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BWW Interview: Kate Shindle Talks Tour Life with FUN HOME The Musical

BWW Interview: Kate Shindle Talks Tour Life with FUN HOME The Musical
Kate Shindle

Broadway's Kate Shindle---currently traveling the country playing Alison Bechdel in the first national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical FUN HOME---is not only an accomplished singer, actor and dancer, she is also a published author and an outspoken activist. Her résumé also includes holding the title of Miss Illinois in 1997 and then later Miss America 1998. In 2015, Shindle was also elected president of Actors' Equity Association, the American labor union for artists working in the theater.

On stage, she made her Broadway debut in JEKYLL & HYDE followed by the Tony-winning revival of CABARET. In 2007, she gained great notices for her role as Vivienne Kensington in the hit stage adaptation of LEGALLY BLONDE, a musical that ended up becoming a popular live presentation for MTV. She also appeared in the Broadway productions of WONDERLAND and DRACULA - THE MUSICAL.

But before FUN HOME makes its OC debut August 1 - 6 at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Shindle chatted with BroadwayWorld's Michael L. Quintos about her role in this groundbreaking musical, being AEA President, and what her life has been like on the road!

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BWW: First, I have to say that I have been a fan ever since I saw you belt those money notes during the broadcast of LEGALLY BLONDE on MTV ten years ago! What was that experience like looking back now?

Kate Shindle: It was incredible! It was such a fun show to do. Certainly when I got on board with that production, it felt like the fluffiest show I'd ever done---in a good way! It was surprising to me---and I categorize it as a wonderful surprise---how deeply the message of that show resonated especially with young girls. And even today, I meet people at the stage door who tell me they've watched that MTV broadcast hundreds of times. So, at the time, there was some skepticism about the fact that our producers chose to have the show filmed and play on MTV. But I think if you look at how well the tour did, for example, and how rampant the [regional] licensing for that musical is, as far as I'm concerned I think that it paid off for them.

You're, of course, currently starring as Alison Bechdel in the first national tour production of FUN HOME. What do you feel are the challenges of playing a role based on a real-life person and having to tell her real-life story eight times a week?

I think that the primary challenge is that it is a true story. So as much as we have to remind ourselves that, yes, it's a theatrical version of a true story, it's still very important to be respectful of the fact that these events actually happened. Alison Bechdel didn't grow up in a vacuum and Bruce Bechdel didn't die young in a vacuum. So those experiences were informed by a lot of things: how our society viewed LGBTQ people in the 70's, 80's and 90's and today. It would be tempting, you know, because this is theater, to just view them as something that you experience on a stage, and that it may not necessarily have relevance beyond the stage. But with FUN HOME, I think the relevance is tremendous. I mean, just look at the tenure of conversation about the LGBTQ community---even today in America---it is pretty obvious to me that the lessons of FUN HOME still apply here in 2017.

BWW Interview: Kate Shindle Talks Tour Life with FUN HOME The Musical
Kate Shindle in FUN HOME

I had the pleasure of seeing this incredible stage musical while it was in Los Angeles earlier this year and am so glad Orange County gets its chance to see it, too. What do you feel is the reason why so many people are connecting with FUN HOME, no matter what background they may come from?

I think that there are a lot of points of entry. You know, it's something to call our show "universal," but "universal" has even become a controversial word because there are those who also feel very important about the specific messages of our show and don't want them to be diluted by having it pointed out that these things can apply to a lot of people. So what I would say is that in terms of points of entry, to me FUN HOME is also about family---a family that may look perfect on the outside, but on the inside, there a lot of things that should be talked about but aren't. And it's that avoidance of conversation that has real consequences for the family and the show.

And I think it's interesting because a great many number of people tell me after the show that, you know, they're not gay, and their father wasn't gay, and they didn't grow up in a small town in Pennsylvania... but, boy, they've been in that car ride that we see in "Telephone Wire." And I think, you know, anybody with a parent or has a child probably had that moment. Again, not necessarily the same specifics, but it's the same idea.

Did the real Alison Bechdel offer you any inside info about how to approach the role?

