Lisa Kron took a break from “banging her head against a wall and waiting for it to pop through on the other side,” as she once described her creative process, to meet THE CURRAN[T] close to the home in Brooklyn she shares with her wife, Madeleine George, to discuss her early career in San Francisco and what it was like to run into members of a book club from Rochester on their way to see FUN HOME.
THE CURRAN[T]: What are your feelings about FUN HOME going out into the country? So far it’s been a very New York-centric experience.
LISA KRON: I’m very excited about it. Last night I was with a big group of friends at a birthday dinner at Franny’s. Have you ever been to Franny’s. It’s wonderful. We were down in the basement at one big table and at some point I heard this commotion at this other table. There were all these grandmotherly ladies. Do you know Christopher Hibma from the Sundance Institute Theatre Program? He and his partner just adopted a baby and they were there with the child. The women were keyed into the baby. Then they realized it was our friend’s birthday. I’m not sure how it happened but all of a sudden there was this friendly yelling going on back and forth from their table to our table and Christopher started shouting at me, “Lisa! Lisa! These ladies all came here from Rochester to see FUN HOME. That’s why they are in New York. So I went over to talk to them. They belonged to a book club. Among them all, they had around 20 children and a bunch of grandchildren. All their children had grown up. So they were all over Christopher’s baby. They have been in this book club together for a long, long time. They had read FUN HOME and then they came down to see the musical. They were telling me that sometime they choose a book so they can take a trip related to the book. I asked them what else they were doing on their trip down to New York from Rochester but they said they were doing nothing else. The whole purpose of their trip was to see FUN HOME.
All along the way there has been this question about how will this play with certain audiences and at some point I realized that question was always about this imagined group of FUN HOME haters. I mean, I’m sure there are people who don’t like FUN HOME like there are people who don’t like every show. Know what I mean? But there is always this imagined fear of these people who are going, “I can’t deal with that show.” But that’s not the experience that people are having. I feel like there’s an idea that there might be a problem of how it is accepted that doesn’t ever seem to connect with any actual problem of it being accepted.
I think sometimes audiences do get afraid of it - before they see it, not while they are seeing and experiencing it. Madeleine and I went to see SOMETHING ROTTEN. Sitting next to us were also some people from Rochester, this guy in his seventies and his daughter. They were so charming. We started chatting with them. This guy had been coming down to see musicals his whole life with his wife. His wife had died a few years ago so now he comes down with his daughter. They were so excited to be there. They had had tickets to HONEYMOON IN VEGAS which was recommended to them by a neighbor of theirs who was a chorus boy so they thought they really had an in. But that show closed so that chorus boy neighbor told them that they should see SOMETHING ROTTEN. They couldn’t believe they got such good seats and wanted to know how Madeleine and I got ours. I’m a Tony voter through being on the board of the Dramatist Guild. They didn’t quite hear the answer to that but it was all fine. During the intermission they turned to us to tell us how much they loved it. “Do you love it too?” they asked us. And, yes, we were having the best time also. We started talking about all the shows we had seen. And then this guy said to me, “Well, there is one show I definitely do not want to see.” Madeleine and I knew instantly what it was but we asked him anyway. “Well, it’s that FUN HOME,” he said. His daughter asked him why and what it was about. He said, “Well, it’s about a woman and she realizes she’s a lesbian, I guess. And her father is a closeted homosexual. And it’s about the phases of her life. I just don’t think I would like that.”
And Madeleine said to him, “I think you might be surprised. I bet if you went it wouldn’t be what you think it is.” But he shook his head. “No. No. I go to musicals to have a good time and it just doesn’t sound fun.”
I didn’t want to embarrass him at that point by telling him I had written the lyrics and the book to it. And I hadn’t told him before in the conversation because I could tell where it was going and I was interested in what he was going to say. It wasn’t so much the gay thing to him but that musicals are about being uplifting and fun. And it just sounded depressing to him.
The show is dark. It is. But it is also so light. It is amazing when those kids jump out of that coffin and do that hilarious number and people go, “Oh, we’re safe. We’re safe.”
