sex. Therefore, the idea that someone of a different gender can play the role in a theatrical performance is not surprising or uncommon, nor is it troubling to parents.

What concerns many parents is the lack of transparency and communication with the school districts.

Downingtown Area School District’s permission slip (see below) for the field trip did not even include the name of the performance. While some districts did include the name of the show, they did not state that their children would see a drag queen performer. Nor did they state that every child would require a mask. This is despite the fact that the districts are not currently requiring masks for children at school, and some children have mask exemptions that may or may not have been accommodated. Parents were not given enough information to make informed decisions about whether their child should attend.

One of the Facebook commenters suggested that parents should have researched the show before completing the permission slip. And while that is a reasonable solution, parents should be able to rely on our publicly funded schools and administrators to make good decisions and to provide parents with enough information to also make decisions in the best interest of their child.

Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865 by Lewis Carroll, a deeply conservative and spiritual man and a deacon in the Church of England. I am fairly certain that Carroll did not intend his book to be used as a social commentary on gender fluidity, nor do most parents. Most parents are familiar with the whimsical nature of the book and likely thought it would be an entertaining and educational field trip for their child.

Several parents of children who attended the show shared anonymously, for fear of retaliation from their district, that they would not have allowed their child to attend if they knew that they were required to wear a mask. Others stated concerns over the performance and promotion of the drag queen performer. Parents also questioned whether there was any discussion following the performance at school.

Both the West Chester Area and Tredyffrin/Easttown School Districts were asked to comment on the field trip. Molly Schwemler, manager of district communications for West Chester Area School District, responded with the following:

“Sixth grade students from the West Chester Area School District did attend the performance of Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto at People’s Light and Theater. As part of People’s Light and Theater’s current health and safety guidelines, masks are required for all those attending indoor performances regardless of vaccination status. Students and staff attending the performance were provided masks and did follow this policy.

“In advance of the performance, families were informed that students had the opportunity to attend a contemporary, pantomime version of Alice in Wonderland and given permission slips to return. The actors’ biographies and acting credentials were not included with this information but were accessible on the People’s Light and Theater website.”

Tredyffrin/Easttown School District did not respond to the request for comment.

A Chat With Lower Merion Native Bex Odorisio, ‘Hadestown’ Performer

Actors and actresses dream of making it in “the city that never sleeps.” An opportunity to perform on Broadway is the epitome of live theatre, but the COVID-19 pandemic shut down more than just the economy for many aspiring stars. It shut down dreams.

For Bex Odorisio, the pandemic may have closed her initial Off-Broadway debut, but as it wanes she has found new possibilities in the musical, “Hadestown.”

Odorisio grew up in Ardmore and spent years trying to get her shot at Broadway. After graduating from Lower Merion High School in 2005, she headed straight for New York City.

“I went to drama school at NYU,” Odorisio told Delaware Valley Journal. “I started my training at 18. Since then I’ve been pounding the pavement in New York City to varying degrees of success and varying degrees of visibility, I suppose. The pandemic shut down a show I was in. I was meant to make my Off-Broadway debut at last at the Public Theater in New York but we had to shut a few days before opening. So, I was very excited when ‘Hadestown’ came through after about a year, a year and a half, and said they were going to send out the tour.”

“I’ve been a part of several new musicals that I put through in developmental stages,” she said. “So often when a musical is on its way to getting a full production you’ll have things like stage readings where the actors are standing around music stands and things like that. So I’ve done a myriad of those. And some of those musicals have moved on along, like ‘The Visitor,’ and some of them have not. Or at least not yet. It tends to be quite a long process.”

Before New York, there was Historic Philadelphia where Odorisio spent summers working as a historical interpreter during high school and college.

“For four years total, during high school and college, my summer job was being a historic interpreter with Historic Philadelphia Incorporated, which means I played a colonial person in Old City Philadelphia,” she said. “I greeted tourists on the street and told stories. I even played Betsy Ross a time or two which was really exciting. Honestly, it beats a summer job at a coffee shop. I think that counts as my first professional acting job as well.”



“This is 10 years to the year of my very first tour. One of my first jobs out of college was touring the country with a children’s show. It was called ‘Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type.’ I played a singing cow…that was the job that allowed me to join the Stage Actors Union. So it was very meta.”

Done as a folk, roots, jazz, New Orleans-style musical, “Hadestown” is one audiences will remember.

“The show is based on Greek mythology,” Odorisio explains, “and combines the myth Orpheus and Eurydice with the myth of Hades and Persephone.”

Odorisio plays one of the Fates.

“I play one of the three Fates of Greek mythology,” she said. “It’s really fun. They are the ones who control the thread of a mortal’s life. We are a trio who sing in three-part harmony, and we act as the voices in the backs of the heads of the other characters from the show.”

“Hadestown” is on tour for the next year and Odorisio was thrilled when it came to the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in February.

“The Avenue of the Arts is a place where I saw many shows growing up and I was just passing the Merriam Theater and being reminded of the first musical I ever got taken to see when I was a kid,” she said. In the 3rd of 4th grade, my mother (Susan Greenspon) took me to see ‘West Side Story.’ And that had a profound impact on me. I think I got the original cast recording on cassette tape… I listened to it every night before I went to bed for it must have been a year. It was magnificent. And to see the film that just came out at Christmastime. It was such a wonderful full circle of feeling just how much that story means to so many people.”

“I was very grateful for the art and the cultural offerings of a city like Philadelphia to grow up so close. We were 20 minutes outside of the city.”

“I love singing with my sister Fates,” Odorisio said. “I performed with a vintage vocal trio that does music in the style of the Andrew Sisters for some years before this. So, I’ve gotten to really love the sound and feeling of singing with three women together. That trio is called America’s Sweethearts. A different vibe than ‘Hadestown,’ but we would travel the country and do things like airshows and veteran’s events and World War II weekends, and all kinds of stuff. So, I say that was my training to be a Fate was really getting practiced at close harmony with one woman on my left and one woman on my right.”

After being away from the theatre because of the pandemic, returning to the stage is more than rewarding.

“Getting into a rehearsal room with everybody felt really spiritual because everybody had been in quarantine for so long,” Odorisio said. “It was an absolute gift to be in a rehearsal room. The rehearsal process was just gratitude every day, even more so than it would have been normally because we hadn’t been able to for such a long time.”

It isn’t just the performers starving for a piece of the stage. Audiences around the country have been anxious for live performances again as well.

“The audiences have been so warm,” Odorisio said. “I really couldn’t have hoped for anything greater than this. It’s kind of remarkable feeling that outpouring from people who have been so hungry to see shows again. People have been overwhelmingly positive which just makes us excited to be doing it.”

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