BWW Interview: FUN HOME's Kate Shindle
FUN HOME and Kate Shindle have more than a couple things in common. Both are winners: FUN HOME, winner of five 2015 Tony Awards and finalist for a Pulitzer Prize & Shindle, a former Miss America and current Actors' Equity Association President. They're also both engaging and intellectually stimulating. The show gets you thinking, and so does Shindle.
A recent engaging conversation with her after opening night in Minneapolis on a cold winter day gave me more material than I could share here. (Believe it or not, there's more!) What you'll read below is the majority of the content edited for length; but Shindle is a delightful talker with a lot to say so I wish I could give it all here. Dive in and learn more about FUN HOME and Shindle herself in this in-depth interview with FUN HOME's lead, who plays the grown-up Alison Bechdel.
What do you see as the central theme of FUN HOME and what do you hope audiences get from it?
"To me, the show's about identity - about knowing who yo are and feeling free to embrace and live that identity. And the idea that if you don't do that, it's possible that bad things can happen. We see that in the story of Alison as juxtaposed with the story of her father. You know, Alison's at a point in her life that she's looking back and anybody who doesn't know Fun Home is actually based on a book which is based on a true story written by an actual person named Alison Bechdel. And at the beginning of our play, she's looking back at her life and trying to create a graphic novel, which she did. But the show is sort of about that process... And, as the show goes on, she starts to relive, observe the memories of the relationship with her family. Of the relationship with her father. And she ends up getting drawn into that much more than she expected. Until she reaches what I think is sort of a catharsis, and I really enjoy playing. Now all of that is maybe the worst elevator pitch for a show ever. It's a hard show to sum up. It's about a family that looks perfect on the outside--like PERFECT--restoring old homes to museum level perfect and kids alway perfectly dressed... underneath there are a lot of things they never talked about.
"It's really interesting to play because it's life-like.I like to say this is a show for people who like musicals and like intelligent theater but it's also a show for people who may not be sure they like musicals because they have a vision of musicals as being flashy, show-offy things where the songs are more important than the scenes and people just burst into song and dance for no reason. I would sort of take issue with that view of musical theater if that's what we were talking about. But in this show it's just decidedly not that. The music has a much more contemporary singer-songwriter vibe to it. Although there are a couple sort of pastiche numbers that would be the kinds of music Alison was listening to when she was a child."
You're on stage for the entire show, and while you're not always in the center of things, what's it like for you as an actor to be on stage the entire time?
"It's a challenge. I like a challenge so it literally wasn't until last week that I said to some of the other cast, 'Wow, this show wears me out!' And it's surprising to me because I'm not doing dance numbers. Susan, who plays Helen, Alison's mom, says, 'You're on stage the whole show. Give yourself a break.' ... there's an alertness to it because Alison is learning form all these things as the story goes along. She's paying very close attention to this song so that she can draw conclusions from it and think about it. There's kind of no way to space out. I kind of wish there was. But it's turned out to be kind of a marathon for me. I know this is going to sound silly but I stand up a lot... I was talking to the stage manager and said, I can bike 60 miles. I run marathons. Why is this so challenging for me? Fortunately the story is really interesting to me. And it's a challenge. Every performance is a big challenge in terms of acting; emotionally, intellectually, it really makes me bring my A game. It's a real asset. I don't have to opportunity to check out or get bored."
Have you met the real Alison? What was that like for you to meet the person you're now portraying?
"Yes, I have. The first time I was really intimidated by the prospect of the meeting because, first of all it was at a cocktail party, which someone came up with as the great idea for us to meet. Then we were about three weeks into rehearsals and just about to leave town, so we'd been digging into some pretty intense stuff about her life and history. At that point it seemed to me like trying to make cocktail conversation when we've been diving into this story of her father's death and her coming out and those kinds of things, I honestly didn't know what I was going to talk to her about. But then, she was awesome. She's warm and she's obviously very cerebral, and really lovely. I just thought she was a lovely person. So we talked about - I ride a road bike and she rides a road bike - so we talked about road bikes, and haircuts and things. And it was completely great.
