When we were given the huge opportunity to produce Fun Home in our home in Eastern Iowa, I knew what the story meant to me, but I wasn’t sure how my home would feel about it. I saw the show with the original Broadway cast in the summer of 2015 because the marketing looked good, it had Tony buzz and my good friend Emma had read the book. At brunch before the show, another friend asked if we had our Kleenex. We didn’t because we had missed a few, very pertinent plot points–especially for our group. We had one napkin to share between us.
100 minutes and one beautiful ride later, Emma had moved to the back of the theater so her crying wouldn’t disrupt others (with her half of the napkin) and I stayed so long and cried after, the ushers had to ask us to leave. Consequently, we walked out with the actors. I remember just saying “thank you” and “it’s so beautiful” to them over and over again.
On opening night of our Fun Home in my hometown, I got to hide in the balcony of the theater with Emma (we directed it together) and watch the first audience experience our version of the show. I was so stunned to hear some of the same words, and see the same tears in the lobby after.
This project was a bit of a selfish labor of love for me. This story felt like my story, too. My mom fought mental illness and died by suicide in 2014 and, when I saw Telephone Wire, brilliantly done by Beth Malone on Broadway, I thought, “That is exactly what it feels like. Someone captured the reality of one of the defining moments of my life on stage.” What I didn’t realize at the time is that almost everyone that comes to see Fun Home says, “That is my story.” We heard it again and again. I can tell you that after three sold-out weekends of performances, it’s true in a medium sized town in Iowa.
As the lights came up in our cozy theater, a predictable pattern developed. Our musical director had the best vantage point. She said that the lights would come up after the curtain call, and people would exhale collectively. Then they would sit back down and take it all in. The audience was slow to leave the theater. (Just like me!) Many of them would come for a hug and say things like, “it’s so beautiful. Thank you.” (Just like me!) And then we started to receive the emails.
I fearfully expected emails that would not be kind. I really did. In our current national climate there is such a sense of increasing intolerance that, every day, I took some deep breaths and waited for the emails expressing that intolerance to roll in. One of our actors even experienced it on the sidewalk in front of the theater on the way to a rehearsal one night. As he walked in, he passed by some men that called him things that I won’t write here related to what they perceived to be his sexuality. This happened in my community. In front of my theater. It made me furious, sad and a little worried about our production, too. Would people walk out? Would I read letters to the editor in our local newspaper? What would they think about a lesbian character singing a love anthem in her underwear?? As late as about two weeks before we opened, I was trying to level-set some expectations for our cast by saying things like, “It is ok if this show doesn’t sell”. “This story is tricky. The title is unknown.” “We are going to tell this story the best way we can, regardless of who shows up.” But then the tickets started selling, the local newspaper did a feature story, complete with a cover photo, and we did start to get emails. They just weren’t the ones I was expecting. The reality was this: We did not receive one piece of communication –not one email, Facebook review or phone call– that was negative or intolerant. Not a single one.
This show had impact that I never even considered or dared to hope for. One patron who came to the show twice wrote us an email that said, “Even though I am an adult now, I feel like seeing this show, in this town is healing to the scared, queer kid I once was.” We had GLBT kids bringing their parents (young kids and adult “kids”) to see the show together. We heard about post-show conversations that happened that were years in the making. There were a handful of people that were in the same unfortunate club that I belonged to that felt like it was their story, too. My 92 year-old grandma came to the show and loved it.
Fun Home is so expertly written that it feels like the story of everyone’s home. Its messages of love, and perseverance and understanding are universal. Having the wonderful opportunity to produce this show in our home in a medium sized town in Iowa proved this to me. And it also gave me a renewed faith in my friends and neighbors.