Fun Home: a talk with playwright and actor Lisa Kron

Editor's Note: This guest post from long-time GLAAD volunteer, Andy Buck, is part of GLAAD's effort to draw more attention to theater projects with LGBT content. Please visit GLAAD's theater listings site for information about  Fun Home and other plays in Los Angeles and New York.

By Andy Buck

This month at The Public Theater in New York, it’s a meeting of two GLAAD Media Award recipients when Lisa Kron of the legendary Five Lesbian Brothers writes the book for a new musical based on Alison Bechdel’s celebrated graphic novel, Fun Home. The graphic novel, which received the Outstanding Comic Book award at the 18th Annual GLAAD Media Awards, explores the complex relationship between Bechdel, creator of the pioneering comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and her deeply closeted father. Kron, meanwhile, received a GLAAD Media Award in 2000 for an autobiographical solo play, 2.5 Minute Ride, which premiered at The Public, and, coincidentally, also delved into father-daughter themes.

Bechdel and Kron followed up these works with critically acclaimed pieces about their mothers: Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? (2012) and Kron’s Well, which was nominated for a Tony Award in 2006. In addition, Kron received a second award from GLAAD, this time with the Five Lesbian Brothers, for their hilariously caustic play Oedipus at Palm Springs. Clearly, parental issues are rich territory. 

Fun Home, which is composed by Jeanine Tesori and directed by Sam Gold, is only one of the landmark events for Kron this year. In February, she and Taylor Mac shared the stage in an Obie-winning revival of The Good Person of Szechwan, which has a return engagement this month, also at The Public. Meanwhile, last spring Kron married her partner, Madeleine George, a fellow playwright whose new piece, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, opens at Playwrights Horizons next month.

What’s been the greatest challenge with Fun Home?

Well, the thing about adaptation is you have to re-originate a thing. You can’t just say, “This is a musicalized version of this graphic novel.” It has to have its own originating impulse, so that you feel like the experience you are having is the primary experience. And at the same time, you don’t feel like you’re watching a different thing, that whatever the effect of the book was, you’ll feel like it’s represented. When we first sent an early draft of it to Alison, I said, “I just want to remind you, it’s going to be really weird because we had to make things up and change details and put things together.” She’s like, “Okay, thanks for reminding me.” But then she wrote us back and said, “Even the things you made up feel true to me.” That was a big relief.

What was one of the specific differences between your script and the original book?

The structure of her book is incredible. It has this emotional drive that takes you from the beginning to the end. It feels like it’s a very straightforward narrative but it’s not. In fact, there are virtually no scenes. There really aren’t. It’s a story of these people who just led their lives for 20 years until this certain thing happened. It’s a retrospective reconsideration of what was in a lot of ways an uneventful childhood. So what is the narrative in theatrical terms?

That’s what you and the composer had to figure out.

Right. What’s the story? What’s the play?

There are compelling similarities between you and Bechdel. You’re of the same generation. You both became well-known in the late 1980s through a certain body of work - you with the Five Lesbian Brothers at the WOW Café, she with “Dykes to Watch Out For.” And then you both broke new ground with highly acclaimed works that explored your respective relationships with your parents. What would you say are other important similarities between you?

The first thing I would say—neither one of us was ever particularly interested in coming out stories. We make work that just assumes a lesbian perspective. For me, that came out of what was true at the WOW Café. We started from a place of assuming our outness, and then we moved on to other things. We talked about whatever we wanted to from that starting place. That’s been extremely empowering. Also, both of us are interested in the narratives that people create for themselves. And I think that both of us assume that those narratives are constructed—in 2.5 Minute Ride and in Well and in Fun Home and in Are You My Mother? Those works are saying, “What narrative am I constructing and am I right about that narrative? Or am I not? What am I leaving out? How can I be rigorous with myself and figure out a truer narrative?”  

This is the first musical you’ve written, although you used to joke about one you wanted to make with the Five Lesbian Brothers. What was it called?

Yes. Big Heavy-Handed Message from Five Angry Lesbians Who Are Too Ugly to Get Men: An Evening of Song.

That’s the one. I’m still looking forward to that, by the way. Any chance of a reunion?

We would love to. But two of the Brothers live in California now; one of them has a bunch of horses, the other one a child. Back then, we were young, we worked day jobs, and then every night and every weekend we were together making shows. That only works as long as being one of the Five Lesbian Brothers is your number one priority. Once you have a relationship or a mortgage or a child, that just can’t be the case anymore. But our plays are published and they get done all the time. We have a little bit of a nest egg that maybe at some point will help us finance something.

Working in an ensemble like that must have been great training for writing a musical.

Yes, I learned a lot about collaboration! I heard George Wolfe speak at the Dramatists Guild Convention in Chicago recently, and he had a great quote: “Collaboration is not compromise. It’s a bunch of really smart people in a room together, bringing in really amazing ideas, grappling with them, and together making something better than any of them could make individually.” And that was my experience with the Brothers. It was hard for me when I started. I was like, “No, no, no, I know the best, it won’t work like that.” And the Brothers would say, “You have to be quiet now. We’re going to just try it.” And I’d be like, “There’s no need to try it, I can tell you it’s not going to work.” And then we would try it. And I’d be like… “Huh. How interesting.” That process is just profoundly engaging in the deepest and best way.