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Interview: Kally Duling of FUN HOME at The Bushnell

Looking back at one's childhood with grown-up eyes can be revealing in many ways. Sometimes we understand better the sacrifices our parents made to give us the things they never had. And sometimes, exploring the past helps us find closure, clarity, and a sense of peace. In the Tony Award winning musical, FUN HOME, the character of Alison does just this - peers back at her life and reveals the joy and pain hidden in the past. Based on the acclaimed, autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, FUN HOME arrives in Hartford at The Bushnell June 20 - 25. I had the pleasure of catching up with Kally Duling who plays the character of Joan, and who shared her insights on the show and its important message.

BWW: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. We are really looking forward to FUN HOME in Hartford!

Kally Duling: Of course! We are excited as well!

Can you start by telling us a little bit about how you got started in the theatre?

I started doing theatre when I was about nine back home in Lincoln, Nebraska. My brother was really big into theatre. He saw a community theatre production performing in the mall and begged my parents to take him to an audition. He was great and got cast and I wanted to do everything like him, so I followed. So, I got wrapped into it that way. It wasn't really something that I thought of as something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was a really shy kid and I didn't feel I was so good at it. My brother was always the outgoing one and I was always so shy. I went to school in Nebraska and got recruited into their program and gained a little bit of confidence. After I graduated school I didn't know what I wanted to do. I have a degree in education as well, but didn't feel like I wanted to do that right away, so I moved to New York, and the rest is history!

FUN HOME is a new show for many people. How would you describe it to someone not familiar with the production?

At the heart of it, FUN HOME is really about family - and seeing your family through grown up eyes. Alison is looking back at her history, her parents, her brothers, and herself as she's growing up. She sees things in hindsight, and I think we can all relate to that. The family element and the ability to look back is at the heart of what FUN HOME is about. Alison spent a lot of her youth trying to come into her own, and eventually did that in college when she was separate from her family. Her coming into her own brought out all sorts of secrets in her family. I think at the heart of it, it really is a show about parents and children. That is one of the most prominent themes in the show. I think we all at some point take a second to look back and see events in hindsight and things start to make sense.

Can you tell us a little bit about your character, Joan. What do you like the most about the role?

Joan is the first girlfriend that medium Alison has in college. She is super confident, an activist and a very strong person. She knows who she is and is proud of it. She is not hiding anything really. So Alison, who is less sure of herself at this point in her life needs someone like Joan to bring her out of her shell a little bit. I have loved playing this role on the tour. I understudied in New York for both of the roles and being able to own the role of Joan has been awesome. Like I said, I was a really shy kid and awkward for a very long time so for me to be able to play this super-confident role is amazing. It has helped me be more confident and true to myself. Sometimes it is comfortable to play roles that we are really like, and sometimes it is amazing to play roles that are a little bit more of a stretch. That is what Joan has been for me - a role where I can challenge myself to go to places that five years ago I never thought I would be able to go. It has been fun for my brother too, who is a director and producer in New York. He saw me play Joan on Broadway and now, with this production, hearing him say "you have really grown into the role and you really own it now" is really cool.

I understand you are the only member of the cast to play your role on Broadway. What's it been like taking a production like this on the road?

I think the story is really important and I think it is important to tell the story all over the country. So to be a part of it and to be able to represent the show in other parts of the country, it has been really amazing, humbling and awesome. This version of FUN HOME really is totally different than it was in New York. I actually had the unique experience of seeing the touring company before I knew I would join it. It is really beautiful the way that Sam, our director, has taken some of the staging and some of the ideas from The Public Theater when it was Off-Broadway in proscenium and then the ideas and the staging from the Broadway version where it was in the round, and then pushed them together in a "best of". It is really awesome. I think that in doing it in these three unique ways, they have learned a lot and have been able to put it together into a really stunning production. I also think it is interesting for people who saw it in New York to see it now, because it is totally different. It is almost hard to compare them because they are just so different. In the round the audience is on top of you, so it took a different level of focus. Now, everything is intimate, but in a completely different way. They have managed to keep the intimacy of the show and it works really well.

FUN HOME is based on a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, and possibly the only Broadway musical to have its source material a graphic novel. Before you joined the show, were you familiar with the original work?

I was familiar with it, but of course, like any musical theatre nerd, I was familiar with it from that perspective - from the musical. I first heard of it when it was at the Public and picked up the book and took a look at it. It was really when I first started auditioning that I read the book. Once I got cast I started reading Alison's other books as well. It is truly interesting to have the material and to have the real human being as a resource. To know you are telling a real story, and a real important story, there is an added element of responsibility to tell it accurately. She is a real human being and Bruce Bechdel was a real human being and it is important to justly tell their stories.

Have you had the chance to meet Alison? Or maybe the real Joan? Is there a real Joan out there?

Yes, the real Joan is out there. I have met the real Alison Bechdel a couple times. I met her in New York and the real Joan has been around and has seen the show, but I haven't met her yet. I have seen pictures - I know she exists. She is a real human being, but the character of Joan is sort of a combination of multiple people, and is not quite as direct a translation as Alison or Bruce or her brothers.

You have the chance to work with a number of young performers in your show. What's it been like working with the kids?

It is amazing! I am a big kid person, my other job is private tutoring and education. I love working with kids. I think having kids around puts the heavy subject matter, especially the ending, all into perspective. Every child that I have worked with, which is all but two or three of them, brings such a different energy. They are so honest and real. They are super quirky and funny and real little people. All of the kids have brought this innocent observation of this story. For example, our original John, who is the littlest one, always wanted to say a quote in each of our talkbacks and found a way to work it into the conversation. He would say "Be who you want to be, love who you want to love, because no one can tell you what your feelings are."

What do you look forward to the most before you step out on stage each night?

I don't know that I have just one moment. I am always looking forward to the journey, and I think the show, for me, is like a journey through meeting Alison, getting to know her, dating her, and going home to meet her family. There is a great scene between Alison and Joan that is so well written that I love doing. It is followed by another scene where we have our first kiss that is also really fun. I think what I like the most are those moments where Alison and I connect in a way. I like finding new ways to support her. I like that Joan is kind of a badass, but also is there to support Alison and help her be ok with who she is.

So thinking toward the future, do you have a dream role that you would one day like to play?

We just saw a production of GYPSY, and I would really love to play Louise someday. But honestly, I think my dream role right now, as crazy as it sounds, would be a recurring cartoon. I do voiceover work for toys and cartoons, and I would really love to be the next Bart Simpson or something on a smaller scale. I think that would be cool. But I think my dream role probably hasn't been written yet or is being written now. New work is really exciting. There are so many great playwrights out there right now. I have done a couple new plays in the past and would love to do one of those roles again.

Anything else you would like our readers to know about the show?

I think it is a great show for truly anybody. Some of the people who come see it have no idea what they are seeing, and those are the people that are most affected by it and the most changed by it. I think those are the people that it is most exciting to do the show for. It is so exciting to hear people say "I knew nothing about the show walking in". At the beginning of the show there is a line "My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay and I was gay and he killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist." We lay that out within the first ten minutes of the show. You can feel the tension in some theaters in that moment and by the end of it they are weeping and they are completely connected and they absolutely love it. And that is super exciting.

FUN HOME runs at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT June 20 - June 25. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at, by phone at 860-987-5900 , or at The Bushnell box office, 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford.

Top Photo: Kally Duling

Middle Photo: The National Tour Company of Fun Home Photo: Joan Marcus

Bottom Photo: Kate Shindle as 'Alison' in Fun Home Photo: Joan Marcus

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