The faces of Alison: These StageWorks actors embrace the roles of 3 lifetimes
Ever since StageWorks Fresno announced last August that it had nabbed the rights to the local premiere of the musical “Fun Home,” interest has been intense. It’s certainly been the most anticipated local theater event of the year among readers of The Munro Review, at least if you go by page clicks.
Now the wait is over. “Fun Home,” directed by J. Daniel Herring, opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 29, at the Dan Pessano Theatre in the Clovis North performing arts center. It runs through July 15.
When I saw the show on Broadway in 2015, here’s how I described it for The Fresno Bee:
Some shows grab you, hug you, squeeze you. Others play it cool, self-aware and all-knowing, almost daring you to join the club. “Fun Home,” a beguiling and intensely emotional experience, does neither. Instead it treats you as if you’re so much part of a familiar landscape that it forgets you’re there.
It’s like when you were little and spent so much time at a best friend’s house that you become part of the fabric of the family’s backstage life, from dysfunction to joy, almost as if you were an honorary member. Ah, the things you could learn just by keeping quiet.
In “Fun Home,” composer Jeanine Tesori and writer-lyricist Lisa Kron transform the cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s popular graphic-novel memoir, subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” into a spare and beautiful musical. Bechdel’s adult self is narrator, looking back at herself as a 9-year-old navigating through childhood and as a 19-year-old college freshman embracing the fact she’s gay.
I got the chance to sit down with the three “StageWorks Alisons” a few days ago for a wide-ranging interview about fathers, mothers, childhood, memory, sexuality, music and more. I was struck by the way each already seems to have found a distinctive center of gravity when it comes to their characters. Their thoughtfulness and passion have already permeated how they talk about the musical and the impact it already has had on their lives.
Here are excerpts from my discussion with Novi Alexander, who plays Young Alison; Thani Brant, as Medium Alison; and Haley White, who portrays Adult Alison.
Donald: Some people are surprised that “Fun Home” is actually short for “Funeral Home.” As Alison remembers her childhood, much of it has to do with the funeral home owned by her father, Bruce (played by Terry Lewis). Is this creepy at all?
Haley: You get to see the funeral home through the kids’ eyes. They don’t have the morbid attachment that adults have. It’s not weird for them. You see them playing around the caskets. It’s all they know.
Donald: Set the scene for us. We learn at the top of the show that Alison’s father was a closeted gay man and that he may have committed suicide. We also learn that Alison is gay. What time period are we talking about?
Haley: I portray Alison in present day, and she talks about being 43. This is a couple of decades after her father’s suicide. I think what happens is that she’s reached the age he was when he died. We go back to the ‘70s through the ‘80s to see her go from a child to college.
Donald: For the two younger Alisons, the ‘70s might as well be 500 years ago. Did either of you know much about the 70s?
Novi: Yes! I was raised on “The Brady Bunch” and a lot of vintage clothing. I know a decent amount about that time period.
Donald: What about you, Thani?
Thani: Not enough. But something that I did do was track down a documentary that Alison reads about in the show that focused on LGBTQ life in the ‘70s. I watched the documentary to get a better idea of the world that Alison was stepping into when she was going to college, which is so different from today.
Donald: Alison Bechdel is a famous graphic novelist, and “Fun Home” is based on her real-life relationship with her family. Did any of you have experience drawing and illustrating before coming to the show?
Novi: No. (laughs)
Donald: Have you learned anything about drawing so far by being in the show?
Haley: I draw the whole show. I watched a lot of YouTube videos to learn how to shade things. I’m just not very skilled at it. I just fake it. I can draw cubes. I shade a lot of cubes.
Donald: One of the things that intrigues me about the show is that because Alison is such a visual person, it’s almost as if she remembers things in different ways than, say, a writer. Any thoughts on that? How does Alison’s approach reflect the play’s larger themes?
Novi: I feel like the concept of this production and the original are a little different in the sense that ours is very much based in memory. Things don’t happen on stage unless Alison saw them, or the way she remembers them. It’s very apparent when you read her graphic novel. She’ll say something like, “I only remember these two things on the wall,” and that’s all she will draw. I think the original production, which I got to see on Broadway, was very much based in her process of writing this novel. Whereas I feel this production is much more focused on how these memories work through these years of pain and find healing.
Donald: The play’s precipitating event, then, is that Alison reaches the age her father was when he died?