She has not. But as far as I can tell, Alison Bechdel is basically any theater maker's dream collaborator because she has been wonderful, participatory, and generous to the show---particularly to the writers and the creative team. And she's been lovely to me. But at no point did that generosity include notes on how to play her, which is great, too! I flippantly say that there are reasons why so many writers of musical theater gravitate towards work that's in the public domain, because it could be difficult to collaborate with someone who feels very strongly about their source material. Now with someone like Allison... you know, [FUN HOME] is not just this story she created, it's actually her life, but I haven't heard one person say "wow, Alison really made my life difficult when I was _____!" Nope, she's been very supportive, she shows up for press events and talk-backs... she has come to our openings in Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see her again before the end of this tour.

FUN HOME is noted not only for being the first musical featuring a lead lesbian character, but also for being the first musical ever written by an all-female writing team. Do you feel a different kind of energy with this show versus some of the past shows you've worked on?

There is absolutely a different energy to FUN HOME than almost anything else I've ever worked on, but I would be careful not to solely attribute that to the fact that we have an all-female writing team. But I do think the complexities of the numerous female characters in our show---as well as the male characters, frankly---shows a lot of care and attention toward writing female human beings instead of just female supporting players.

There are no villains in FUN HOME that I could see---there may be some who feel differently than that---but I don't think there are heroes or villains. These are just people trying to live their lives... to figure out their lives... and their lives lead to challenges. What Jeanine [Tesori] and Lisa [Kron] have done in creating those characters is masterful. I wouldn't say that a man can't do that but these two women did a spectacular job of it.

Since you share the role, in essence, with other actors---specifically, Abby Corrigan, Carly Gold and Jadyn Schwartz, who play Alison at various stages of her life---was there a conscious decision to try to mimic each other's mannerisms or vocalizations for the character amongst all of you?

No, there wasn't. But there are a couple of little "Easter eggs" in that respect. There are a couple moments in the show that are staged so that our postures are reflective of each other or our costumes, certainly, are thematically connected. But, you know, recently there's this really interesting thing that Abby does with her hand that I've been paying attention to because, well, I'm on stage for the whole show so I watch everything every night. I haven't figured it out yet but I'm not so sure that it wouldn't be a little precious for me to start incorporating her hands into my performance, because frankly, I do different things now than I did when I was 19, and certainly when I was 10 or 11. But it is interesting. There was no "Alison Boot Camp" where we all learned to, you know, chew our steaks the same way or anything. But I do pay attention to those actors, primarily because I get to watch everything they do every night.

Is there a particular piece in the show that you're watching and you think to yourself, "Wow, what a moment that is!"

Oh, well, throughout! When I watch Robert Petkoff [who plays Bruce Bechdel] do "Edges" or Susan Moniz [who plays Helen Bechdel] just sing the hell out of "Days and Days." Or the dorm scenes with Medium Alison and Joan are some of my favorites in the show. I think one of the luckiest things about this production is that it is really well cast. And, you know, we don't have big stars and it's not a big star-driven show, but, man... the confidence in casting that allows our producers, our casting team and our director Sam Gold to find kids via video that they thought would be good for the show... I think it's great they cast Abby who, when we first started rehearsals, had just graduated high school! It's amazing... I really enjoy watching everybody.

Let's pivot a bit and talk about your background. Growing up, did you already know that you wanted a career in musical theater?

I think by the time I was in high school I had figured that out. And I did it with very little evidence that I would be good at that. I knew I had an affinity for it, but I went to a really small private Catholic High School in suburban Philadelphia and we didn't even have a stage let alone a theater department... or even a drama class! In a lot of ways, that was terrific because we learned that you could make theater with nothing except [to gather] a group of people who want to tell a story. It didn't mean I wasn't intimidated once I got to Northwestern University and met my fellow students who came from high schools that had programs that outpaced so many colleges. But it was valuable, nonetheless.

Was there a show you saw that told you... yes, this is what I want to do?

There may have been... but I can't think of it. But the first time I got really jacked up about theater was actually when some of the other kids I was in school with got really excited to talk this woman who ran our after-school program into doing INTO THE WOODS---because I had never seen or heard a show like that. I've never experienced lyrics like that. It was so smart and witty and clever. I would say that was probably the first one that really revved my engine.

Who were some of your idols or influences growing up?

