Metro Weekly

Drawing on Life: An interview with “Fun Home’s” Alison Bechdel

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel couldn't have sketched out a more successful career if she'd tried

Alison Bechdel – Photo: Elena Seibert

The Bechdel Test originated in an early strip in Dykes To Watch Out For, the iconic cartoon strip by Alison Bechdel that appeared in alternative/LGBTQ publications for 25 year. One woman tells another she’ll only see a movie if it meets three basic requirements:

  • It features at least two women.
  • They talk to each other.
  • It’s about something other than a man.

“That was just a joke I put in my cartoon in 1985,” Bechdel says. “It was this sort of lesbian feminist humor that my friends and I would always be joking and talking about.” Yet in the past decade, the test, inspired by Virginia Woolf and developed with Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace, has taken root with media critics and pop culture scholars.

“It’s really been strange and surprising how that came back and took on a life of its own,” muses Bechdel.

Dykes To Watch Out For helped improve the representation of feminists, lesbians and LGBTQ people in general — especially in the ’80s, when positive depictions were all-but nonexistent. It’s a recurring theme in Bechdel’s work: Her cartoons draw on her life and experiences, sharing stories in dryly humorous and honest fashion, using both finely wrought pictures and studiously written captions.

Bechdel broke through to the mainstream in 2006 with the graphic memoir, Fun Home. A New York Times review touted her debut as “a pioneering work, pushing two genres (comics and memoir) in multiple new directions.” In 2013, the book was adapted into a musical and an off-Broadway production became a finalist for a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical, and the Obie. The subsequent transfer to Broadway in 2015, raised the awards bar even higher, and the musical took home that year’s Tony.

Fun Home explores Bechdel’s upbringing in small-town Pennsylvania and her bond with her well-read and fussy — and closeted — father. The local undertaker, who oversaw the town’s funeral home (fun home, for short), Bruce Bechdel died shortly after his only daughter and oldest of three children came out in college. Slate called composer Jeanine Tesori and writer Lisa Kron’s work “the first mainstream musical about a young lesbian.”

Bechdel concedes she is “not really a theater person,” so she doesn’t really know what to make of Slate‘s claim. And naturally, she had her doubts that Fun Home would even work as a musical. But it clearly does.

Fun Home: National Theatre — Photo: Joan Marcus

METRO WEEKLY: Fun Home makes its debut in D.C. next week. How do you feel about the musical and its success?

ALISON BECHDEL: I feel great about the musical, and really lucky that this adaptation of my book turned out to be so beautiful. I feel like it really captures the essence of the book.

It’s kind of amazing to me that they took this intimate, domestic story and can do it to a very large audience and it holds up. It’s been a very odd experience for me, and very educational. I feel like I don’t even really quite understand the importance of it or the magnitude of it, because I don’t come from that world. I still don’t really quite get Broadway. In a way, the musical is a very gay form, whether or not it’s actually portraying gay characters. And it just feels cool to be a part of that evolution.

MW: Fun Home includes what has become a butch lesbian anthem, “Ring of Keys.” Was it important that the musical showcase butchness?

BECHDEL: Yeah, that song, sung by a little girl, is a really pivotal part of the story.

Women who are trained to do musical theater, any slight masculine tendency they might ever have had gets trained out of them. Nobody wants to see a butch woman on stage. So Lisa was really afraid that that was not going to happen — that they’d find actors who couldn’t really convey that character, that it would not be authentic. She worked really hard in the writing to find that character, and then in the casting with Beth Malone first in the off-Broadway and Broadway versions. Beth understood the character she was playing in a way that someone who wasn’t a lesbian might not have. She really got it, and really created this very sympathetic, rich, wonderful, masculine lesbian character.

And now, in the touring production, Alison is being played by Kate Shindle, who was a Miss America in 1997. She won the Miss America pageant. So here comes this super icon of femininity into this role of a butch dyke, and she pulls it off, too. It’s really kind of amazing.

Fun Home: National Theatre — Photo: Joan Marcus

MW: How many times have you seen the show now?

BECHDEL: I’ve seen the touring production maybe four times. All together, I’ve seen it many, many times.

MW: Is it still weird to see your story being told on stage?

BECHDEL: I’m getting a little bit used to it. It was an insanely surreal experience at the very beginning to see these characters portraying me and my family. It was magical and weird and unmooring. But like anything, we listen to a song too much or something, you get a little dulled to it, so I’ve gotten kind of used to it.

MW: I know you initially had some doubts that your story would work as a musical.