“Josie’s was like the San Francisco version of the Pyramid Club in a way. But wait. That’s not really right. It was like the Pyramid Club meets Dixon Place. And it was run by this guy named Ron. He was one of those great San Francisco characters and a great low-rent producer. He talked in kind of strange, hilarious, epigrammatical sentences. Not even epigrammatical. They were more oracular.”
Do you think FUN HOME is making a political statement that needs to be heard in the country?
I think the thing that makes FUN HOME political is the world itself. When I was first doing my early shows - 101 HUMILIATING STORIES, let’s say- that is how I described it. That wasn’t a political play except I just took for granted that I was a lesbian and I just did these other things. What’s political about FUN HOME is that people keep asking the question “What is it going to be like when this goes out into the world?” That is the only thing that is political about it. Otherwise, it is a piece of theatre about an artist and her relationship with her father. The show doesn’t have any doubts about its legitimacy as a piece of theatre which is why people don’t feel uncomfortable about those things when they’re in the show and which is why audiences automatically relate to those characters, those protagonists without thinking about it. They forget all those fears. Because the show doesn’t have any doubts about it or about itself.
Is there an element to seeing FUN HOME that makes people feel better about themselves for coming to see it and liking it so much and then raving about it to their friends? Do they feel more enlightened for having loved it? Or is the question condescending in its conceit?
I think it’s an even bigger thing than that. That’s one kind of thing: oh, it’s hip to like this.
Not hip exactly - but it enables them to feel better about themselves. Enables us to feel better about ourselves.
Yeah. But I believe that there is an even deeper thing that is happening with FUN HOME. People say to me - as a compliment - that this is so much bigger than just a story about a lesbian. And I always say that this is exactly the size of a story about a lesbian. What I realize that people are trying to say to me when they say that to me is that something has happened to them where their idea of the world has gotten bigger. When you have had that experience and you walk back out onto the street then suddenly all these people are visible to you that had never been visible before. You go, “Oh, there’s a total human being.” “There’s another human being.” “I didn’t see those people before.” “Now I can see them.” And that is the point of theatre: to make us visible to each other.
“That is the point of theatre: to make us visible to each other.”
Let’s talk about your early career in San Francisco. What are your memories of San Francisco?
Oh God! There are so many! At one point I added up all the times I’ve been in San Francisco and strung them together and it equals a couple of years even though I’ve never lived there. I think I’ve told you about this before. I used to perform at Josie’s Juice Joint when Ron [Lanza] was running it. Josie’s was like the San Francisco version of the Pyramid Club in a way. But wait. That’s not really right. It was like the Pyramid Club meets Dixon Place. And it was run by this guy named Ron. He was one of those great San Francisco characters and a great low-rent producer. He talked in kind of strange, hilarious, epigrammatical sentences. Not even epigrammatical. They were more oracular. Really strange. You could never figure out what he was saying. He had his own kind of logic. And yet he had this crazy ability to have his ear to the ground in terms of where new talent was just coming up. I feel like it was an ESP that he had. He would bring people in there to Josie’s who had maybe been on stage two times in their life in the middle of nowhere and he’d have somehow heard of them and he tell them to come and perform at Josie’s. So there was the incredible fun and freshness and spirit to the place. You’d arrive in town and you’d stay at somebody’s house and you’d get a cut of the box office. But it was just a great room. And a great audience. I did my early shows. I sang songs and told stories and had props.
The Five Lesbian Brothers did all of our shows at Theatre Rhinoceros. And then I did 2.5 MINUTE RIDE at the Magic Theatre. The Magic didn’t produce it but I did it in their space and David Binder produced it.
San Francisco has really been a theatrical home for me. But more than that it’s been a queer theatrical home for me. There used to be a circuit of gay theatres and I did my shows in those theatres and the Five Lesbian Brothers did our shows in them.
What are some of those theatres? Are they still around?
In Boston there is The Theater Offensive - Abe Rybeck’s Theater Offensive. It’s still there. It’s actually one of those queer theatres that is still going strong. Actually the Five Lesbian Brothers are about to go there for them to honor us. They are bringing us up there for a big benefit. There was a place in San Diego. There was a place in Houston - it wasn’t exclusively a queer theatre - called DiverseWorks. The Brothers used to go there. We used to go to the Alice B. Theatre in Seattle. It was fun … those tours.
You just got such a lovely look of nostalgia on your face. You seem to be remembering some things that you aren't going to share with us from those tours.
