Alison Bechdel is a lesbian household name. Known for her witty, irreverent long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the artist is also a critically acclaimed writer. Her best selling graphic novel/memoir Fun Home was recently made into an Off Broadway musical. It is currently running at the Public Theater. We sat down with Alison to talk about the show, life after Dykes, and what lies ahead for her.
Photo: Elena Seibert
AfterEllen: Now I know you didn’t come up with the name for the Bechdel test, but you did articulate the concept in Dykes to Watch Out For. If I’m correct, you have attributed the idea to your friend Liz?
Alison Bechdel: Yes, Liz Wallace.
AE: How does it feel that this has become a really valid phrase and way of looking at inclusion and equality in entertainment, not just in queer households but with many critics as well?
AB: It’s really great. I’ve had to adjust to it. At first it was like, “What is going on?” It was like this thing I wrote 30 years ago and forgot about, so it was strange to see it suddenly being talked about in the mainstream. But I feel happy. I feel like, well, the world has caught up to where lesbian feminists were in 1985.
AE: (laughs) Ohhh, I wish. I wish it had. Speaking of lesbians in 1985—well not quite 1985, but the late ’90s—I was a young lesbian growing up in Michigan, I used to read Dykes to Watch Out For in the queer paper, Between the Lines. It was always the first thing I read when I got the paper. It was fun and sexy and at the time, it was one of the few pop culture representations of lesbian life. Now that the series has ended, do you miss living with those characters on a daily basis?
AB: I do, you know. It was totally my life for 25 years. It was like I lived with them. The rhythm of my life was churning out these stories. But I was starting to burn out. It was really hard to keep thinking of deadlines. I felt like, I needed to take a break. I didn’t intend to quit, but then I somehow quit. But I don’t know, I haven’t quite resolved it yet, I haven’t let go of it yet. There’s still—
AE: There’s still life in them there dykes?
AB: [laughs] I think so. I haven’t quite figured out it how yet but I think there is something there.
AE: OK, so I recently saw Fun Home: The Musical, and I loved it. Full disclosure here: I have a degree in musical theatre so—
AB: Oh my god!
AE: [laughs] This is kind of my wheelhouse! Musicals about lesbians? What?
AB: No! [laughs]
AE: I need to know—how the hell did this all come about? Were you approached by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori? What were your initial thoughts?
AB: I was approached with this idea to do a musical, and part of that plan was that Lisa Kron would write the book. I was like, “Hell yeah.” I’ll do anything Lisa Kron is involved with. That being said, I still felt a little skeptical. Like, a musical? What would that look like? I really had no idea. I didn’t know Jeanine. In the original proposal Jeanine’s name wasn’t mentioned. She came in a little bit later. I’m trying to remember how this all happened. I said yes, and then for many years I didn’t even really see anything. I didn’t know what was happening. Then one day, in December of 2010, I got a CD and a script and I was totally blown away. I had signed a contract in 2007, so, three years before I saw anything. I did meet with Lisa and talk a little bit with her, but I didn’t have any direct involvement in the process. Then they introduced me to Jeanine and they both had lots of questions for me. Like what my process writing had been like, which was really fun to talk about with them, but I wasn’t sure what they were going to do with it. When I finally saw what they had been doing, I was completely blown away.
AE: Jeanine is one of my favorite contemporary musical theatre composers, so when I saw that she was on board, I was so excited. And her music, so perfectly fits. I think this might be her best work.
AB: I have to confess, I don’t know a lot of her stuff.
AE: She did Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline or Change. She’s a powerful voice in contemporary musical theatre composition, so you pretty much got the dream team to do this musical. [laughs]
AB: Yeah, I know, I know. I feel like so stupidly lucky, like this amazing, great fortune has befallen me.
AE: I’ve read your book that the musical is based on, and the show stays really true to the piece. What was it like for you, watching this word all come together, knowing that this is your life? When you first saw it all put together?
