About the author:
Sometimes it takes years for an actor to land the perfect role, as Beth Malone has in the Public Theater's new musical Fun Home. Malone’s resume has skewed toward comedy, including a way-before-Broadway 2007 staging of Sister Act (as Sister Mary Robert) and off-Broadway’s The Marvelous Wonderettes. She made her Broadway debut in the short-lived 2006 musical Ring of Fire and has popped up on various TV shows and commercials. Now, Malone is giving a beautiful and heartbreaking performance in Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, set in a funeral home run by her controlling, closeted father. In a lovely essay for Broadway.com, the actress reflects on the challenges of playing a real person, as well as the process by which the narrator of a “memory play” becomes a vibrant presence on stage.
The first time I met Alison Bechdel was in LuEsther Hall at the Public Theater during one of the early 29-hour readings of Fun Home. By then, she had become as much a literary character to me as Gatsby due to the amount of time I’d spent not only reading and re-reading Fun Home the graphic novel, but also obsessively binge watching her odd and insanely addictive personal video blog, in which she documents her cartooning process. It was right before the presentation was to begin, and I was sort of pacing around in a corner trying to shove some new speech into my short-term memory, when composer Jeanine Tesori grabbed my arm and pulled me over to where a crowd had gathered around the real-life, actual Alison Bechdel.
The group literally hushed while Alison and I came toe to toe, taking each other in. We played the mirror game from Acting 101 for what seemed an eternity. Neither of us spoke. Finally the heat that had started at my feet and traveled all the way up my body had reached my head, and I blurted out something like, “Wow, this is...um, this is a weird moment.” Which sadly and also to my great relief broke the spell, and I walked away thinking, “I am a freaking genius!”
I realized for the first time on any sort of visceral level that I was playing a very much alive and present human being...who would also, by the way, be attending the show now and then. Until that moment the idea had been just that—an idea. Now, with Alison and her girlfriend, Holly, sitting front and center on their little folding chairs it was impossible to hide from the fact that she was human and the events in our play were mere re-imaginings of her actual and often very intense experiences. And not just Alison, but every character in our play lives or lived within 300 miles of the Public.
Flash forward two years, and here we are in the Newman Theater (dun dun duh!!) at the Public, preparing to open Fun Home (amazing!!). Last week, Alison, with whom I’ve become far less awkward, attended a matinee with her brothers (i.e. the characters John and Christian), her aunt and uncle (her father Bruce’s actual sister) and some cousins. In the lobby after that show, Bechdel family members mixed with the cast and launched into personal stories brought about by the instant intimacy earned through the care in which their story was handled. John and Christian even took a family photo with their stage “parents” Judy Kuhn and Michael Cerveris since both Helen and Bruce in real life are gone.
On a technical level, finding my character’s “operating system” has been a bit of a wild ride as these actual geniuses (Jeanine Tesori, lyricist/librettist Lisa Kron and director Sam Gold) experiment with the form. Fun Home is a memory play, and the mechanics of how the memories behave has changed several times—and since my character is the one doing the remembering, how I operate has swung all over the map. I’ve had about five different opening numbers and an entire library of speeches and deleted scenes that gave way to new speeches and new moments.
At Sundance Theatre Lab two summers ago, I was running around the space creating a time line of the events in Alison’s life stretching across the back wall. Then last year, at the Public Lab in the Shiva Theater, I was sitting and drawing in a replica of Alison’s Vermont studio for nearly the entire show except when I’d eat or stretch or do pull-ups. (I had a pull-up bar on the set because Alison does.) One day, Sam tiptoed up to me and said, “You’re not going to like this....” In our play Alison’s life is segmented among three actors: Small, Medium and what I like to call Well Done Alison. (I prefer it to Old Alison or Middle Aged Alison, but mostly we just call me Big Al.) A line in a song that I’d sort of sunk my hooks into was being re-distributed to my younger self, played by the incredible Alexandra Socha. Sam was tentative about telling me, but by that point I’d released the idea of hanging on to anything, and it absolutely didn’t faze me. Even I was surprised.
Now, that entire song is gone. Letting things go and moving forward has become the work mode of Fun Home. Learning this has been an enormous gift that has everything to do with the theater and with, just, life.