Haley: In the first song she says, “Now I’m the one who’s 43 and stuck.” Just having lost a parent myself, I feel that the “I’ve just reached the age my parent was when he or she died” is a huge moment. That means for two decades she’s been holding onto this stuff and feeling like she’s one of the reasons that he died. That’s too long to carry that. She decides, “I don’t want to hold onto this anymore.”
Donald: This show is about memory, but it’s imperfect. It has to be.
Thani: In the book she makes it clear that there was never anyone who said, “Your dad committed suicide.” That’s what her family decided. No one really knows.
Donald: He could have just been crossing the street and been hit by a truck.
Thani: That’s an important thing to understand about memory and how flawed it is. I think that’s really apparent in this show. And also what makes it so special.
Donald: So let’s get to the nitty-gritty here. What is Alison’s relationship like with her father?
Thani: Ever since she was a kid, they’ve had this at-each-other’s-throats relationship. She thinks it’s because they’re so different. Then she begins to realize all these ways in which they’re so similar. There’s a line in the show toward the beginning where she says, “My dad and I were exactly alike.” She begins to realize why there was so much strife in their relationship. It had a lot to do with the same struggles they were having.
Donald: Has being in this production made you think any differently about your parents? Let’s start with Haley. I know that you’re in grad school right now, and one of the things you’re studying is the healing power of art. I gather you’ve been thinking a lot about this?
Haley: We had a very similar relationship to Alison and Bruce.
Donald: You’re talking about you and your father?
Haley: My mother. My mother is my Bruce. I knew going in it would be that way. I was excited that this was my first project while in grad school because I knew there would be delving into Alison’s grief and having it be a step away from mine. There are lines that I have trouble saying because they’re so close to my own life. Even just the act of cutting my hair very short brought up so much stuff about my mom. (She touches her hair, cropped short for performances.) Running my hair through the back of it, it feels like her hair when she had chemo.
I remember when my mom first got her brain cancer diagnosis, there in the hospital, and her asking the doctor, “Is it possible my daughter caused this?” We were estranged at the time because of sexuality reasons. I asked myself: Did I kill my mom? Did I give my mom cancer? It’s not unreasonable for Alison to go through her life thinking, was I part of my dad killing himself? That’s a really big part of it for her.
I’ve been finding how much I was like my mother — I always judged her vanity, and then freaking out when my hair was gone, and feeling like I look like her at the end of her life. I have these painful realizations about her that suck and are so hard to take, but at the same time I’m so glad I’m having them now rather than not at all. Even if it’s too late to tell her I’m sorry for things I’ve done. I just know it will help me be more compassionate with other people and in other relationships.
Donald: Thani, you’re in a different place in your life than Haley. People might look at you and say that you’re at the age when you really start to realize that your parents are full-fledged humans who have imperfections. What has this experience been like for you?
Thani: Crazy. I related to Medium Alison when I first saw her in 2016. But now I’m coming back to this character on a personal level now, after my first year of college, where I learned so many things about myself. I’m home now for the summer. Since I’ve been home, my dad and I have gone on several long hikes where we basically just talk, intensely and emotionally, for 15 miles.
One thing my mom sent me to school with was a photo album with pictures of me and my dad. We’ve always had this very special relationship. And we’ve always butted heads. A lot of our relationship has been annoyance and anger, and there were a lot of things in my life that I have put on my mom first before I put on my dad, because I knew about the emotions that would come with those conversations with him. I came out to my mom as bisexual months before I told my dad.
I’ve talked a lot with my dad about how our relationship and our similarities have shaped who I am. Doing this show has brought me even closer to him. It’s been a very emotional experience. He picks me up at rehearsal at night, and we talk about what happened over the course of the night. Usually there’s something I just have to talk to him about after rehearsal. That’s been very interesting and special to have.
Donald: Novi, how old are you?
Novi: I’m 14 going on 15. A little different than 9 years old, like the character is in the play.
Donald: So you’re also at that age where you really start to see your parents as complicated people — they’re not all powerful, they’re not all good, they’re not all bad. What has this been like for you?
Novi: It’s been kind of rough. I don’t really have a relationship with my father. As Alison I have to take all of these moments with her father and think about my mother. It’s rough to not have those pure moments with your dad that you can just take from and apply to acting. You have to dig more.
Donald: There are some really ugly sides to Bruce. One of the lines I remember is when the mother, Helen (played by Amalie Larsen) is recounting a moment when she was driving with Bruce in Germany, and he berates her.
Haley: He calls her a bitch.
Donald: Granted, Bruce is going through a major life crisis and doesn’t feel comfortable with himself, but, still, he isn’t very nice.
