We Watch Theatre to Watch Ourselves
With the Tony Awards coming up this week, I am entirely on Team Fun Home. In my opinion, this musical has changed what is possible to stage on Broadway, and I cannot think of a better candidate for the title of “Best Musical.” I saw the musical both at the Public in January of 2014 and this past March when it was in previews on Broadway, paying far more for a theatre ticket than I ever had in my life – both times. I’ve read the articles and reviews, I’ve memorized the cast recording, I’ve cried in the audience, twice. This musical sticks with me like no other musical I have encountered in my life thus far, and it seems to have had a similar effect on many others.
This got me thinking––why was I so affected by this one piece of theatre? I’ve seen some beautiful, affective theatre before, and I’ve cried as I watched Broadway legends step onto a stage, yet I still cling particularly to Fun Home. It means more to me than a lot of the theatre I have been exposed to thus far. Why? Because I see myself in this story in a way I’ve never seen myself in theatre.
Figuring out I liked girls was something that defined a lot of my teenage years, but one of the biggest struggles I faced was understanding my identity as it related to my love of theatre. Much of theatre, especially musical theatre, is dominated by people who are attracted to men. As an actor, I have always played characters that sing about men, long for men, kiss men, and end up with men. Despite how kind Broadway has been to gay men (see Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Kinky Boots, and The Book of Mormon for some current shows that feature gay male characters), there are few queer female characters in the musical theatre canon. I was desperate for a character in musical theatre that I could identify with. Then came Fun Home. Sitting in the audience at The Public, watching Emily Skeggs as Middle Alison sing “Changing My Major” in her underwear, I knew I was seeing something I had never seen in a musical before. This was a character that was young and figuring herself out. She was awkward, she was inexperienced, and she was scared. In Medium Alison’s fear of herself, I saw my own fear and inexperience and joy and anxiety and desire.
I once saw Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel speak at my university about the importance of theatre in our society. She discussed the challenges she’s faced and the joy she’s experienced, and she cheered on the theatre-makers in audience. And in the course of articulating what makes theatre vital, she said, “We watch theatre to watch ourselves.” Theatre is an art form that shows things. Characters exist in physical bodies and actors play out actions in real time, and all of this is done in front of an audience of people who may or may not be affected by what they are seeing. And people pay for tickets and drive to cities and sit in theatres and watch all of these things because they want to see themselves. People want to watch other people do the things that they are afraid of doing, or were sad to do, or dream of doing. They want to understand their own lives a little bit more by watching characters deal with theirs on a stage, in a theatre, in front of an audience. They watch theatre to watch themselves.
When I saw Fun Home at The Circle in the Square, I was sitting next to two of my best friends from school, both of whom are also gay, and their reactions to the production are one of the things I remember most from that night. Being a group of college students, we all responded strongly to Middle Alison’s coming out experience, to watching her try to express her newfound queerness to her family, her girlfriend, and herself. Prompted by the line “I leapt out of the closet,” following “Changing My Major,” one friend of mine immediately plastered her hands over her face in embarrassment––she too had hastily “leapt out of the closet” during her first semester at college. My friends and I recognized our own struggles and fears and joys in the story of Alison figuring out who she is and how she relates to her family. This is why Fun Home is so important. In Fun Home, people are able to see themselves in a way that they never have on a Broadway stage.
I’ll be cheering on Fun Home this Sunday. What about you?