©Sundance Institute | Fred Hayes
Earlier this month, the Theatre Program-supported show Fun Home collaborated with Spotify to record the very first Broadway “Spotify Session.” The show did a live performance of a re-invention of six of its songs at Spotify’s NYC Headquarters and released them as an exclusive album on Friday, March 4th. More recently, Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, delivered remarks at the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies dinner on March 7 and spoke about Fun Home within the day’s theme around the power of art in American diplomacy:
“I’ll give you one more vivid example of the power of art to change hearts and minds. Last week I had occasion to take 17 ambassadors to see the remarkable musical, Fun Home. At a time when being gay is still a crime in more than 75 countries, we are always looking for ways to encourage greater support for LGBTI rights at the United Nations and around the world. And by humanizing its subjects in a way that made them thoroughly accessible to the other ambassadors, Fun Home did this brilliantly. In a discussion with the cast and producers afterwards, the ambassador from El Salvador said, “I wondered why I could be nearly two hours so involved, suffering with you, laughing with you, when nothing really special happens onstage. What is the message? To me it is very clear. You were telling us: ‘Look, you are me. We are together and we are the same.’”
The following article was originally published in the 2015 edition of Sundance Institute’s annual magazine, Radar.
How does one transform the unwieldy, rambling episodes of life into a formally cohesive story? Playwright Lisa Kron has become a master at using theatre to wrestle with her remarkable family history. From writing about riding roller coasters with her 75-year-old father—a German Jew drafted into the American army to interrogate Nazis—to using her ailing mother on stage to correct the telling of her past, Kron has constructed (and deconstructed) the nuances of autobiography. Philip Himberg, artist director of Sundance Institute’s Theatre Program, first encountered Kron at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in 2003 while she was developing Well, which later opened on Broadway to critical acclaim and received two Tony nominations. She returned to the Theatre Labs several times over the years, including to workshop her adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s bestselling graphic memoir Fun Home, which was recently awarded “Best Musical” by Critics Circle. Himberg and Kron speak her about the collision of art and life, and the emotional challenges of breaking down the fourth—fifth, sixth, and seventh—walls of theater.
Himberg: I thought we’d begin a little bit with your biography since we learn a lot about you through some of your plays. And I want to begin with your play titled 2.5 Minute Ride, which was a solo piece that you performed yourself. What is the 2.5 Minute Ride?
Kron: That specific ride refers to a roller coaster at the Cedar Point Amusement Park. I grew up in Landing, Mich. And like everyone who grew up in a large radius around Sandusky, Ohio, my family went to Cedar Point with some regularity. And my father is still alive. He just turned 92 a few weeks ago. And he was born in Germany in 1922. He left there in 1937, when he was 15. There was a program similar to the Kinderstransport to get Jewish children out of Germany, a smaller American program, and my father came here by himself as part of that program. His parents then were unable to leave Germany. I mean, they wanted to leave, but they couldn’t get a visa anywhere. My father then was drafted by the American army, like, as I have recently learned, many German Jewish refugees in this country who tired very hard to get in any army—in the American Army, in the Canadian army. People were very interested to figure how to get into an army that could go back and fight the Nazis. Then he was part of this program known as the Ritchie Boys, these German Jews who were trained to go back and interrogate German POWs and then, after the war, detainees.
All that to say that those things happened to my dad. He married my mother who was a Midwesterner. And then I had this Midwestern childhood with this kind of crazy link to this major event of the 20th century. So the piece juxtaposes three different stories. One is about me going back to Germany with my father to his hometown and to Auschwitz. So it’s about that trip. Then it’s about my family’s annual trip to the Cedar Point Amusement Park, where, still at that time—and when I wrote the play my dad was about 75 years old—he loved to ride the roller coasters. And then the third strand of the piece is about my brother’s engagement and subsequent marriage to the woman he met in the Jewish singles room of America Online. So that’s what that piece is.
Certainly that period of my work drew on autobiographical material. But it had never been my particular interest to tell people things about my family. My goal has not been to tell my family story. I think I have utilized those things to make theater that was about other things. That has been my goal.
At what point in your career did the idea of telling the story you just described come to you? Was it a moment where you sort of sat up in bed and went, “Oh, these stories have something to say,” or was it something that developed and cooked for a long time inside of you? Can you even say?