Haley: For Adult Alison, she realizes that so much of the way he behaved was him struggling because he wasn’t being true to himself. He wasn’t fully closeted and not fully out, but he’s trying for the best of both worlds. As Alison, I think about how much pain he put them all through by not having the strength to be himself. And then you have the contrast of Alison as an adult, who has chosen to live her life openly and be who she is unapologetically, and the power she has from that.
Donald: And you have to take into account the time period in which Bruce was living.
Haley: And that it’s a small town.
Donald: Yes, a small town.
Haley: There was a time when Helen said he made her happy. And I think there was a time when he really loved her. When you’re staying married for kids, it’s not just obligation. It’s also about the love of that family unit.
Novi: Something that J. Daniel talked about was the idea that even though Small and Medium Alison can be this awkward individual, we know she’s going to grow into a strong woman. He told us to have that in our minds: This character is strong. This character speaks her mind. Things like that, just to make sure that we’re informing the person that Haley portrays, even though we aren’t fully fledged yet.
Donald: Thani, talk a little about your song “Changing My Major.” It’s one of the lighter moments in the show. Your character just had a wild night in college with a fellow student named Joan. Your character gets to portray the excitement of first love and lust.
Thani: That giddiness. (laughs)
Haley: And awkwardness.
Novi: So much awkwardness! It’s so embarrassing to watch her.
Thani: Right before the song, Alison proclaims, “I’m asexual.” I think that’s a confusion that a lot of young queer people have. You grow up with “You’re a princess, and you’re going to find your prince!” All these things that are worked into the gender norms of society. And then you figure, if I’m not attracted to men, that means I don’t like anybody, and that’s the end of the story.
Haley: And that’s easier if everyone is telling you that the alternative is terrible. So then you just think, I’ll be by myself.
Thani: That’s such a relatable moment for young people, and for young queer people, especially. That’s something I really connected to when I first saw the show.
Donald: Haley, how has the “musical” part of this show been for you?
Haley: I’m an actor. I’m not a singer.
Donald: Have you been in musicals before? I was trying to remember if I’ve seen you in one.
Haley: I’ve never had a big role that wasn’t children’s theater or comedy where I was singing solos. When I heard StageWorks was doing “Fun Home,” I thought to myself, that’s my part. And I have to learn how to sing. Now I have a lot of training in theater. I have a degree and experience. I come into shows ready to go and excited. But in “Fun Home,” I was terrified the first couple weeks of rehearsal. They are so good (pointing to Thani and Novi). I’ve been really, really having to act my way through the songs to even feel like I belong to this cast.
Thani: Can I just say … I truly am in awe of you, Haley. Your song “Telephone Wire” … it’s a wonder I don’t start crying every time. Acting is at the core of why we sing. You are such a powerful performer. You are so good. You should never doubt yourself.
Haley: Thank you. It was rough. J. Daniel had to sit me down and say, “You have to be strong for these younger cast members.” And I said, “But I’m so scared!”
Donald: What do you think the real Bruce would have thought about this show?
Thani: He always saw Alison’s talents and strength, and he had so much confidence in her abilities. I feel like he saw her living out the freedom and the life that he thought he wanted to have. I think that’s something a lot of parents do. They see their children living out the dreams they couldn’t have because they wanted their children to do it. My mom came from Thailand. She had nothing. She felt she had to do something that makes money so that her kids can do something great. That’s why I have the opportunity to pursue theater — because my parents didn’t. They did something else.
Donald: Last question. You’ve got this musical set in a funeral home. There are people out there who I’m sure are flabbergasted by, harumph, “the weird stuff they write musicals about these days.” Go ahead and speak to them when they ask: How can you have a musical about intense, serious stuff?
Novi: Don’t knock it until you try it.
Haley: That’s a good one.
Thani: I think that theater and art and music have the ability to breach gaps between people who don’t really understand or think they can’t empathize with certain characters or communities. It’s easy to say, yes, the protagonist is a lesbian cartoonist. But the show is not about that. I think if you present these people on a human level, I think that’s how people can begin to empathize and even understand.
“Fun Home,” through July 13, Dan Pessano Theatre in the Clovis North performing arts center, 2770 E. International Ave. Rated PG-13 for language and adult content. No intermission, and no latecomers will be seated. Tickets are $28 general, $25 students and seniors.
In recognition of the themes of suicide and LGBTQIA-struggle addressed in the script, StageWorks Fresno will be collecting donations for local charities (Common Place Fresno and NAMI Fresno) in the lobby throughout the course the run.
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