BECHDEL: I signed the contract to turn this project over to Lisa and the team without really knowing what I was getting into. I didn’t know a lot about theater. In a way, that’s what enabled me to agree to do it, because I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was naïve. I didn’t know the risks I was running. The fact that it was a very alien art form to me was comforting. I didn’t feel as proprietary, somehow, letting someone make a musical out of this story about my life as I would have someone making a movie out of it, because a movie feels like something I know more about and I would want to have more control over. But I was able to just turn it over and let go, because I didn’t really know what musicals were.

When I saw it, I guess I was expecting it was going to be some sort of lighter, frothier version of my life. I didn’t understand that a musical could actually go deeper, could cut sharper. I didn’t know that. And the first time I heard some of the songs and performances, I was just knocked for a loop.

MW: Is there talk of a film version?

BECHDEL: No, not that I know of. There’s the question of is it a movie based on the musical, or a movie based on the book. And I guess those would be very different projects. I don’t know. I mean, there was a film offer early on with the book that I basically declined. I felt like if a bad movie got made of it, it would just be awful, so I didn’t want to do it. But a bad musical, I figured, that would be no problem. Because if it was bad, it would just disappear, you know?

MW: Have you ever considered working in film and animation?

BECHDEL: I have considered it. There was some interest over the years in turning Dykes to Watch Out For into an animated thing, but no one ever had the money. It never really came to anything, but it’s something that I remain interested in, theoretically. It would involve a lot of collaboration, which I’m really not used to. That’s part of what I like about cartooning, is you just do it all yourself.

Fun Home: National Theatre — Photo: Joan Marcus

MW: Your early life is the core of Fun Home. Talk about your father and your upbringing a bit. He was gay?

BECHDEL: In the book, I don’t really call my father gay. I sort of leave that open. I think he was probably bisexual, or probably didn’t think of himself in those kind of modern terms. He was a man who had sex with men. So to talk about the play, where he is portrayed as a closeted gay man, it’s slightly different. I was raised by these very cultured, intellectual parents in a small Pennsylvania town. They were super interested in art and theater. My father was obsessed with restoring and decorating our old Victorian house, so I grew up in the thick of this very creative atmosphere. But it was also kind of oppressive. Everything had to be perfect, and we all had to look like a perfect family. Behind that, there was a lot of unhappiness and frustration. And I didn’t really understand all of that until I was in college and came out as a lesbian when I was 19 and told my parents this great news. And when I did, I found out from my parents that my dad had been having affairs with men for a lot of my parent’s marriage. Suddenly, my whole life looked different. I had to go back and reinterpret everything that had ever happened to me in this new light.

The really traumatic thing that happened was a few months after all of that, that mutual revelation, my father died. He was hit by a truck. And my mother felt pretty sure that it was intentional. So, for me, even at the time, as a 19-, 20-year-old, I could see that this was an amazing story, about how the lives of these two people growing up in the same town took very different trajectories — my father dying and me going on to live this out, open life as a lesbian. It just felt like a powerful story.

But I didn’t think I would ever be able to tell that story, because it was so private. People didn’t know about my dad’s sexuality. They didn’t know that he’d even killed himself. I just felt like there was so many secrets and it would expose my family too much. But 20 years later, 20 years down the road, so much had changed in our culture — attitudes about homosexuality, attitudes about suicide, just attitudes about family dysfunction in general — that I felt like I could do this. And I talked to my mother about it, told her I wanted to do it. She wasn’t thrilled about it, but she didn’t say no, so I did it.

MW: Were you surprised by the level of mainstream success you had with Fun Home, the book.

BECHDEL: Yeah, and needless to say, my mother did not expect that, either. So we were all surprised.

MW: In a Fun Home! The Musical! strip you wrote for a Vermont newspaper in 2014, you noted that your parents had met in the theater, and now they have left the world with their story being told in the theater.

BECHDEL: In an even weirder twist, the summer stock theater where my mother performed for many, many years when I was a kid, they’re doing Fun Home this summer.

So my family’s going to go. It’s going to be so bizarre to see this story played out on the stage, the stage where my mother actually did perform and where my father was on the board of directors and stuff. It’s very weird. But I do feel like there’s something magical about seeing my parents turned into characters on the stage. It feels like the fate they were always destined for.

Fun Home: National Theatre – Photo: Joan Marcus

MW: You grew up drawing. Did your father encourage you in that pursuit?