At the point when I made that piece, I had been making work in a kind of haphazard way. I started doing that for probably 15 years and teaching myself a lot of skills, learning on my feet what it means to tell a story to an audience and starting to explore what the difference is between storytelling and theater. Theater felt for me much more dynamic in some fundamental way. So I was having this formal exploration, and I think at the time that I made 2.5 Minute Ride, which felt like a very significant milestone for me artistically, I had a sense then that I had trained myself to do these things, to learn about this form so that I could tell this story.
There were sort of earlier attempts to deal with the stories from my father’s past, but I think it wasn’t until I took these trips with my father that I felt like I had something to use on stage that actually had some life in it. I mean, I think theater obviously is a highly crafted concoction of something. Theater has a narrative. But characters within those narratives or people don’t have a narrative in life. And to me, the power of theater is that you build a narrative out of these characters who are moving narrativelessly through life as we really do. So I was looking for a way to get close to these questions, this history, my relationship to this history, my father’s relationship to his history that would give me that sense of people in a world in which they are not acting out a narrative that they can understand.
It’s reality versus how we organize ourselves into creating art in a way. You’re leading me into my next question, which has to do with the play that we developed in Sundance called Well. What is attractive about Well to me, what got me excited about it when I read the early versions of it, was not that your mother was on stage, but that you were playing with a deconstruction of reality that felt complicated and dangerous, and I wasn’t even sure it would ever be successful, which is why I wanted it. I wonder if you can explain what brought you to the place where you could put a kind of meta event on stage or maybe describe it just a little bit so we understand what it is and then what you were actually trying to do.
When I was working on 2.5 Minute Ride I had this image, which didn’t show up in that piece in this way, but that I would be telling a story about my father and somebody would stand up in the audience and say, “That’s not what happened, that’s not how it happened.” So I think something that is common to all of my work is that I’m interested in this idea of the narratives that we naturally and necessarily make as human beings, how we construct them and the ways in which we conflate them with reality. But actually they’re our constructed narratives. And most of the time, in one way or another, they are wrong.
So in the way that my father intersected with one set of events in the 20th century, my mother, who on the one hand was this almost stereotypical Midwestern housewife, also did all this work around racial integration. So in her very sort of Midwestern house, she also had this intersection with these major events of the 20th century. So I was able to look at these through the lens of my relationship with her in Well. And in that play, Jayne Houdyshell brilliantly played my mother sort of just stuck on the stage. And then the character of me was making what I called “a theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness.” And there was this series of skits or enactments of events from my childhood and from this allergy hospital that I was in when I was in college. And my mother keeps interrupting them, to correct them. Then the cast eventually starts to form a relationship with her. They start to question what I’m doing. And the whole thing kind of falls apart.
And I think the other thing that I was really interested in—that I’m still interested in, but I think it was at the forefront of my work at that time—were these what I started to call “extra-theatrical characters.” I started doing theater in my undergraduate theater department and then toured with a national repertory company. But then I found myself downtown at the Wow Café, this lesbian theater project with all these women, many of whom had no theater background at all and were making this glorious, just vividly alive, super messy theater that broke every rule I had ever learned about how theater was supposed to work. I was very smug about things, as is my nature, I guess, in certain ways. And I was always sure that something somebody was doing was absolutely not going to work. And often it was a big crazy mess. And yet I saw again and again things that I would have assumed you could never put on a stage just have this incredible, dazzling life to them. And it made me really interested in what happens when you put someone on stage who does not know the rules of theater.
And there are rules of theater. There are fundamental things that everybody—whether they’re a theater person or not—understands. Theater is a contract between what happens on stage and an audience. It’s a co-created, imaginative construct between those two entities. And when people enter into it, they’re not aware, even, that that’s what they’re doing. But that’s what is happening. And you feel it. You feel its power when it breaks. Sometimes it happens in a horrifying way. Always the things you remember most about being in the theater are the moments where something goes wrong, because when that happens, you feel how deep that co-created contract is. You feel what theater is when those rules are broken.
Yeah, exactly. The power for me of Well was that there was so much discomfort watching it because the fourth wall would break, and that was one thing. But when it felt like the fifth, and sixth, and seventh walls were breaking, it was scary for the audience. I mean, you felt you were in good hands with a wonderful writer by the time you had finished the piece, but if felt like you were really, really wrestling in real time with how far you could take us in that sense of discomfort from an audience’s point of view, both emotionally and I think intellectually as well.