Hmmmm … yes … we used to go to Highways Performance Space and Gallery in Santa Monica.
FUN HOME has become your biggest mainstream hit and it is basically about family. But do you look on it in the arc of your career as part of your participation in queer theatre? Or is that a dangerous subject to broach as you send this show out into the country on tour?
No. No. When I came to New York I had toured as an actor with the ANTA Company which was this national repertory company put together by director Michael Kahn. And then I was sort of, you know, haplessly floundering around. But I think of theatre as a vocation and I had that call. And yet not only did I assume - but I had been told outright - that there wasn’t really a place for me in the theatre. And then the plays that I saw - well, some of them - felt .. I don’t know .. well, the women played mothers or friends. They were always there to support the actions of the men. I didn’t know plays where women talked about politics or ambition or work or friendship or desire - their own desire - or their intellect. That was all for men or male characters to do. Those plays then, as many plays now, fail what has come to be called the Bechdel Test*. You know, women weren’t interacting with each other at all. And then I found this women’s theatre - as there are types of political theatre now - that are arguing with that state of affairs. And there was something that felt to me not that inspiring about that. And then I stumbled downtown and saw the Split Britches company do their show at the WOW Cafe. And I saw Holly Hughes. And I saw the theatre that changed my life. What I understand now is that it just bypassed all of that. It’s not like it ignored the real world - it’s not like that wasn’t in its bones - but it just moved on to a new paradigm. There is way that work gets bogged down - political work that’s from people who are underrepresented - with this implicit sense that they are asking for permission to tell their story. Or even sometimes demanding permission to tell their story. But there is another way to do it where that is not a question for you whether you get to tell your story. It’s not a question. So you just tell it. And it comes from a different perspective than the mainstream because that’s the perspective from where you see the world. You just do it. You tell whatever story you want. And that work is the most political work. I was so fortunate to go to that place and start to make work within that world where that was happening that was where I learned to make theatre.
- The movie has to have at least two women in it
- who talk to each other
- about something besides a man.
In the midst of opening Runaways as part of City Center’s ENCORES! OFF-CENTER series, Jeanine Tesori took the time to talk to THE CURRAN[T] about FUN HOME, exploding toilets, and redemption.
THE CURRAN[T]: Last month you and Stephen Schwartz co-hosted a benefit at The Cutting Room in New York to help combat the anti-LGBT law passed in North Carolina. Gun violence is now erupting across America yet again. Some of your work - FUN HOME and CAROLINE, OR CHANGE and the music you wrote for Tony Kushner's adaptation of MOTHER COURAGE - could be construed as political. Is that a danger for you to see them as such from a creative point of view?
Jeanine Tesori: I’m not sure about the words “could be construed.” It is political. I’m feeling particularly political today. (Ed. note: The interview was conducted on July 7th.) I think America is in trouble. I love this country. I love the conversation we’re having in this country. I think that jumping into the fray is the reason to do theatre - trying to reach the people in a way that we can witness things together and yet to entertain people at the same time. In this building that we are sitting in - New York’s City Center - we slam against each other all the time. It’s interesting because I think our search for quiet in this building and our inability to find it is part of the purpose of New York: you have to be next to each other constantly. In the subway. In the theatre. On the bus. Around these rehearsal rooms we hear each other. We know that everyone else is there. I like theatre that reminds us about the collective.
What pulls you to these shows? Is it different than the pull to THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE or SHREK, THE MUSICAL? Or is the creative impulse for each show more alike than different?
Everything I write, I write because I desperately want to tell that story. It’s sort of like a meal - for me there’s not the same appetite or hunger to eat the same thing or tell the same story. My heart is mostly with the invisible story. Those stories that aren’t usually told and that you have to work harder to get to reveal something about these people who are not on center stage - a butch woman, an African-American maid in 1963, the result of war-torn countries and how music tells the theatre of war. I think RUNAWAYS, which we are doing right now at City Center and which was written by homeless youth then heightened and made into poetry by Elizabeth Swados, is an authentic telling of their stories that unfortunately still reveals the fear and the loneliness and the isolation that was felt and is still felt despite the globalization. I think of our young people, it seems like the more they see that and the more they know of each other, that a lot of loneliness is still in their world.