BECHDEL: As a child, I drew lots of cartoons. It wasn’t like cartooning was nearly as respectable as it is now. But he was very encouraging of my drawing, let’s say. I often wonder if he would have tried to steer me away from it. In some ways, it was very freeing to have my father die when I was young. I mean, it was awful. It was a terrible experience. But it freed me up in many ways to do whatever I wanted to do. There were no expectations on me, and so I was able to take that career path that I don’t think he would have quite approved of.

I think he would have really encouraged me to do something more traditional, like go to grad school, and I probably would have done that.

MW: When did you realize that this could be your career?

BECHDEL: That’s a good question. Most all children draw. I just kept doing it past the point where many stop. I guess just reading the funnies in my daily paper, I felt like that’s the job I want to have. We also always got the New Yorker, and I loved the New Yorker cartoons.

MW: Is there a particular cartoonist who influenced you?

BECHDEL: Yes. I would say Charles Addams was a major influence. My parents had some collections of his work that I found very mesmerizing, and then I would see his work in the New Yorker. And I loved his cartoons because I couldn’t understand them. They were just baffling, and I wanted so hard to figure them out. I like cartoons that aren’t instantly accessible, that you really have to puzzle over and think about, I guess. He was definitely a big influence.

MW: I understand Gay Comix was also something that inspired Dykes to Watch Out For.

BECHDEL: Yeah. I discovered Gay Comix right after graduating from college. I found the first issue of that in a gay bookstore, and here were all these comics by gay men and lesbians about just being queer, about their lives. To see that at that moment in my life, when I was just getting out of school and trying to figure out what to do with my life — it was like a big arrow. Like, “here, you can do this.” And it was soon after that that I just started drawing my own silly cartoons of lesbians.

Dykes to Watch Out For

MW: Did you have a plan with Dykes to Watch Out For?

BECHDEL: No, I had no grand plan at all. It was just totally for free in the early days, I was just doing it for fun. Very gradually, it became my job. And by the time I was 30, it was my full-time job. I didn’t have to have another job.

MW: Dykes has been called as influential to its generation of lesbians as Rita Mae Brown’s 1973 novel Rubyfruit Jungle was to the generations before. What do you make of an assessment like that?

BECHDEL: Well, I don’t know how accurate that is. That’s very lovely. But, you know, comics are such an accessible medium. It was something that people were seeing in their newspapers, in their local bar rag. I started publishing them in papers all around the country and peddling my own little cartoon postcards. It was something that was very cheap, very easy to disseminate. So they got around and really became part of people’s lives, I think.

MW: How do you feel about the state of cartooning and comics today, the level of craft and the commercial nature of it?

BECHDEL: I can’t really keep track of all these superhero movies. I never was a big superhero fan. I do feel very excited about comics as a storytelling mode. I feel like I’ve seen so many advances happening, so much exciting, experimental, weird, powerful work. And it’s cool to be involved in something that’s in that sort of transformative, explosive phase. You know, I feel overwhelmed when I see the kind of stuff younger cartoonists are doing. Overwhelmed and envious. [Laughs.]

MW: That you didn’t think of it yourself?

BECHDEL: Yeah, right. But, you know, we’re all part of an evolution. We’re all standing on each other’s shoulders. I love cartooning. I love words and pictures together. It’s just really exciting to see other people pushing the boundaries of the medium.
MW: These days, the average person thinks of superheroes when thinking about comics. Yet you got into the field despite the fact that superheroes dominate the genre.

BECHDEL: I did, yeah. I was lucky to discover autobiographical cartooning pretty early in my career, like the stuff that underground cartoonists were doing, R. Crumb and all those people, Harvey Pekar. And that’s always been kind of more my direction.

MW: With Dykes, you were able to comment on current events, pop culture. Do you miss that aspect of it?

BECHDEL: Yeah. I do. I don’t miss those intense deadlines, constantly having to crank out a strip. But it was a great feeling to be able to just take stuff in from the news, current events or whatever was happening in the culture, and be able to riff on it immediately. That was really fun.

MW: You revived it in recent months. Was that motivated by current events and Trump politics?

BECHDEL: I have brought the comic strip back for a few episodes in recent months, just for my own sanity, to comment on what’s going on. I’ve published two episodes.

MW: Do you plan to bring it back on a regular basis?

BECHDEL: No, I can’t manage the time commitment it would take, but I do like doing them occasionally, as I have been.

I’m still trying to come to grips with this. It’s so weird. I hadn’t quite caught up to how much progress we had made in terms of our civil rights. It was amazing to me, all the things that were going on, and now it looks like it could all slip away. So it’s a very strange moment.

