Kate Shindle on playing out author Alison Bechdel in the national tour of ‘Fun Home’

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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Kate Shindle is an author, activist, actor and ally to the LGBTQ community. She’s also the youngest-ever president of the Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union fighting for the fair treatment of over 50,000 theatre industry professionals, and is only the third woman to hold the title.

Last year, Shindle broke ground in another way when she began touring the country as Alison Bechdel, the lead in the Tony-award winning Fun Home. The show, based off of Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, is the first Broadway production to feature a lesbian protagonist.

Fun Home will make its Tampa stop at the Straz on Nov. 28, and Watermark caught up with its star to talk playing gay in today’s political climate, her activism and even her time as Miss America. (By the way, she was crowned Miss America in 1997.)

WATERMARK: As Miss America, you advocated for HIV education and prevention. What led you to do that?

KATE SHINDLE: Mostly it was getting involved as a volunteer for an AIDS organization. When I started volunteering, there was a lot of awareness out there. There were a lot of red ribbons, but less action.

What are your current thoughts on the matter?

People are living healthier and longer lives than they did 20 years ago when they were diagnosed, but it’s still a very real threat. It’s something that we know how to prevent and we are still reticent to talk about the exact kinds of programs that keep people safe from spreading HIV. We’re not out of the woods, for sure.

What are your thoughts on today’s political landscape?

It’s been a really interesting year touring Fun Home across the country. It is such a litmus test in so many ways for how communities feel about LGBTQ issues. There’s a line in the show where a character’s referred to as “butch,” [and] there are some places where we’ve played that you can tell that the audience doesn’t quite know what to do.

My biggest concern right now is that we’re polarized in a way that I believe is new. There’s a moment late in the show where in certain parts of the country we’ve actually had people leave.

They actually leave?

There’s a song by “Small Allison,” who is a child, about the “butch” woman I mentioned. And she sings a song about how there’s something familiar about this person [that] she can’t quite articulate. It’s an amazing and pure moment, and we’ve had people leave after that, and it’s surprising to me on so many levels.

It’s not a child singing about sexual attraction to a grown woman, and I don’t think it’s really a song about an attraction at all. But even if it was, I was 5 years old when I had my first crush on a boy, and everyone thought it was adorable. If I had woken up when I was 5 years old and it had been a girl instead, would people have walked out on me?

When we started the tour, it was several weeks before the election and we were all pretty sure we knew how it was gonna turn out. Now… that was incorrect. We’re going to need to get back to listening to each other a lot more. On all sides, frankly, if we’re gonna put Humpty back together again.

You’re a longtime advocate for the LGBTQ community. What’s it like to join it on stage playing an out lesbian?

It’s amazing, and I want to tread carefully on this one because I am straight, and I don’t want to say anything that could be construed as disrespectful. Alison Bechdel is so many things, and only one of them is a lesbian. It’s an important part of her life, a very prominent part of her career and her art. But I also have to play all the other parts of Alison: The cerebral part, and the part that’s trying to get to the bottom of this mystery of what happened to her father, and the artistic part of her.

I’m sure that there are plenty of people who quite rightly would like this role to have gone to someone who has lived that “coming out” experience. But I’ve tried to do my best, and to be respectful of my own limitations of understanding.

There was some online controversy about your character’s wardrobe change from the Broadway version. Some fans claimed Alison had been “de-butched.”

It just baffles me that anybody would think that [I] would sign on to [play] Alison Bechdel and say, “you know what, I think we should femme her up a bit.” Like, no, no, no. Truthfully, it’s exactly why I always ask press teams never to lead with “Miss America.” Because I know there are stereotypes and assumptions that are just second nature to a lot of people. In my observation, that anonymous blogger saw that in my bio, saw the costume was different and decided to write that Alison Bechdel was less butch because “Kate Spindle sucks.”

I really wanted to wear [the original costume] because it’s so iconic. And nobody came out and said “wow, that looks awful on you,” but judging by the speed at which other [costumes] started showing up in my dressing room, I kind of put two and two together.

Why should people see Fun Home?

It’s a story about a family that looks perfect on the outside, but on the inside there’s a lot of things they should be talking about but aren’t.

It’s a piece of theatre about the fact that people need to be free to recognize and live their true identity and that bad things can happen when they don’t feel that they’re free.

Fun Home will play the Straz Center’s Morsani Hall, Nov. 28-Dec. 3, Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $26-$88. For more information, please visit StrazCenter.org.

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