I've always loved Bernadette Peters, which is interesting because now that I've had the pleasure of standing next to Bernadette Peters a number of times, I can't imagine somebody who is more not like me than her physically [Laughs]. By the time I was in high school, I was probably many many inches taller than she is. But, I mean, she's special. She is so unique... and she got me started in appreciating unique talent. It's one of the reasons why I'm such a fan of Celia Keenan-Bolger---because nobody's like her. I don't know any other actors like her. I don't know anybody who sings like she does or looks like she does. She seems to be very curious about forms of theater. She goes back and forth from plays to musicals with such flair, and she's funny, she's dramatic... and, you know, she's unique! And so I get very excited about that kind of performer.

Now, describe for me how you felt finally making your Broadway debut...

I was one of the lucky ones. I had been in New York for about three months when I got my first Broadway job! It was in the ensemble of JEKYLL AND HYDE and I was understudying [the role of] Lucy. But I think one of the misconceptions when you're coming up in a theater universe---even from a University theater department---is that Broadway is the most fulfilling creative experience you will ever have. But going right into an ensemble track on a long-running show, that's not the same [Laughs] as originating something or working on a brand new piece or trying something out-of-town. There are different types. I mean, you know, of course, that show was great, thrilling, and exciting. Because I was so tall, I couldn't fit into anyone's costumes, so they pulled all of Linda Eder's costumes out of storage for me which was its own thrill.

Ohmigosh, wow!

I know, I almost passed out! And on the first day I was on, it was remarkable! I had very little rehearsal before I went on and so it was like being shot out of a cannon! I mean, doing it was super exciting, but at the same time, it gave me an appreciation for the fact that being in a show on Broadway or in a professional theater is not just about art, it's also about having a job---and the need to show up and do your job in similar ways, every single night, eight times a week. It becomes less about you and more about the audience and the professional expectations. But I have no complaints about that. I was there for about six months and then I left to play Sally in the tour of CABARET---which itself was a totally different experience and was totally fabulous.

Do you have a dream role in another musical you would love to tackle some day?

You know, I feel like there's a gathering storm around CITY OF ANGELS. I did that show in college and I'd really love to do it again. And I've always wanted to take on EVITA, but I think the time for that may have come and gone, and because I'm also so physically dissimilar to the real Eva Péron that that has presented a problem a couple of times when I auditioned for it. I did get offers to play her in productions of EVITA but I think I got other jobs and I couldn't do it. [Pauses] I would love to do the play HEDDA GABLER, and I really want to play Masha in THE SEAGULL... yeah, there are a lot of things that I want to do and at the same time I've worked on so much---as we all have---developing theater, that my dream role may not have been written yet. So I'm always interested in working on new projects and development because you never know what you're going to find that no one has done before.

Cool, well I hope that happens for you! Now, you, of course, are also currently the President of Actor's Equity Association.

Oh, yeah, I heard that! [Laughs]

Is it tough juggling life on the road with your duties with AEA?

Is it tough? Sure. I mean, it's a challenge, but it's a challenge that I enjoy. I was out of the show for two days this week to go to Florida to speak at the IATSE Convention, which was amazing. And then on Wednesday I had a 15-hour travel day back to Seattle where we [FUN HOME] are now... of course the convention was in Fort Lauderdale! [Laughs] Then my first conference call yesterday morning with Equity was at 7 a.m.---because it was on the East Coast. And so, sometimes, it's really easy to get sucked into what I call the "Equity Vortex" where it could take over your whole life, but most of the time, I enjoy it so much that it doesn't even feel like a chore. The things that slip between the cracks are, like... categorizing my receipts, and not having to put my taxes on extension. But I've had a really lucky run. I mean, it's not all luck, but a lot of it is luck... of finding things I deeply enjoy and getting a chance to do them. And so, yeah, it takes a lot of hours to do a tour and also to be the elected official in a union---but I like doing them both! I'm a pretty happy actor right now and I don't have many complaints.

That sounds great! Okay, now it's time for the lightning round! I'll be throwing a few rapid-fire questions your way and just give me the first thing that pops in your head! First, what song (or artist) do you like belting in the shower or when you're all alone in the car?

Oooh... I never sing in the car! Okay, I know this is such a nerd answer but mostly all I listen to in the car are News channels on Sirrius and Lance Armstrong's Tour de France podcasts. So I don't sing along very much [Laughs].

Haha, okay, fair enough. Alright then what scares you the most?

