A new direction in theater

Photo by Evan Zimmerman

Philadelphia Theatre Company is stepping outside its comfort zone with a new rock musical about the radical history of women with body ink.

The Tattooed Lady, running Oct. 29 through Nov. 20 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., is a musical created by Obie Award-winning playwright Erin Courtney and Lortel-winner Max Vernon, celebrating the resilience of women whose choices have the power to liberate them.

During the show run, there will be special events, the Ink Industry Night, tattoo-themed art experiences, talk-backs with local experts, themed cocktails and more. It’s a new direction for theater in Philadelphia.

“In this day and age, theaters can no longer afford to play it safe,” said creative producer Paige Price.

For the creators, the show is a personal experience with a script that resembles personal experiences. Vernon was bullied growing up and spent a lot of time internalizing hate from strangers and the feeling of being out of place.

“For my own survival, I sought out stories of those who similarly didn’t fit in, who fought to live their truth and changed the world in doing so,” said Vernon. “I have some very formative early memories of making my dad take me to the Coney Island freak show. I loved the wild stories, the sense of danger, the disruption of ‘normality.’

“I became most interested in The Tattooed Lady, because it was an act that was all about self-actualization. Unlike other freaks who were essentially exploited for deformities or medical conditions, the Tattooed Ladies intentionally chose their otherness. By tattooing themselves, they renounced respectable society, but gained a new kind of autonomy. I think a lot about the physical dangers of visibility versus emotional harm of invisibility. I wanted to tell a story about the freak show that wasn’t sanitized or Disneyfied for a musical theater audience.”

Co-writer Erin Courtney, who has more than a dozen tattoos, also felt a soul connection to the material. 

“As a great fan of tattoos and female-centered narratives, I immediately said yes to imagining a musical about these courageous, creative women who changed the American cultural landscape by refusing to accept the traditional path,” Courtney said. “Some of the characters in the musical are very loosely based on actual women, Nora Hildebrandt and Maud Wagner. Our main character, Ida (Imagena) Gibson, is a fictional creation. Through the years of imagining, writing, revising, we found one theme essential to the narrative: ‘It’s better to be odd than ordinary.’ ”

The musical highlights the fictional Ida Gibson, revealing the generational chasms and connections between Ida and her granddaughter Joy. A parade of beguiling characters appear, on a mission to liberate Ida from her self-imposed exile and help Joy find freedom through forgiveness.

The Tattooed Lady is developed and directed by Drama League-winner Ellie Heyman and choreographed by Mayte Natalio. Emmy-nominee and Obie Award-winner Jackie Hoffman stars as the fictional sideshow luminary Ida Gibson. 

Opening night will coincide with the Philadelphia Theatre Company Gala on Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $40 during previews and $35 to $74 after opening. Visit www.philatheatreco.org for more information, call 215-985-0420 or visit in person during box office hours.

Philadelphia Theatre Company is bringing a larger immersive experience for audiences to run alongside the actual show, continuing the story after the curtain closes. On Nov. 2, there will be a special Ink Industry Night featuring Kristel Oreto, the owner of Philly-based tattoo Now and Forever Tattoo Collective, a tattoo collective curated for women, non-binary and trans artists. She will curate activities that include temporary tattoos as well as showcase tattoo-themed art inside the Suzanne Roberts Theatre where Tattoo Lady-themed cocktails and snacks will be available. The night aims to bring together younger theater and arts patrons, social media influencers and members of the tri-state tattoo community. Additionally, Oreto will join PTC’s new Artistic Directors Taibi Magar and Tyler Dobrowsky for talk-backs on Nov. 6 and Nov. 13.

The Tattooed Lady is a full-course meal,” said Vernon. “The show is wild, provocative, hilarious and entertaining in the way any trip to the freakshow should be. Underneath our tattooed surface, this is truly a musical about liberation and loving yourself even when it’s really, really hard.”