Dallas — In the tour of the Tony-winning musical Fun Home, currently at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Kate Shindle plays the main character of Alison, based on the author Alison Bechdel, who wrote the graphic memoir of the same name on which the musical is based. It deals with a woman discovering her sexuality as a lesbian, who is played by three actors as a child (Small Alison), a college student (Medium Alison), and an adult (just Alison). All three have a relationship with Alison’s father, Bruce, who was also gay and having affairs with men under his wife’s nose, often in the funeral home that her father ran, and where the family lived—thus the title Fun Home. (Think of the Fishers in the TV series Six Feet Under.)
Shindle was crowned Miss America in 1998, and continued her theater studies at Northwestern University after her term. She has been on Broadway in such shows as Cabaret, Legally Blonde and Jekyll & Hyde, and is currently in her second year of a three-year term as president of Actor’s Equity Association—the first woman to be elected president of AEA.
The tour of Fun Home is winding down, closing this Sunday at ATTPAC. On Thursday, Sept. 21, following the 90-minute show, there will be a concert featuring Shindle and members of the cast—including understudy Anthony Fortino, a Texas Christian University grad and former local performer at Uptown Players, Lyric Stage and elsewhere—in a benefit for Thrive Youth Center, a shelter for homeless LGBT youth in San Antonio.
We chatted with Shindle about the show, equity in casting, and awareness about AEA’s role in providing a living wage to artists.
TheaterJones: The tour of Fun Home has lasted more than a year. How has response been with touring audiences in general, and in more conservative cities.
The response in general has been amazing. I have plenty of friends and coworkers, when they found out I was going on tour, they were interested to learn about the regional response. There’s an attitude that culture dies west of the George Washington Bridge, and that’s just wrong.
There are theatergoers everywhere that want to see theater that’s a little a different. Some of the lines that people laugh at in certain parts of the country, like in San Francisco, they don’t in others. It’s been one of my missions in life is to say the line “old-school butch” and not have people laugh. There have always been places where nobody was sure how it would sell. Our second city was Durham, North Carolina, for two weeks, in the era of NC HB2 [the “bathroom” bill]. It played well there and we had good conversations.
You play the older version of this woman who is based on the author of the graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel, and you’re onstage the entire time. Can you put the importance of this character in context—it is the first show by a woman composer and woman librettist to win the Best Musical Tony.
It’s awesome, I’ve played any number of villains or antagonists in shows. There are plenty of female characters in shows that are vastly under-written. One of the things I like about this show is that there’s not really a villain; there are human beings who do good things, or not-so-good things. You can say Bruce [the father] is not the good guy, but [composer] Jeanine [Tesori] and [book writer] Lisa [Kron] have made him well-rounded. There aren’t any cardboard cutouts in the show. Even Helen, the mom, has a compelling build to a solid place.
You are currently president of Actor’s Equity Association. There’s an industry backlash to non-union tours, which of course still pay artists—just not at Equity wages and with other benefits. I think that general audiences don’t understand what that means, and sometimes you get a non-Equity show that’s of relatively high quality. What are some of the challenges to raising awareness about the importance of Equity in pay for actors and artists?
With the proliferation of non-union tours, we have to educate the audience, without shaming the actors who just happen to be non-Equity. It’s about educating the audience. It’s important to know that one of them is providing a living wage with health benefits and workplace protections. The idea that these people are not just artists, but workers who earn a living. Those are all valuable things for audiences to know.
How has being Miss American affected your theater career?
I went back to [Northwestern University] right after that and I’m glad I did. I needed the training. I did find when I was getting started, there were more than a handful of people in musical theater and that would read that piece on my résumé in such a way that I knew how they were going to react to my audition.
It helped me more to learn who I want to be in the world, and how I want to prioritize that. It gave me a platform. I wrote a whole book about it [Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain].
In this story, the character you play comes out as gay and grapples with learning secrets about her father, who killed himself. Did this character teach you anything unexpected about family dynamics?
There’s a place in our 20s and 30s where we start seeing our parents as autonomous human beings. Alison’s died when she was in her 20s; it’s her going through a very rapid version of that humanization process in this show. It’s not a spoiler to say that the family believes it was a suicide, and having to come to terms with that in the space of 100 minutes is pretty fascinating. It’s obvious Alison worshipped her father, and they were both artists and observers of the world, and she also had negative feelings about things about her father.
There is a lot of talk about diversity and equity in casting, of people of color being played by people of that color, for instance, or of transgender characters played by transgender actors. How do you respond to this conversation as a straight woman playing a lesbian? There are differences here; because gay people aren’t necessarily recognizable by their physical appearance—and actors are trained to play characters honestly.
I’m sensitive to it. I think it matters. We’re obviously getting to a point in our theatrical history, where we’re collectively believing that stories should be told by people whose stories mirror that. It’s a very complicated question. I’m glad it’s happening.
I found this story compelling and I wanted to help tell it, and there’s a lot to be achieved. But in the coming out, there’s something about that you can’t fully know unless you’ve lived that experience. I’m really glad that I’ve gotten to experience it through a character. Back when I was Miss America, 90 percent of what I did was for AIDS education and awareness, and in that moment, it was a big thing.
The one thing I hope is that we find a way to have true diversity in the theater while not restricting actors to only play the thing that they are.