'Fun Home' Star Discusses 'Important Piece of Theater'

Tour coming to Fisher Theatre stars former Miss America Kate Shindle

BY JENN MCKEE

Kate Shindle - star of the touring production of "Fun Home," which plays from Nov. 29 to Dec. 11 at Detroit's Fisher Theatre - has always been a bit of an overachiever.

After her junior year at Northwestern University, where she studied sociology and theater, she was crowned Miss America and toured the country for a year, stumping for her chosen cause: AIDS prevention and education. After returning to Northwestern to finish her program, she moved to New York and, within a year, earned a spot in a Broadway production ("Jekyll & Hyde").

Since then, thanks to her immense talent and hard work, her career has continued to grow. She played Sally Bowles in "Cabaret," both on tour and on Broadway; she played Elle Woods' rival, Vivienne Kensington, as part of the original Broadway cast of "Legally Blonde: The Musical"; and she wrote a 2014 book titled "Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain."

These days, Shindle spends her time working as president of the Actors' Equity Association - during our interview, she shared the breaking news that off Broadway theaters had just agreed to higher salaries for actors and stage managers - while also getting comfortable in "Fun Home." The Tony Award-winning stage musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's bestselling graphic memoir - with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, and music by Jeanine Tesori - tells the story of Bechdel's fraught path of self-discovery. We see her as a child, growing up in a funeral home (which she and her siblings dubbed "the fun home"), struggling to connect with her tortured father, and beginning to identify as a lesbian; we see her as a college student, acting upon her sexual instincts and coming out to her parents; and we see her as a middle-aged comic artist and writer, struggling to reconcile the memory of coming out to her parents just a week before her closeted father steps into traffic and is killed.

I read that when you saw "Fun Home," you felt like it was a show you wanted to be part of. What is it about the show that sparked that response?

It was obvious to me that it was an important piece of theater, and it's important because it tells the story, in a very human way, of this one family that's dealing with things that don't get talked about. I've never gone through coming out, and I understand from hearing other people's stories that it can be difficult in many circumstances, but it seems far more so when you're in a small town, or really anywhere where you feel like you have to lie about who you are. Alison Bechdel's experience with that was so different from her father's, and that seems to be something that we as a society need to listen to.

Seeing a show is different from seeing it from the inside. What observations regarding the material do you have after making that transition?

The further I go into the world of this piece of theater, the more I appreciate the construction of it. What Jeanine and Lisa did is pretty amazing, especially considering that the source material - if you look at it on the surface, you wouldn't immediately think, 'Oh, this should be a musical.' I don't think Alison even thought that. But she trusted Lisa. ... And now it's this 100-minute work of theater that's really lean and mean about storytelling. ... I'm really excited to tour it.

Did you meet Alison during the casting process?

I met Alison three weeks into rehearsal, at a party. She has really been, as far as I can tell, an absolute dream for everybody to work with. ...She's supportive, but doesn't necessarily want to put herself in the middle of the process. One of the things that's really benefited this show is, (Bechdel) knows what she's brilliant at, which is her work, and she knows when to hand it over. And that's not an easy thing to do, particularly with something so personal. She's always ready to support the show and do interviews, so she really does what she can to be a positive force. ... She came to our opening night in Cleveland. ... I was so flattered by her kindness, and so impressed with her warmth.

Do you feel an even greater sense of urgency about telling this story in the wake of the presidential election?

We've been giving our speech for Broadway Cares at the end of the show, and for me, it would be crazy to be touring this show at this moment and not acknowledge what it means. ...I think audiences across country can unify around the idea that people deserve their rights, and people deserve dignity and respect, and when that doesn't happen, bad stuff occurs, like the things that happen in this show. ... I think our cast and our production team, which is about 40 people, and lots of people around the country strongly feel like we cannot going back to the world that killed Bruce Bechdel. We just can't.

To play Alison in "Fun Home," you had to cut your hair really short, and in an interview, you talked about making this change in your appearance in stages. Now that you've had it a while, has it made you see or think about yourself differently?

No, not really. I know it sounds cliche, but the older I get, the more excited I am about what's inside, and the less worried I am about what's on the outside. Yes, I'm an actor, so I have to care what I look like in the mirror a little, but honestly, I'm so much better than I was in my 20s. The rest is just a haircut. And that's been liberating for me. ... I'm pretty happy, and it's nice to say that out loud. I'm happy, and hair grows back. I can safely say that I wouldn't ever have gotten my hair cut this short if not for this show, but wow, what a good reason to do it.

"Fun Home" was the show that collected five major Tony Awards the year before "Hamilton," but "Hamilton" has become so larger-than-life, I'm wondering if you feel like the down-side of that mainstream success is that shows like "Fun Home" are forgotten, or maybe overlooked.

"Hamilton" has been such a great thing for our community. ... Yes, there are times when "Hamilton" has taken up all the oxygen in the room, but at the same time, they're raising the bar for what can be achieved on Broadway. Some are concerned about it turning into a theme park, but really, it's opened the door to giving a completely new, original piece of work a chance, and now, 15 people will be trying to do something like "Hamilton." They may not be as good, but it's exciting that "Hamilton" is acting as a catalyst in that way. Plus, another thing that's incredibly important, as "Hamilton" spreads out across the country, is that the first tickets went on sale to subscribers, so guess what? Subscriptions are up. Where that show will play, people may subscribe just to see "Hamilton," but they'll also probably see other great work, too. So the "Hamilton" effect is by and large a positive one.

"Fun Home" comes to Detroit's Fisher Theatre Nov. 29 - Dec. 11. Tickets are available for purchase at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 800-982-2787, and online at http://www.broadwayindetroit.com or http://www.ticketmaster.com. Tickets can also be purchased at the Fisher Theatre Box Office. Ticket prices start at $39. For more information on the production, visit http://www.FunHomeBroadway.com.
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