Guest of Honor

Alison Bechdel Gets Comfy With her Life on Stage in ‘Fun Home’

The graphic novelist talks to Brendan about developing her best-selling memoir for the Broadway stage and having three "stunt doubles."

Photo Credit: Elena Seibert

Alison Bechdel’s comic strip about lesbian culture, called “Dykes to Watch Out For,” ran in alternative newspapers around the country for 25 years, but she won mainstream acclaim with her best-selling graphic memoir “Fun Home.” It was nominated for a National Book Award and is now a Broadway musical that’s up for 12 Tony awards. In it, Alison tells the story of coming out to her family, after which her father admitted he too was gay. Shortly thereafter, he was hit by a truck in what she and her family consider a suicide. When Brendan met with Alison, he suggested “Fun Home” isn’t the likeliest candidate for a musical adaptation. DPD-Banner

Alison Bechdel: I thought it was kinda crazy. I couldn’t imagine what a musical would be like, but I knew the writer that they had in mind. Lisa Kron, I loved her and respected her. I feel like she and I came from the same lesbian street. We were both like in this subculture for a long time. I was drawing my “Dykes to Watch Out For” comics and she was with the Five Lesbian Brothers theater troupe. So I knew she could handle the material respectfully.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re in safe hands.

Alison Bechdel: Yes. Yes. But I didn’t really know much about musicals. I didn’t understand — I don’t think — the risk I was running, you know? It could end up really schlocky, or exploitative, or, I don’t know, bad.

Judy Kuhn and Sydney Lucas appear in a still from "Fun Home." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Judy Kuhn and Sydney Lucas appear in a still from “Fun Home.” Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, it ended up being nominated for a dozen Tony Awards, so it’s not bad. Is there a particular part of the musical that you really enjoy?

Alison Bechdel: You know, it’s funny the songs are just constantly in my head. Every day I’ll wake up with a different song running through my head.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What was it today?

Alison Bechdel: “Ring of Keys.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: An audience favorite. And that song in particular unfolds just like the scenario in the graphic novel. Can you explain the background for the song?

Alison Bechdel: It’s one of my very earliest memories. In the play, we see little Alison — who’s somewhere between maybe 9 and 11 years old — seeing this butch delivery woman show up at the diner where she’s hanging out with her father. It was a very powerful memory for me, almost a formative or constitutive part of myself, this moment of recognizing something about me and this other woman, this masculine-looking woman, who… I felt like I was her.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So when I saw the musical the other night, I was seated next to this group of alpha businessmen —

Alison Bechdel: Oh, wow.

Brendan Francis Newnam: — And they had gin on their breath, no judgment there though. Maybe they were big fans of musical theater, and I’m stereotyping, but in my mind I kind of assumed that since “Fun Home” is one of the hottest tickets in town, that they were entertaining clients and the system got them tickets for this event. And yet, by the end of the show, they’d leapt to their feet and were giving you a standing ovation. It was neat. I was wondering what you make of this kind of mainstream acceptance of your story.

Alison Bechdel: You know, I keep trying to figure it out. I mean, it’s amazing to me, that this is happening with my strange little peculiar childhood tale. So many people come up to me afterward and say this is like my family, this is just like my family, and then proceed to describe a very different kind of family situation. So, it’s not the particulars, there’s something about, I think, telling the truth that really gets to people. My family had this secret that was very destructive. And, in a way, I brought that secret to light and even more destruction ensued. My father could not manage it. But, in the end I feel like it’s a positive story. And it’s a real story. There’s death and loss, but it’s still somehow a redemptive story.

Judy Kuhn Oscar Williams, Zell Steele Marrow, Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris appear in a still from "Fun Home." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Judy Kuhn Oscar Williams, Zell Steele Marrow, Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris appear in a still from “Fun Home.” Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Alison Bechdel: And I think people are hungry for that. Like for real life with all of its pain.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. I read in an interview when you were discussing — and forgive me, I’m not sure if it was about the graphic novel or watching the musical — but this idea of being raised Catholic, you enjoyed confession.

Alison Bechdel: Oh, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And this idea of grace and how maybe telling the story properly, you thought, would give you some amount of grace.

Alison Bechdel: Yes. I loved going to confession as a kid. I would make up sins because I, you know, what could a 7-year-old possibly do? But I loved the idea that you could be forgiven, absolved–

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Alison Bechdel: — And I remember feeling very light and free after going to confession. And I think that is what I’m always seeking when I write stuff about my life. I wanna confess everything and get to that free, empty, good feeling.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, we don’t take confession here, but we do have two standard questions that we ask all of your guests, and the first one is: what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Alison Bechdel: I’m getting tired of being asked: “What is it like to see three different versions of yourself on stage, and to see your real life on stage?” And I’m tired of that question, not because it’s not a good question, but because I never have an answer for it. I feel completely unable to answer that question. It’s like, “Uhhh…” I wish I — I keep hoping someone will shock me into coming up with an answer, but I still have not been able to describe the very surreal experience.

Sydney Lucas (L) as Young Alison, Emily Skeggs (C) as Alison, and Beth Malone (R) as Medium Alison. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Sydney Lucas (L) as Young Alison, Emily Skeggs (C) as Alison, and Beth Malone (R) as Medium Alison. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, you’ve — in a couple of articles, you’re called “T-RAB: The Real Alison Bechdel” because there are three women who play you at various ages.

Alison Bechdel: Yeah, and I have to differentiate it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You have a stunt double right now?

Alison Bechdel: I have three stunt doubles.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You have three stunt doubles. You could do a whole sort of like James Bond thing you could send her somewhere, and you can go do something else.

Alison Bechdel: I wish I could send them to do my interviews.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wait, are you the real Alison Bechdel? If I was seated far back, you could actually be the actress. Well, I’m glad that the real Alison Bechdel showed up for this, because only she can answer the second question, which is: tell us something we don’t know. And this could be something personal about you that you haven’t shared in interviews, or it could just be kind of an interesting piece of trivia.

Alison Bechdel: I have been struggling to come up with interesting trivia and I have failed, so I’m going to have to tell you something about myself, which is that I have pink fluffy bath towels.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Pink fluffy bath towels, which don’t really — I wouldn’t imagine you’d have those, having looked at your blog and you dress kind of butch.

Alison Bechdel: Yes, that’s why it’s surprising.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It runs counter to our image of you. What would you call this taste for pink fluffy bath towels?

Alison Bechdel: I don’t know, it just seems like bath towels should be pink and fluffy. I’m letting out a little of my opposite nature there.

Brendan Francis Newnam: If it was another guest telling me the color of their bath towels, I would say that’s not enough. But for you, that is revelatory. Thanks so much for coming and chatting with us.

Alison Bechdel: Thank you.