BWW Interview: Roxanne Wach, Director of FUN HOME at Omaha Community Playhouse

BWW Interview: Roxanne Wach, Director of FUN HOME at Omaha Community Playhouse

FUN HOME, winner of five Tony Awards in 2015, is coming to Omaha! The Omaha Community Playhouse will run this powerfully emotive musical from August 17 through September 16, 2018. I recently spoke with the director of FUN HOME, Roxanne Wach.

For those who are unfamiliar with FUN HOME, how would you summarize the story line?

The show is based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel of the same name and depicts Alison's life from different perspectives. She's looking to connect to her past so she can move on in her present. The play deals with identity and finding yourself, and also how little we know about the people closest to us. For Alison, that involves coming out - to herself and her family. It deals with seeing your parents through adult eyes and realizing that they were probably doing the best that they could with what they knew at the time. It also touches on memory, being remembered and home. So, there's something in it for everyone.

I was surprised to find that "Fun Home" is really an abbreviation for funeral home.

I saw it at the Public and I was familiar with the book, so I already knew that one. It's not necessarily always a very fun home, though!

Since FUN HOME portrays Alison Bechdel through three phases of her life: as a child, a college student, and an adult, how difficult was this to choose three actresses to fill these roles so that the audience could believe they were the same person?

It's a challenge, but with all of Omaha's talent, we were fortunate to have options. Jennifer Novak Harr, our music director, and I cast largely on singing/acting ability and vocal range. The music in the show is difficult, and there's a lot of it. I didn't really think about what anybody looked like, except that Medium Alison and Adult Alison needed to have some cohesion of height. But that was about all I looked at with regard to physicality. I kind of lucked out because there was sort of a resemblance, especially with Sasha and Angie. We could have wigged our actresses, if we needed to, but we played up what we had. Analisa and Angie cut their hair. Angie colored hers. We let Sasha's hair just do its thing. But when they're all on together, I think it's believable that they are all different aspects of the same person.

BWW Interview: Roxanne Wach, Director of FUN HOME at Omaha Community Playhouse
Sasha Denenberg, Angie Heim, Analisa Peyton

What is the rehearsal process like?

My rehearsal process is to learn the music first and get the show blocked as soon as possible, so that the cast has a sense of continuity, especially with a through-composed show. Almost everything in FUN HOME is a song or underscored, so the entire show is essentially timed. It's been extraordinary to have a cast that's always so prepared when they come in to rehearsal. Even during blocking rehearsals, some of the cast barely used their script except to write down notes. It's been a real treat. We've been doing a lot of character exploration and we've been able to dig pretty deep into these characters. It's really detailed work, which is one of my favorite things about directing. We were off book early, and we had set pieces to work with, so we moved into the space this weekend really prepared. It's been a pretty smooth process throughout. I'm so excited to bring all the elements together and have an audience.

Speaking of set, the stage in NYC had trapdoors in the floor through which set pieces are raised and lowered. How have you adapted it for the local stage?

Obviously, we don't have those kinds of tricks. The show takes place in Alison's mind, so it could really be anything. There are elements of the Bechdel home. There are pieces that revolve around Alison on wheels. So, we change it up and change her perspective on where she's at by moving furniture around her.

Is Jim Othuse designing the set?

Jim designed lights and set. He's amazing. I'm so honored to get to work with such an esteemed member of Omaha's theatre community.

I understand that the audience will be seated on three sides. What challenges do you have in staging?

For the audience, it's sort of what I call "gallery viewing" - like when you go to an art gallery, you see art from different angles and you don't necessarily see everything only from the front. You might catch a little detail that not everyone saw. You might be looking at one thing in a scene, and another person sees something else. Same show, slightly different experiences. I find it really interesting to have such different views of the action. As a director, it's challenging when you're working on a non-proscenium set. Most actors have only done proscenium stages. I'm lucky to have worked in 3/4 and alley stages before: at the old Millennium Theatre, and then at Shelterbelt. When we removed our seating units this past season, we worked with all kinds of seating arrangements. We got to play around with the space before we move out this month. I felt pretty prepped for this configuration. It's different for actors who have only done roles in a proscenium theatre. Here, you have three prosceniums, really. You have to play to all three sides. And there are places where you can't play because then a larger group can't see you. It's been interesting to work with the cast on this and to adjust once we've gotten into the space. I really enjoy watching it from all sides. We move around a lot during rehearsals. I'm told this is the first time they've done a musical in this configuration in the Drew.

Have there been any issues with having child actors in this adult content show?

