Caption This: Alison Bechdel's Graphic Memoir Comes to Life in Forward Theater's 'Fun Home'
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Chantae Miller (Small Alison) and Rachel Zientek (Medium Alison). Photo courtesy of Forward Theater.
To put it simply, the musical Fun Home has made history in more ways than one.
Back in 2015, the title broke headlines as the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist. Then, in 2016, creators Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori became the first all-female writing team to win a Tony Award for a musical’s score.
Now, here locally in 2018, Fun Home marks the first musical for Forward Theater Company, celebrating its 10th anniversary season in Madison.
Based on the best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home follows Alison’s journey to discovering her own sexuality, along with the secrets of her father, Bruce (Matt Daniels), a closeted gay man.
Production photo from the national tour of "Fun Home." Photo by Joan Marcus.
If the name Bechdel rings a bell, you may have heard of “The Bechdel Test,” a basic measure she created to see if women are fairly represented in a given film. To pass the test, a title must (1) have at least two named women in it who (2) talk to each other about (3) something besides a man.
Bechdel’s popular comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, ran for over 20 years in mostly college-town alternative newspapers, like University of Wisconsin-Madison’s The Daily Cardinal, where it was published in the 1990s. Dykes to Watch Out For is noted as one of the earliest ongoing representations of lesbians in mainstream culture.
Karen Olivo, Rachel Zientek and Chantae Miller all portray Alison over the course of Fun Home, in her years as a middle-aged women, teenager and child, respectively. Olivo, who is on stage at all times during the show, won a Tony Award in 2009 for her portrayal of Anita in the Broadway revival of West Side Story. She more recently played Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton in Chicago in 2016.
As audience members, we view the story through Olivo’s eyes as adult Alison. Miller and Zientek act out scenes from Alison’s past, as adult Alison remembers them.
“I think one of the greatest challenges is keeping the character consistent across three people,” Zientek says. “It’s especially intimidating too because Alison Bechdel is a real and alive person where you have plenty of resources to watch videos of her talking about the musical and the book. I think what’s really cool about our portrayal of Alison is that none of us look like the real Alison Bechdel, so we don’t really need to fall under the trap of mimicking her.”
Zientek and Miller explain that Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward artistic director and director of the production, as well as Maureen Janson, Fun Home’s choreographer, have helped the three actresses select common gestures to make the transition between characters seamless. These gestures can be as simple as whether or not the actress should place her hands in her pocket at a specific moment.
“It’s things that maybe the audience won’t even notice in general, but as a whole will really help make us one whole cohesive character,” Zientek says.
Clockwise from left to right: Clare Arena Haden, Matt Daniels, Rachael Zientek, Chantae Miller and Karen Olivo during rehearsals for 'Fun Home.' Photo courtesy of Forward Theater.
This is the second Forward appearance for both Zientek, 26, and Miller, 17. Zientek portrayed Bec in 4000 Miles in 2016, and Miller starred as Caroline in last season’s I and You. Miller is a senior at Lake Country Lutheran High School in Hartland.
When Miller approached the school administration to see how she could make Fun Home work with her classes, she discovered she had enough credits from freshman year to take her entire first semester of senior year off. The ambitious young woman is balancing the show with applying to college theater programs.
Along with being consistent with Zientek and Olivo’s portrayals of Alison, Miller also must remain true to the physicality of a 10-year-old.
“I really like the challenges that come with such an emotional story,” Miller says. “When I played 10-year-olds when I was younger, it would be about a little girl in elementary school having the greatest time of her life. This is such a different story than that.”
On Nov. 9, Forward will stage a special matinee performance of Fun Home just for LGBTQ youth across Wisconsin. The performance was made possible thanks to a partnership with GSAFE, a Wisconsin nonprofit committed to creating school environments where LGBTQ youth thrive. Like all public productions of the show, the performance will feature a talkback for the students to engage with the cast.
“There’s always something amazing about doing the talkbacks here at Forward,” Miller says. “I think there’s something really special about doing that for student matinees because I think students take away things from performances that adults don’t necessarily notice.”
Like all great musicals, Fun Home has something special for everyone, regardless of how you identify in terms of gender and sexuality.
“Everyone has moments where they wish they said something to a loved one that might have made a difference in the past,” Zientek explains. “Everyone has struggles accepting who they are. Despite the specifics of the musical, the general themes are very relatable. From an actor’s standpoint, everyone has a moment to be raw emotionally on stage.”
Fun Home, presented by Forward Theater, runs Nov. 1 – 25 at The Playhouse at Overture Center for the Arts. For tickets visit forwardtheater.com or call the Overture box office at (608) 258-4141.