What scares me the most? [Long Pause] Nothing!

You don't scare easily.

I don't scare easily. Oh, but, you know what... I'll give you one: that moment when the plane lands and the pilot puts the brakes on. That always makes me nervous. I just don't want us to rear end anything! And I've been on a lot of planes lately.

I totally get that. What is your guilty pleasure?

You know what I do like to watch? Web casts of state-level Miss AmErica Pageant competitions.

[Laughs] And you know a little something about that, right?

Yep... you can take the rhinestones off a girl, but... [Laughs]

Okay, what do you like to do on your day(s) off?

Nothing. But if I don't have the option of doing nothing, I ride my bike. I bought a car to drive this tour partially so that I can bring my road bike with me. Oh... I just thought of another guilty pleasure... I also like looking at foreclosure websites. I have a secret real estate jones---actually it's my worst kept secret. Anytime someone starts talking about real estate, my entire body lights up.

What/Who irritates you the most?

Unreasonable people. And people who lie.

So then what instantly puts a smile on your face?

My dogs!

Awww.

Actually just answering that question made me smile. [Laughs]

Great! Okay, if you weren't an actor or the AEA president, what other career do you see yourself excelling at?

Probably real estate. I'm real estate obsessed. And, of course, there's always something philanthropic or maybe an elected office.

Awesome! Many of our readers are young students who dream of someday doing exactly what you're doing as a career. Any advice for our young readers who want to get into the musical theater biz?

Yes. You should get the best education you can, and you should study theater as if it's going to be your job and not your hobby. And... go for it! And if you don't end up deciding to be an actor for the rest of your life, there are a lot of other careers associated with the theater industry that you can do. I know so many writers, casting directors, agents, managers, producers, stage managers, and even stage hands who started as actors and then they decided "I love the theater, but I don't want to be a performer for the rest of my life." But, if you study the discipline---like you would study the law if you wanted to be a lawyer before you took the bar exam---then you're putting yourself in a really good position.

BWW Interview: Kate Shindle Talks Tour Life with FUN HOME The Musical
Megan Hilty, Eden Espinosa and Kate Shindle at a 2009
"Broadway Wishes" Benefit in Orange County. Photo by Michael Quintos.

Great advice! You, personally, have had a long history of philanthropy, not only as a former Miss America but also in your work on behalf of AIDS prevention. Living in such uneasy times lately, what are some of the issues do you think require our community's most urgent attention right now as we move forward?

Wow... I mean... which ones don't, you know? I think that Equity has a number of public policy initiatives that I spend a lot of time thinking about... same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights, HIV-AIDS advocacy, health care, arts education, arts funding, workers' rights, voting rights... and we recently passed a resolution to also add responsible gun legislation reform to that list, because... theater can be a very porous target. THAT scares me. You know, earlier, I couldn't think of something that scares me... THAT scares me... the idea that someone who wants to make a scene could seek out a stage door or a live performance space here in America. There are obviously a lot of venues that have great security and are prepared for things like that. But I also feel like there's some value to the fact that every one of these places where all these mass shootings happen is someone's workplace, and I am surprised that labor unions haven't gotten more pro-active in trying to protect work places that way.

I completely agree. Alright, one last question... what has been the most enjoyable aspect for you personally traveling the country with FUN HOME so far?

I know this is going to sound like a cliché but honestly... seeing this amazing country of ours is fantastic, and it's another reason why I wanted to drive. You know, there are so many of us who travel quite a bit, but we go from La Jolla to Chicago to Philadelphia to South Florida... and those are all wonderful places. But if you don't see the "in-between" then you're missing part of America. And I think that's how we end up using terms like "fly-over states" which is something I wish we could all just eliminate from our vocabulary all at once, rather than recognizing the fact that though we have many, many different opinions, I believe that pretty much everybody is just trying to do the best with what they have. And people who live in cities with fancy performing arts centers have it a lot different from people you may meet in a truck stop in Kentucky or New Mexico. It's not to say one is better or worse, it's just that they're different. When we don't recognize people's real differences and where they come from... that's how we ended up where we are now.

Follow Contributing Editor Michael L. Quintos on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos from the National Tour of FUN HOME - THE MUSICAL by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

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Performances of the National Tour of FUN HOME at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, August 6, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.


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