West Chester native Grace Slear got their start in show business at the age of three as a dancer. “I had a ballet teacher who was really into the storytelling aspect of ballet, and that’s what got me hooked into being in theater and telling stories,” they explain. Attending West Chester’s Center for Performing and Fine Arts, Slear honed in on their musical theater skills and later made their Broadway debut in Jagged Little Pill.
“There aren’t many words for a moment like that where you dream about it your entire childhood and still feel like that little kid when you’re all of a sudden thrown on stage,” they describe. “It was the most terrifying and exhilarating evening of my life. I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything.”
Now, Slear is bringing their talents to the Philadelphia Theatre Company, where they are performing in the world premiere of The Tattooed Lady at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Running through November 20, the show follows the elderly Ida Gibson, played by Jackie Hoffman, who was a tattooed lady in her past life.
If you haven’t heard of tattooed ladies, they were infamous fixtures of society from 1890 to 1910. At a time when women weren’t allowed to even bare an ankle in public, these brave ladies chose to cover their entire bodies in tattoos and perform on sideshow stages sporting bikinis to show off their ink.
“They often made a very radical choice that involved giving up their family,” the show’s director Ellie Heyman tells WHYY. “They were disowned. They were shunned. People thought of them as othered and freaks, but at the same time they gained agency. They gained power and money and fame.”
Now ashamed of her past in her old age, Hoffman’s character is bombarded by a herd of tattooed ladies who storm into her living room to stage an intervention and help her rediscover who she is. Slear’s character Lady Viola is one of these ladies who strives to bring Gibson back to her roots and restore her sense of pride.
“There are certain projects that you hear about and think, ‘Yes, I have to do that,’” says Slear. “This was one of those projects. It is just the most original of original shows. The music is unlike anything I’ve heard before.”
Slears sees a lot of similarities between their character and their own personality. They describe Lady Viola as “campy, kitschy and funny.”
“She is just completely herself with no shame,” they say. “I try so hard to be like that even half as much as Lady Viola is.”
“The Tattooed Lady is a full-course meal,” says Max Vernon, who is credited for the book, music, lyrics and orchestrations. “The show is wild, provocative, hilarious and entertaining in the way any trip to the freak show should be…But underneath our tattooed surface, this is truly a musical about liberation and loving yourself even when it’s really, really hard.”
Slear is excited to perform such a powerful, relatable message so close to their hometown, especially since the show’s premise means so much to them. “It’s about being yourself in the most unbridled way possible, and that is something I’m constantly striving for,” they say.
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