You know, there haven't been. I tend to treat kids like small adults. I expect a lot from them - like I do all my actors. Yes, there's language in the show and adult situations. I expect everyone to be professional about it. The kids were generally looking at their lines or playing games on their phone. When we blocked the intimate scene with Medium Alison and Joan, we did that alone. We created a safe space. We discussed where we're drawing the line, what's expected, and if anyone feels unsafe, we stop and talk about it. Safe space is always first. Even when we're running the show, the kids have set changes before and after scenes with mature content, and you know, they're just there ready to do their job. We haven't really had anything to address otherwise. The parents have all read the script, so they knew ahead what is involved and everyone has been very supportive.

So no surprises?

We've had no surprises. The kids have been remarkable. They're little pros. They're on the ball. Off- book early - and really off -book on the whole show. I think they can all do the whole thing from memory. At some rehearsals, I look over and they're lip synching the parts that are happening on stage.

During the creative process, we discuss how a character would react in a situation and why. I've done the same with the kids. They've participated in all the aspects of bringing this to the stage, as much as the adults have. And what a great experience for these young actors to participate at that age! I did theater when I was a kid. We were basically told what to do, but nobody cared what we thought. (laughs) It's great when they get a chance to fully participate and think about those things and not just be a kid on the stage. They get to do the process. They're so invested in the production. I think about how it might help them in other aspects of their life, like how you analyze characters in a book you read for school, or how you react in a job interview, or something like that. There are so many applicable situations outside of theater where a theater kid has an advantage because they've done stuff on stage. It's a real bonus.

What is the message Alison is trying to send? Is this about her coming out and discovering her own sexuality or more about her relationship with her dad?

I think the universal message in the play is about how we connect our past to our present. For Alison, it's largely about her relationship with her dad, and how their lives intersected. She was gay and he was gay, but closeted. They connected through a few things, but they seem fleeting. This could have been a connecting point for them and an affirmation for her, but it wasn't. This was the first lesbian leading character on Broadway, I believe. It is important and we've been sensitive to that. Coming out - both to yourself and your family is a big deal. Discovering and admitting who you are - also important. I suspect people are going to be drawn to aspects that are more like themselves. And I like to think that there might be healing moments for people.

Shortly after Alison came out (and some other family events), her dad passed away, possibly by suicide. We don't really know. But like every child, Alison feels responsible. She spends time trying to connect with her dad in this play and through her graphic novel... just trying to figure out where she fits. Realizing how little she knew about her father, and examining it all from an adult perspective. It all happens in the confines of a small town in Pennsylvania, that's a little remote. His whole family is still there. They all live in that small radius of this small town. Alison escaped. I feel that she's trying to figure out how to break free from the lack of connection. She never felt seen. That's an interesting place to be when you're stuck and you're trying to move through it and you're trying to figure out what's holding you back.

It's such a tragic story. I remember so many of us just sat in our seats after the show in NYC and cried.

Tragic in some ways, yes, but also hopeful, funny, lyrical... When I saw it at Public, I was sick and was trying not to laugh or cry too much because I didn't want to start coughing. So I held it in and then I sobbed for probably a good hour after we got to our hotel room. I've used more Kleenex during this rehearsal process than I would have thought possible! I've directed a lot of moving shows, but this one just really gets to you several times. There's pain and loss, frustrations and growing up, creative blocks and breakthroughs - so many things that I find touching in all the characters. And then at the end there's hope. I feel like we've found the real essence of healing in the connection of our three Alisons. I love how hopeful and uplifting the finale has become. I'm grateful to my actresses and my choreographer, Courtney Stein, who came in and nitpicked some of it with me. I feel like we really nailed the ending.

Given our current social climate, how do you think Omaha audiences will receive it?

I've directed a number of shows that had controversial content and directed shows that were protested (and sold out anyway). I don't find this show particularly out there. We all have families, we all have dynamics we deal with. We're all people. FUN HOME is thoughtful and different. I'm thrilled that the Playhouse put this in their season, because it really deserves to be seen. Omaha is ready for this musical. It's time. It's time to understand that love is love and to realize we're more alike than we are different.

I'm hoping that people will see the greater story here - the universal parts of it, and maybe gain some understanding of the parts that are not like them at all. I think that there's something in it that everyone can identify with (even if you're not a lesbian cartoonist). There's so much to take away from the show. The musical was also a Pulitzer finalist and won the Tony for Best Musical, along with 4 others. Jeanine Tesori & Lisa Kron were the first female writing team to win the Tony for Best Original Score. I'm excited to be a part of bringing it to the Omaha stage.

Photo of Alisons courtesy of Omaha Community Playhouse

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From This Author Christine Swerczek

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