"Then she came to see us in Cleveland. That's the other thing about playing a real person. I've said a number of times, Mama Rose was a real person. Eva Peron was a real person. But they're not coming to your opening night in Cleveland. ...From what I can tell, the show could not have a better relationship with Alison Bechdel. She's been very supportive but she doesn't seem to meddle. She doesn't know much about musical theatre. She's not trying to get in there and micromanage. She just enjoys and seems pleasantly surprised by the fact that somebody wanted to turn her book into a musical and she trusted Lisa Kron specifically to do it."
How has the show been received so far and do you get different reactions in different cities?
"It's an interesting things. The reviews I've seen have been amazing. And that means something. I know that a lot of actors say they don't read reviews and some of them are telling the truth. I read what I can get my hands on easily. It's important to me what an audience thinks. It's important to me what critics think. Then it's important to me what the show and director think. So that has been great. The people who have come to see the show have been wonderful.
"As far as the show and the cultural moment, it's interesting because i was just saying a few minutes ago that I've started to do some writing about that. Particularly it was on the drive from Cleveland to Durham that I thought, wait a minute, I think this is a book. Because I've wrote a book before and it's an awful lot of work. But touring this show around the country at this particular moment, particularly in the shadow of the election, whichever way it had broken, it would be pretty interesting. And now you hear a lot of calls from marginalized communities who are afraid their rights are going to go away and I don't know that I agree with that. I think that this is not our first activist rodeo. We can unite and look out for each other, and make sure people are treated with dignity and respect. It's one of the reasons it's challenging to talk about the show. One of the principle revelations that happens in the first few minutes is, 'My dad was gay and I was gay, and he killed himself.' And I don't want people to hear that and think, 'Oh well, that show is not for me.' Because it is entertaining, but it's also interesting and challenging.
"I'm constantly reminded of the many points of entry. People who connect to it simply because they miss their father who did pass away prior to the time that they see the show. Or because their family had things that they didn't talk about, which I'm pretty sure every family does. Even if it wasn't 'My dad's a closeted gay man in a small town and that didn't turn out so well.' So my experience with this has been, I'd say, a pleasant surprise although I'm not surprised that there are progressive thinkers who like good theater in a lot of the places that we've gone so far.
We stood around before the sound check and said, 'God, Minneapolis is great. It's such a theater town. And i wish we were here for two weeks.' Or longer. The hell with the cold! This is where our show needs to be. So I'm not surprised we had an audience like that last night. When the audience is there and they're really with you it just makes you want to be better.I was on the stage thinking, 'I just want to do the best show I can for these people.' And I think all of us felt the same way."
Tell me more about your career - it looks like you got into acting shortly after Miss America?
"I was actually three years into a theater degree when that happened. So in the narrative of my life, that was sort of the detour from being a professional actor. I decided when I was 12 or 13, with very little evidence to support the fact that this was something I'd be good at. I went to a tiny little high school where we didn't even have a stage. My senior year we did the play in our chapel. And then I went to Northwestern and I was studying theater and musical theater there. At Northwestern, it's so decidedly not a conservatory that we studied theater but they have a little less a romantic vision of being an actor, which totally works for me. The philosophy is, look, if you want to be a lawyer, we'll train you to be a lawyer, if you want to be an actor, we'll train you to be an actor. And that sort of takes some of the mystique out of it. Technique is important. You don't get up on stage and just feel everything equally, every single performance. Sometimes you just think, 'I couldn't generate emotions the usual ways, so thank God I've got technique to fall back on.'
"I moved to New York shortly after I graduated... I've done four Broadway shows, I've toured with CABARET, I've worked in a lot of cities... it's lightly peppered with TV and film stuff but I've never really clicked there but I enjoy it very much.So I'm kind of a theater animal."
What's the most memorable role you've had?
"I think Sally in CABARET because it was my first big job. I was an understudy in the show. That was my first Broadway job. Then I got hired to do the tour of CABARET. It was amazing because it was so hard. It was so hard! I thought 'Well, I've graduated from school. I've got a degree. I must know everything I need to know.' and then you get into something like that and you think, 'I have no business doing this. What am I gonna do?' And you just learn.