In addition to being a writer, and being an actor in your own work and in ensemble, you still continue to act in plays written by other people. And you recently did to great acclaim a production of Good Person of Szechwan, which was done at La MaMa and moved to the Public. Do you still relish that? Do you audition for things? Do you consider yourself and actor for hire for other people’s work?
I do. I often don’t have free the block of time necessary. But I do. I didn’t go to graduate school, and I don’t have the kind of broad technical skills that a conservatory graduate-school-trained actor does. But I think there are certain things that I actually know a lot about. It was satisfying to be in Good Person of Szechwan. There were a couple of things that were funny about it. For years I felt like no matter how much I wrote, people didn’t think of me as a writer. They thought of me as a solo performer only. I haven’t done solo work in 15 years—I’m still commonly referred to as a solo performer. And when I was doing Good Person, there were so many people who said to me, “What’s it like to be on stage? That must be wild for you.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” But there are people who know me only after certain time who have no experience of me as an actor.
When you were growing up, what was your relationship—or did you have one—to musical theater?
My family didn’t go to the theater. I never went to the theater. But I did listen to cast albums.
Right, and you liked them?
Oh, my God, I was a slave to them. I listened to them over and over and over again. I listened in particular to My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof. I went through a Jesus Christ Superstar phase. I listened to The Sound of Music. I listened to Camelot. My mother had them.
My parents did, too. I mean, I love that thought, because I used to listen to all those, same and different, and yet never saw some of those plays. And somehow that was exciting to imagine what they were. All we had were the songs, and obviously none of the dialogue, so you memorize everything but you didn’t really know the story particularly until you saw the movie or the play of it. So, your decision to write a musical, I’m curious about that. It’s, as far as I know, the first time you actually adapted a piece of writing from another genre, which happens to not even be a novel or a play but is the graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. So just dissecting this a bit, I guess the questions are: Did you want to write a musical? Was there something about the source material? What were the aspects of taking panels and pictures and texts and turning it into a music theater piece?
Well, it was brought to me and suggested that it be a musical. And I immediately felt, based on really no actual knowledge but an intuitive sense, that that seemed like a good idea. In terms of it being an adaptation, what I had done in the past, certainly with 2.5 Minute Ride and Well, was to wrestle events from life, to figure out more about them and a series of stories that had been told about those events and to figure out how to make dynamic theater out of those events. I felt like I ahd had a lot of practice in a translation of a set of stories told in one way. And also…that book is about her [Alison Bechdel]. She id doing sort of the same thing. She has a set of ideas about her father that, when she was 20, were completely show to be absolutely wrong. And then, 20 years later, she is going to reopen that can of worms with that extra 20 years of knowledge and adulthood to reconstruct that treasure trove of story and memory and artifact.
I reread the interview that had been done in The New York Times with Cherry Jones, who happened to be at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab the year you were there. She talked personally about her life and her sexuality. And I’m just curious: As a lesbian and as a gay woman, how much of that part of you is the artist part of you? How you see the world sexually and as a sexual person and then a minority, do you imagine that has informed who you are as an artist?
I think that as a person and as an artist, I always think that I have been in the most fortunate situation a person can be in. I’ve had the perfect timing, which is that I had something pushing against me. I was in a world that had not been defined or exploited, and as opposed to the women who completely inspired me and changed my life when I saw their work, who are still working and still extraordinary, but when their work was coming into its full fruition, the doors that should have opened to them weren’t yet open. And five years, six years later, they opened for me. I think if you can be in a place where you have something to say that people don’t necessarily want to hear or know that they want to hear or you’re in a place where you get to explore and find something that has been invisible and yet you’re not in a world where you’re being crushed, that is an extremely fortunate place to be as a person and as an artist.
For me, this thing came up a lot with Fun Home. People would say to me, “This is so much bigger than just a story about a lesbian and a gay man.” And I didn’t challenge people directly because I knew that they were maning to be generous and I knew what they were tyring to say. But ultimately what I thought was,, “Actually, this is exactly the size and story about a lesbian and a gay man. What has changed is your idea, the full humanity of these people.” And that is actually why we go to theater.
The first project playwright Lisa Kron brought to the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab was “Well” in 2003. IN 2008, she returned to the Lab to develop “Five Questions,” a highly personal and politically charged play about the depth of American exceptionalism in the American character. Most recently, Kron participated in both the 2012 Theatre Lab and the 2012 Theatre Lab at White Oak with her musical adaptation of “Fun Home,” which played on Broadway.