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Kate Shindle on ‘Fun Home,’ playing Alison Bechdel and driving across the country

Written by
Kris Vire

When I talked with Kate Shindle a couple of weeks ago, she was in Cleveland, where the Tony Award–winning musical Fun Home was launching its national tour (which comes to Chicago’s Oriental Theatre this week, playing November 2–13). Well, actually… “The show is currently in Cleveland. I am currently, apparently, in Ripley, New York, which is right on the border, because I bought a car right before I left,” Shindle tells me. “It’s been a while since I bought a car, and I didn’t know until I got the tags that I was gonna have to get it inspected. So that is what I’m doing.” 

Fun Home, with music by Jeanine Tesori and a book by Lisa Kron, is based on the graphic memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel about growing up gay with a father who was in the closet; the title refers to the family funeral-home business. Shindle, who plays the adult Alison sifting through her memories, is driving from city to city on the tour. “You know, the last time I toured was way back in 2000–2001, and I thought then that if I ever toured again I wanted to do it in a car rather than on airplanes. Not because I mind flying, just because I feel like it's a cooler way to see the country. Which I've kind of done already, but I guess I just can't get enough of it.”

The Northwestern alum took time off from her studies there when she was named Miss America 1998; she embraced the platform for activism, taking up AIDS education as her cause. She’s since appeared on Broadway in shows including Jekyll & Hyde, Cabaret and Legally Blonde; in addition to being a working actor, she's in the middle of her first term as president of the Actors’ Equity Association, an office she was elected to in May 2015. As she drove through western New York, we talked about upscaling the intimate show, trusting the audience, and meeting the person you're playing.

Your first encounter with Fun Home was seeing the Broadway production. You’ve said that you essentially saw the show and went, I’m gonna do this. Is that accurate?

That’s pretty much it. I want to be clear, I’ve decided that about a lot of things. It doesn’t always work out. [Laughs] But in this case, it worked out. I felt like it was a really unique theatrical experience, a really well constructed show. And also the issues that it deals with are important to me, they’re important to our country and our culture. There were and are those who haven’t been so sure about the possibility of this show touring and how it will be received. But I’m really not one of them. I’m incredibly enthusiastic about it.

I’ve been a fan of Alison Bechdel’s work for a long time, and I had read the memoir years before I saw the show on Broadway. It’s so fascinating to see the moments that Jeanine and Lisa picked out to turn into musical numbers.

The funny thing is that I liked the show when I first saw it very much, but as is often the case with really well constructed theater, the deeper into it you get, the more you realize how amazing an achievement it actually is. Ever since I became a Tony voter several years ago, I’ve become a fan anyway of shows that manage to say what they want to say in a lean and mean one-act, you know? Not every show needs two acts to make its point. There’s just no fat on the bone; everything is there for a reason, and it’s a good reason. It’s just so different, and it’s interesting and compelling; it just fires me up in a lot of different ways.

I know you’ve been in conversation with Alison herself. What is that like to portray someone who’s not only living but a contemporary? We’re not even talking about a figure from the recent past; what’s it like to try and embody someone you can actually call up on the phone?

You know, it’s funny—I was talking about that yesterday. Eva Perón was a real person; Momma Rose was a real person. But they’re not coming to your opening night in Cleveland. [Laughs] It’s a different kind of obligation, I think. One of the things that Lisa Kron said to me sort of late in our rehearsal process, which really liberated my mind a bit, is that although this is Alison’s story, the show isn’t really written in Alison’s voice. It’s written in Lisa’s voice. So that really assuaged my fears about whether I was doing a close enough impersonation of Alison, who is her own brand of fascinating and charming, but is not necessarily the person you would see in real life as the protagonist of a musical. And I mean that in a good way. But it’s important to me to make sure I distinguish between Alison, the awesome, smart woman who I’ve met, and the character Alison Bechdel in the musical. That may be a little inside-baseball. I would also say that she has been nothing but warm and great and, having met her on a couple of occasions, the show is really lucky to have her as a collaborator and a fan and a supporter.

The other thing is, the first time I met her was at a party. It was the night before the Broadway show closed, so it was a party celebrating the run of the show. I knew that I was going to meet her there, and I found that to be tremendously intimidating. Because by that point we’d been in rehearsal for three weeks, maybe? So I had really spent a lot of time delving into some very personal details of her life, which didn’t really lend themselves to cocktail conversation. I honestly didn’t know what we were going to talk about, like, what am I going to ask her? “So, how about that time your dad died?” I was nervous about it, but she was so cool. The first thing she said to me was, “Hi Kate, thank you for cutting your hair.” I was like, what are you talking about, of course I’d cut my hair to play this character in this show, duh!

One of the first questions I had when it was confirmed that Fun Home was going on tour was—you touched on the question of, how is this going to play in different cities across the country, which is a valid question for people to have, but I also thought, how is this going to play in these giant touring houses? At Circle in the Square it was such an intimate experience; the Oriental Theatre, where you’re going to be playing in Chicago, is a 2,200-seat house. Do you have any sense yet of how that translates into these very different spaces?

Yeah, and actually that was the thing I gave the most thought to before we started rehearsal: How on Earth was this intimate show that was performed in the round to great acclaim going to translate to these giant touring houses? The first week we had performances here, our production stage manager said at one point, “You know, more people have now seen this show in two previews in Cleveland than would have seen it in a week on Broadway.” Which kind of sums it up. But I stopped worrying about that on the first day of rehearsal, because we got there and our director, Sam Gold, who is amazing, and our set designer, David Zinn, went through the new concept of the staging for these large proscenium houses. Sam made it very clear that he wasn’t interested in stretching out and flattening the Circle in the Square production and just turning up the volume so that it hit the back row. He wanted to reconceive the staging entirely. And it works, at least as far as I can assess. The reception here in Cleveland has been amazing. 

I am very optimistic about how this show will play, because I’ve spent enough time in enough large and small cities in America to appreciate that there are progressive thinkers everywhere. And there are people that love good theater everywhere. I always think we do better to give our audiences some credit, rather than worrying that they’re not going to be up to the challenge—whether that’s in the moment, in performance, or looking down the road at cities that we’re going to play in the future. We hadn’t even opened here in Cleveland, where we’re spending a total of five weeks including tech, before the producers told me that Durham, which is our next city, was almost sold out. And I think anybody who’s paying attention to LGBT issues, for example, would look at our show barreling toward North Carolina as something to perhaps be concerned about. But it turns out there’s a huge appetite for this show there.

That’s terrific. I think there was some skepticism when the show initially transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater, as well, but it had a very respectable run, not to mention five Tony Awards.

Isn’t that one of the hallmarks of commercial theater, that any time something is different or other, people get nervous about whether it’s going to work? I feel like we get reminded time and time again that if you create something that is good, with a strong identity and a sense of purpose, and hopefully some kind of important message, people will come to it. As much as people lose faith in commercial theater, it’s not all jukebox musicals. A show like Fun Home, I think, indicates to producers who are developing different shows at different stages that they can take risks. And if they take the time to get it right, the audiences will often—not always, but often—show up.

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