Talking With...NICOLE VAN GIESEN About FUN HOME And Why It Matters So Much
Among the most eagerly anticipated touring productions on the upcoming 2017-18 HCA/TriStar Health Broadway at TPAC Series is the critically acclaimed, Tony Award-winning best musical of 2015: Fun Home, the adaptation of Alison Bechdel's about her family's experiences living in a funeral home in Pennsylvania and coming to terms with her father's closeted homosexuality and her own coming out experiences as a lesbian in the late 20th century.
During the 2017-18 season reveal gala at TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall last week, Nicole Van Giesen, a member of the show's original Broadway cast, was on hand to perform "Telephone Wire" from the score by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron. The response to the announcement that Fun Home will play Nashville October 10-15 was enthusiastic - some might even have called it "thunderous" - and the audience filled with theater lovers rewarded Van Giesen with warm, generous applause.
Prior to the start of the event, we had a chance to sit down with Nicole and to talk about her life post-Fun Home and to recall some of the memories that resonate so deeply with her seven months after the show closed at Circle in the Square Theatre (where it opened in April 2015 and closed last September 2016).
Charming and introspective, Van Giesen shared her impressions of Fun Home, the experience of bringing the show's characters to life and the inherent responsibility of playing a living person, and discussed the production's impact on the national conversation of gender politics and the growing recognition of the LGBTQ community and the myriad issues surrounding it.
Light-hearted and serious, by turns, our conversation started out with my explanation that during my term as editor/publisher of Query, Tennessee's first weekly newspaper for the LGBTQ community (launched in March 1988 as Dare and continuing through 2004), we were among the first papers in the country to carry Alison Bechdel's cartoon strip which, at the time before email became the preferred method of correspondence, would arrive weekly via the US Post Office to be pasted into our newspaper layouts. And I would often talk by phone with Alison about her work, its impact on our readership and how much I loved her work.
The last time Alison and I talked by phone it was when I called to tell her that my partner had died unexpectedly and the challenges of dealing with that - long before same sex marriage seemed like much of a possibility in our shared lifetime. How times have changed...
Tell me what's been your experience with Fun Home thus far? I stood-by for adult Alison and Helen from the beginning of the Broadway run...it was pretty amazing to be a part of it. I've had a few Broadway experiences but nothing that compared to it: the love within the company, the love from the audiences, when I would get to perform and get to go outside to the signing line...it was kind of remarkable because I don't know that I've ever had an experience where people revealed so many truths about themselves and they felt comfortable and safe enough to say that's my story up there and even if it wasn't exactly their story, to be able to say 'wow, my family was really just like that - not at all in the same way' but it brought up so many feelings.
After the show ended its Broadway run and began to make its way across America on tour, Nicole left the production - "I have small children still in school, so I'm not on the tour," she explains - but is still connected to the show thanks to opportunities like the one at TPAC, to represent the show's cast and creators.
You're not on the tour, so now you're like a brand ambassador for Fun Home, right? I'm really proud to be that and I feel like there's no show like this and I'm so proud the country is getting the opportunity to see it because I think it's really important - not just for the local conversation in New York and the tourism there, but I think it needs to be part of the national conversation.
Theatre people are obviously thrilled that it's touring, but I think there's the feeling among some people that it would be a hard show to tour simply because "would middle America accept the subject matter"? But from what you're telling me, the middle Americans who saw it on Broadway embraced it so effusively... Yes, I would say there's probably a lot of middle America who didn't know what they were coming to see, but afterward they were very thankful that they did. I don't think there's necessarily a bad thing in not knowing exactly what it is you're about to see, especially when it comes to this kind of show before you see it because you might not have given it an opportunity due to your initial feelings about the subject matter - whatever that may be. I think selling it as a family show is important because, ultimately, it's about family. What it happens to do is open up the conversations in other areas that reflect people's lives, whether they may realize it or not, or whether it may affect them directly. But everyone knows someone who is part of the LGBTQ community, whether they are aware of it or not. So, I think opening the doors to those conversations and the realizations that we're all just people who deserve to be loved and respected for who we are is so important and I'm so glad it's become a part of the national conversation.
Before you became a part of Fun Home, were you aware of who Alison Bechdel was and the work that she was doing? No, I wasn't.
So you were able to discover her and her story in much the same way that the audiences does... Very much like the audiences did...I didn't know who she was and to be able to learn about her first hand in this kind of experience was pretty special. But if I just been an audience member, I think I would have felt just as grateful to be exposed to her work and to her story.
Do you feel any special responsibility to the characters as you do your work as "brand ambassador" at events like this? Yes, absolutely, because it is her life. Absolutely! I can't tell you how much time I spent watching videos of Alison, the way she speaks, her mannerisms and then her insight into her life and how the book came to be. You want to honor who they were and make sure that although I don't know that Alison ever expected it to become a musical - even as it was being written - she said that when she was able to sit down and watch the show, she was able to learn things about her family that she might not have known before, thanks to the original company's interpretation of what she wrote. She learned so much as well, which is really pretty cool!
We then talked about Alison Bechdel's breakthrough as a writer and cartoonist in the national lesbian and gay press back in the early 1990s and the subsequent publication of her book upon which the musical is based - and Alison's courage and bravery in telling her family's story in such a public way...
I think that's what's so endearing about the show, especially at the three ages she is portrayed, because you see the human side to every phase of her life and her experiences because we were all that age at some point and it may not mirror the exact experience, but how you handle it is how you handle it as the person you are.
What's really lovely about this show is that These characters are endearing, they are funny, they are heartbreaking - it's a traumatic show and at the same time, I would tell people but you will laugh, you will have a wonderful time as hard as it is. You may cry as well and you will experience the gamut of emotions because she is a real person who experienced all these things and through the writing of the show chose to experience them all again in order to figure out more about herself and her family.
About the show: Fun Home October 10-15, 2017 www.funhomemusical.com Every once in a while a Broadway musical comes along that surprises, moves and excites audiences in ways only a truly landmark musical can. The "groundbreaking," "exquisite" and "unforgettable" new musical Fun Home was the event of the Broadway season, receiving raves from critics and audiences alike, winning five 2015 Tony Awards including Best Musical and making history along the way. Based on Alison Bechdel's best-selling graphic memoir, Fun Home introduces us to Alison at three different ages as she explores and unravels the many mysteries of her childhood. A refreshingly honest musical about seeing your parents through grown-up eyes, "Fun Home is extraordinary, a rare beauty that pumps fresh air into Broadway." (The New York Times)