“I came here at seventeen to New York. My parents left me on the corner of 110th and Broadway and I went to Barnard and I never went back home again. So my goal was not to meet a man; my goal was to make work and figure out what I was put on the planet to do - not who I was going to be with.”
You've said you like writing about people who are invisible. What exactly does that mean to you?
Well, I feel like as a woman, that it’s unusual - maybe it’s not unusual - it’s just my hunger to see women on stage as the protagonist, as not the object, to not have them talking about men but talking about doing things. It’s one of the reasons I loved THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. I came here at seventeen to New York. My parents left me on the corner of 110th and Broadway and I went to Barnard and I never went back home again. So my goal was not to meet a man; my goal was to try and find work, to make work and figure out what I was put on the planet to do - not who I was going to be with. That’s part of the story but not the whole story. I want to tell stories about the daughters and the sisters trying to make things - not a couple - and watch their reasons for coupling. A love story is a beautiful thing but it’s not the only thing. Women with agency, I think, have to be seen and heard and because there have been very few women writing musicals - or the music for musicals. We are in a new age where I think that's changing but we don’t often get that point of view.
Your musical VIOLET is about being healed. Could FUN HOME be described as a musical about healing?
I think FUN HOME is about many things to many people. I think it’s a prism with which or through which we can look at the world. I think it’s interesting that when you bring a young person to that show, they watch the children. You bring a mother to that show, they watch the mother. The writer Mark Harris said it best when he said that if you haven’t been a parent or a child you wouldn’t understand the show. It’s the way that a parent reaches for a child endlessly and the way that children return that in their own search. It’s disconnected; it’s endless. And ultimately I don’t think that “healing” is quite apt. I think the word for me is a sort of redemption of an understanding - revealing the broken thing so that you can carry it as opposed to fix it.
You're leaving City Center's Encores Off-Center as its Artistic Director this summer after overseeing RUNAWAYS and GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER. What have the last five years putting together this series meant to you?
Well it’s completely changed the way that I think about making work. It’s made me much less selfish. It’s hard on a day like today when the bathroom has blown up in my apartment and my dog is vomitting and I have to get the kid to the doctor. This is a festival and I feel very, very hands on curating every performer who is in this. So at a time like this, I get so lost in caring to make sure that everything is going well that I forget my own life and my own writing. I haven’t written for months now. And that’s a part of the reason. That’s really the reason I’m going to stop. But it’s made me so aware of what you can do in a short time if you have the vision, the collective vision, a great support staff, the space, the flexibility of a building that’s light on its feet, as City Center has been unlike, say, the Titanic. One of the reasons the Titanic crashed is because you can turn that wheel but that's a big boat and it took a long time to respond to the quickness of the direction. That is not this building. Although it's big, you turn the wheel to the left and the building quickly turns to the left so it's ready to take on new programs.
Would you describe you yourself as off-center?
Oh, completely. Completely. But I think it’s a combination. You have to be centered to remain kind and humble and I’ve found that I’ve had to have enough belief in my own ability to just think, “Well, let’s take us down this path.” You have to be a guide in a way. I’ve been hiking many times and climbing. You look to the guide to say go down here. You don’t want a guide to say, “I’m not quite sure.” Unless the guide says, “There are two ways we could go. This way there’s a lake at the end and this way’s going to be harder.” So the guide manages the expectations even though there are many routes. So I feel like it’s given me the opportunity to be in the forefront of a new program here and from which I have learned countless lessons.
FUN HOME is the second show of yours coming to the Curran. CAROLINE, OR CHANGE also played here. What are your memories of the theatre and of San Francisco?
I love San Francisco. I also did a show right after I had my daughter at A.C.T. and we were there for a while. I lived there for three months and I saw many things, and I just really fell in love with the city. I’ve returned other times to see many shows. VIOLET was done, at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, so I’ve spent a lot of time there too. And I love the Curran because I love Carole [Shorenstein Hays]. Carole is a badass female protagonist and the way that she talks about work and the way that she makes work and her relationship with artists has always been inspiring to me. CAROLINE, OR CHANGE worked beautifully in that space. I don’t know what we would have done without Carole. It’s the same with FUN HOME. If Carole believes in something she makes sure that she affects its future.