Kate Shindle Talks Fun Home

The former Miss America on why she loves starring in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical

Kate Shindle as Alison in Fun Home (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Sometimes you get hungry and you wonder why, and you look at the clock, and you've missed lunchtime by a mile. When you come out, that lunchtime starts to feel like your entire life. Since before you knew, you've been starving for something that tells you that who you are just might be beautiful, handsome, that the life you live just might be rich and wonderful and worth exploring. You count the other gay, lesbian, bi, trans people you know, and you treasure that number. Keeping your eyes peeled for art that acknowledges you becomes a group effort. Keeping a keen eye open for art that actively celebrates you becomes a contest where everyone wins.

Kate Shindle didn't end up in Fun Home by accident. The former Miss America, current president of Actors' Equity, author, and lifelong AIDS activist had her own keen eye on the show's development. When news of a national tour hit, she leapt at the opportunity to play the show's narrator: acclaimed gay cartoonist Alison Bechdel looking back on how her adolescence and coming out dovetailed with her closeted father's life and eventual suicide. Shindle will be in Austin Aug. 11-13 for the tour's stop at the Long Center and was kind enough to speak with the Chronicle about making Alison's story feel like home to so many audiences.

Austin Chronicle: I've been a real big fan of the show since I saw the "Ring of Keys" performance on the Tony Awards and sobbed uncontrollably –

Kate Shindle: [Laughs] Right.

AC: – and it seems to me there are some really unique responsibilities that you have in the part of Alison. The first is that you're playing a real, living person. Can you speak to the challenges and rewards of that?

KS: Yeah, you know, it's funny because there are plenty of characters in the theatre based on real people. Momma Rose is a real person! But she's not coming to your opening night in Cleveland, you know? [Laughs] I don't get intimidated by a lot of people, but I was nervous to meet Alison because she's just so smart, cerebral, cool, creative, and, fortunately, she's also a super-nice person. She's been incredibly open and generous with [book writer/lyricist] Lisa [Kron] and [composer] Jeanine [Tesori] and David [Zinn], our designer, and Sam [Gold], our director, as far as giving them access to her studio and her space and her journals and all kinds of stuff. And yet she never says anything to me like, "Gee, you know, I have an idea for you about how to say this line," [laughs].

AC: The character of Alison spends a great deal of the play struggling with authorship and how to write authentically about her life. Since you're an author yourself, and you wrote about personal experiences in Being Miss America, I was wondering if you felt a special kinship to her.

KS: When we first started rehearsals and Lisa and Jeanine were around a lot, and Lisa was trying to illuminate the process Alison finds herself in, it definitely set off lightbulbs for me. Because, you know, you think you know how your story goes until you start trying to put it down on a page. And I don't say that to compare my writing to Alison's – she is a nationally-slash-world-renowned writer and I'm a woman who wrote a book once. But the other thing I think – I bought a car to drive this tour because I did the plane version of touring a number of years ago and I really like driving and road trips. I was driving from Cleveland down to Durham and realized the story of touring this show across America at this particular cultural moment might be its own book. I've been trying as best as I can to keep some notes – I don't know if it will turn into anything, but it's interesting to me, and I think it might be interesting to, you know, five or 10 other people.

AC: Fun Home is one of the very few theatrical pieces that speaks specifically to the lesbian experience. I'd love to hear what it means to be at the crux of a show that can be such a tool for self-discovery and validation among its viewers.

KS: I should say – I'm straight. And I feel there are certain parts of coming out that only so much doing research and talking to friends can teach you. There's a direct emotional experience that I have tried very hard to appreciate, but I understand that people who have lived it have experienced it in a very different way. For me, it's something to be upfront and respectful about.

One of the things that excited me most about touring the show specifically was exactly what you're describing. It is amazing to me to walk out the stage door and these kids – these teenagers, early 20s, college students – they're just standing there, crying or can't stop shaking because they've never seen something onstage that reflected the experience that they've been having! There was a young lady in Des Moines who really stuck with me because she came to the stage door and said, "I brought my mom to see the show so that she could understand what I've been going through this year." And you know, it's one thing to do a great show – which is what Fun Home is. It's another thing to do a great show that has an important message – which Fun Home has. And then it's its own thing to actually come face-to-face with the people who aren't sure that they're being seen, whether it's by their peers or their parents. And for whatever it's worth, in that transient moment, to have the opportunity to be able to say to them through this theatrical piece, "Hey, we see you and we think you're okay" is – I have no words.

Changing Your Major to Alison

Ready to be schooled in all things Bechdel? This writer humbly recommends the following study plan.

1) Watch the musical Fun Home. It's captivating, accessible, and tender, with music that will follow you all the way home.

2) Read Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 290 pp.). Bechdel's second graphic memoir, which focuses on her relationship with her mother and her own self-discovery in therapy, is both a thoughtful consideration on how we unlock our understanding of our pasts and an enthralling celebration of intellectual curiosity.

3) Read Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 232 pp.). Written six years prior to the Broadway adaptation, the Alison telling of this story is both cooler and angrier than the one you saw in the play. Come for the rich details the musical had to leave out, stay for the breathtaking art.

4) Listen to the Original Cast Recording of Fun Home (2014, P.S. Classics). Now that the story's fresh in your mind, you can enjoy these sweet tunes without getting lost about what's happening at any given moment.

5) Dang, son! You're officially ready for The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 392 pp.), a collection of Bechdel's 25-year-long comic strip which is, among other things, the source of the now-renowned "Bechdel test," which evaluates a film's feminism (and, specifically, accessibility to lesbians) by checking to see if there are two named female characters who talk to each other for more than a second about something other than a man.

6) You're Alison Bechdel now. Thank you for your service.

Fun Home will be performed Aug. 11-13, Fri., 8pm; Sat., 3 & 8pm; Sun., 2 & 7pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit www.thelongcenter.org.

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Alison Bechdel, Fun Home, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, Dykes to Look Out For, Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori, David Zinn, Sam Gold

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