"I also did a production of AFTER THE FALL at the Alley Theater in Houston, which I was really proud of. Again, it was so much work to do it right. If you're me; if you're 5'11" and built like a swimmer and you get hired to play essentially the fictionalized version of Marilyn Monroe, you've got a lot of work to do!"
Are there any roles you know of currently that you're just dying to play?
"I've started use really recently about GYPSY. Because when I did GYPSY, they did it in a way very few productions cast Rose. She was in her 30s and she aged throughout the show. So the Rose you see at the beginning is somebody that has kids that are 10 and under, and by the end she's sort of probably in her 50s. I thought, well, 'I'm in my 30s, and I'm going to play that role someday, so I may as well start practicing it. It's interesting to me the idea that Rose is usually cast as a woman in her 50s or 60s who then plays young but having a younger scrappier, 'We're gonna make it in Burlesque" woman who, in today's culture, would very much still be in the age to have a career herself. But back then, you sort of aged out of things sooner, i guess.She just didn't get the opportunities she would've liked for herself so she's sort of living through her kids. The only thing that holds me back from doing that is that I don't have kids. I feel like there are things about not having kids that make it harder to play a stage mom."
Do you have any plans after FUN HOME? What's next for you?
"I don't know and it's delightful that I don't have to care yet. Right now I'm scheduled to go on until October. There's an extension that I have not signed on for yet. But we're talking about it, which would go just till December. I don't know what their plans are for the tour; I'm not sure if they're looking at a second year yet. I'm not sure if I'd rather get back to New York than stay out but I'm just enjoying the hell out of it right now.The good news is this is a nice job for a certain period of time and the lead time is long enough at this point in time that I don't really have to worry about what the next job is yet.
"The Equity thing is always going to be tugging at me but there's a lot I can do remotely..."
Did you actually have to campaign to become president of the union?
"Yeah, I did. You know, it's an office elected by 50,000+ members across the country. So everybody votes for everything... Yeah, I did have to campaign and I worked hard at it, you know? I just kind of went, 'I want to do that.'"
How long is the term?
"It's a three-year term. At first I thought, I'll do one and done. See what I can do in three years and now I'm about half way through it and I'm thinking, 'What could I do in 5 years?' So I haven't made any decisions but I really like it. I'm just old enough to want to do stuff I like and make a living somehow. And if I stop, you know, people ask all the time, especially when you're not working, 'Have you ever thought about doing something else?' and it's like yeah. Every two weeks. You think, 'Should I really be doing this? Is this really making me happy?'and if you don't, you're insane. If it ever stops being fun or if other things that I like that I'll go do. That right there is the value of a liberal arts-based, college education! Cause you have to study lots of things and figure out what your interests are. No shade on conservatories... it was better for me to have a broader based education than just a musical theater bubble.It was better for me and my brain. Did I mention I'm working on a book?"
Yes, you did. Is it going to be a memoir then?
"Yes, just observations. How does touring this show differ in North Carolina in the era of HB2 vs. Chicago in the four days after the presidential election? Or, everybody thinks San Francisco will be an amazing place for us, which I hope it is and I think it will be. But I remember when I had just been with some actors who'd just been there with TAKE ME OUT who said in ways, San Francisco was almost too progressive for us. The things that were so provocative in other places; in San Francisco it was like, 'Yeah, we get it.' I'm just enjoying all this and trying to write down as much as possible because I think there's an interesting story to be told. I'm just not entirely sure what it is yet."
Kate Shindle bio:
Broadway: Legally Blonde (Vivienne), Cabaret (Sally Bowles), Wonderland (Hatter), Jekyll & Hyde. Elsewhere: Rapture, Blister, Burn (Catherine), After the Fall (Maggie), Restoration, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Gypsy, Into the Woods, The Last Five Years, First Lady Suite, The Mousetrap. Film/TV: Lucky Stiff, SVU, White Collar, Gossip Girl, The Stepford Wives, Capote. Kate is a longtime activist, former Miss America, author of Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain and President of Actors' Equity Association. twitter.com/AEApresident.
FUN HOME plays the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through Dec. 18 as part of the Hennepin Theatre Trust season. www.hennepintheatretrust.org
Photo: Above: Kate Shindle (Alison) in FUN HOME. Photo by Joan Marcus. Below: Photo by author.