MW: Have you been inspired to do anything more in response to the current political times?

BECHDEL: I’ve sent postcards. I went to the Women’s March — I was down there for that. It was incredible. I got involved in a huddle here, these follow-up groups that the Women’s March is trying to keep going. But I haven’t really gotten a clear sense of what my role is, what I can contribute. Bringing back my comic strip, in some ways, feels like the best thing I can offer. But it’s a strange new landscape. I feel very impotent and just astonished at the level of turpitude that’s going on in that administration. I just don’t even know what to think.

I’m hoping, like many people are, that they’re just going to collapse on themselves, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

MW: I’ve heard you previously describe that a goal of your work is to show women as regular human beings. And that’s something, unfortunately, the world still needs to hear.

BECHDEL: Yeah, that was my object with my comic strip for a long time. It’s so much better than it used to be, but yeah, there’s still some disparity there.

MW: On that topic, Fun Home was the first musical to have a female writing team win the Tony for Best Original Score.

BECHDEL: Lisa and Janine won as the first all-female musical team. That was the first time two women had won that for the book and the music.

MW: Was it envisioned as being a female-centric production, with a female writer and a female composer?

BECHDEL: No. Lisa was part of the plan from the get-go, but I think it was a male composer they had in mind. No one was planning some big all-women coup. It just sort of [happened].

Fun Home: National Theatre — Photo: Joan Marcus

MW: I’m sure it’s gratifying and exciting on some level that that happened.

BECHDEL: It is! It is. Plus, they’re brilliant.

MW: Any plans for an adaptation of the book that followed Fun Home, 2012’s Are You My Mother?

BECHDEL: No. That’s such a strange book. I don’t think anyone could make a movie or a musical out of that if they tried for 20 years.

MW: Although, I’m sure you said that about Fun Home when it first came out.

BECHDEL: [Laughs.] Yeah, I did. In a way, Are You My Mother? is about writing Fun Home. It’s about navigating with my mother the fact that I was going to be telling this story publicly, and all the psychological hurdles we had to get through. It’s a sort of meta-memoir, in a way.

MW: What’s next for you?

BECHDEL: I’m getting ready to go be installed as the Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont tomorrow. Vermont has a Cartoonist Laureate, so that’s what I’m doing in the immediate future. I’m not quite sure what that’s going to entail. But that’s kind of cool.

MW: You’ve lived in Vermont for over 25 years now. Why did you settle there?

BECHDEL: I came here for a relationship, and that did not work out. Pretty soon after I got here, we broke up, but I realized that I just loved Vermont. I love this place. I love living in a rural state that’s also a politically progressive place. It’s just a really magical community and landscape. And I love it here very much.
MW: They’re also the only state that has a Cartoonist Laureate.

BECHDEL: I know, exactly! [Laughs.] I’ll be the third one. Each person holds it for three years. I went to the installation of the first Cartoonist Laureate, like, six years ago or whenever.

MW: Beyond that, you’re not sure exactly what you’re going to be doing?

BECHDEL: I have a bunch of things in the fire. My main project is a book called The Secret of Superhuman Strength that I’m working on, which is sort of a memoir about exercise and fitness and mortality and the aging body.

MW: Is that semi-autobiographical? Since it touches on the subject, I should ask you about your health.

BECHDEL: Yes, it will be completely autobiographical. My health, knock on wood, is pretty good. Thank you for asking.

MW: So it’s not based on tragedy or anything bad…

BECHDEL: It’s not an illness memoir, at least not yet. [Laughs.] I’ve just, I’ve always loved exercise, and in a way, it’s a history of all the different fads and trends we’ve gone through as a culture.

MW: Finally, how is your home and love life?

BECHDEL: I live with my partner, Holly, and our cat. And it’s very idyllic. We’ve been together for nine years, going on 10. She’s a painter. She does stained glass work, too. She’s doing more of that recently.

MW: What is it like being in a relationship with another artist?

BECHDEL: It’s fun! I feel like we inspire and encourage one another. It’s a strange job to have, and not everybody understands it. So I feel lucky.

Fun Home opens Tuesday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m., and runs to May 13, at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Tickets are $48 to $98. Save 20% to 30% off select sections for select performances between April 18 and 26 when you order using the code METRO. Call 202-628-6161 or visit thenationaldc.org.

The Sunday, April 23, 7:30 p.m. performance will be hosted by Metro Weekly, and will feature a talkback with members of the production following the performance.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.