AB: Well the first time I saw it, it was a staged reading at the Public in December 2011 and I was a mess. I was sobbing. It was really emotional. But I’ve had to distance myself—not consciously but I can’t keep watching this play about my father’s suicide and remain wide open to it. I have a kind of distance with it. It’s totally surreal, totally intense. I don’t actually have language for it. I feel like I need to sit down and try and write about it to make sense of it, and I have not had any time to do that. It’s really overwhelming. It would be one thing if I had written a book that got turned into a musical that became very successful. That would be very amazing and intense.
But it’s a book about my life. It’s about my actual parents, my actual brothers. I’ve seen the musical with various family members, with friends of my parents. It’s this hugely emotional experience all around. It’s strange, I don’t have any preexisting categories for this experience in my mind.
AE: I can only imagine. As a viewer, I had a difficult time wrapping my head around what I was watching because it is so not something you’re used to seeing on a Broadway, or an off-Broadway stage.
AB: You see someone die. You see someone get hit by a truck and die. That doesn’t happen in musicals, typically.
AE: Especially not today when it’s like, let’s do the easiest, most conventional thing, because that will bring in the tourist dollars. I loved that this was such a huge change from that kind of flow, and huge risk in a way. I loved that.
AB: It was a huge risk in many levels. I don’t know how people do theatre at all. There is so much collaboration involved and so much risk. You know, what Lisa and Jeanine did, and what Sam (Gold) did when he came into the process, was they prioritized staying true to the story. I don’t think people in entertainment typically do that. They want to make a product that is appealing, that will get certain kinds of responses. They totally didn’t do that. Their polestar at all times seemed to be what really happened, and how to convey that as efficiently as possible. Which is what I was trying to do myself in my book. They were doing it themselves, separately. By staying true to my approach to the story, they created an adaptation that very accurate. They listened to me talk about my process. They analyzed the bejeezus out of the book. I’m sure they know better how it was put together at this point than I do. The result of that is they have a very accurate, like a replica. It’s a different object, but it’s same. The feeling of it, the aspect of it is, I feel, amazingly accurate to what I was doing in the first place.
AE: I know the show is on a limited run, but I’m curious to know if you know anything about the life of the show, outside of the run at the Public. I have a reader (@TessGwen) who asked, will Fun Home be coming to London because lots of fans here would love to see it.
AB: I honestly don’t know how all this stuff works. I think there’s a chance that it would go on the road but I just don’t know how that stuff works, or what’s happening next, if anything. That would be great, you know.
AE: I guarantee you this is going to be on college campuses all around the country. If the rights are available then colleges are going to be like, we absolutely have to do this. It’s one of those kinds of shows that’s really going to speak to a lot of people. It’s always a bummer when there is such a great thing that’s only happening in one place. In the comment of the review, people we saying how I’d love to see this, but I live on the other side of the country. Hopefully everything will be great with the rights and the show will have a whole new life around this country and maybe even the world.
AB: You know, Dana, it’s so funny. Why is this happening? I mean, I know it was a good book, and Lisa and Jeanine are geniuses and did something amazing. But I feel like there is something about the timing that just happened to be really perfect. Even five years ago, people wouldn’t have been ready to watch a musical about a lesbian and her gay dad.
AE: Absolutely. I totally agree with you. A tremendous amount has changed in pop culture and entertainment in the last five years. You are totally right. This is the absolute perfect moment for this. Not to mention you have a beautifully, melodic score.
AB: Oh my god, the music. I can’t get it out of my head. When I first heard Jeanine’s music, I though, this is kind of almost like talking. It’s a little dissonant and strange. It’s not catchy but it is catchy. After one listen through I was obsessed with the songs. They’re just on constant shuffle in my head.
AE: I would love it if there were a cast album.
AB: Oh god, I know.
AE: I loved little Alison’s number about the ring of keys. I had to write to the Public and ask them for a list of the songs because I needed to know what that song was called. Not just that, but the show has one of the best casts on the stage. You cannot get any better than Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn. And not just them! The little girl who plays Small Alison, blew my mind.
AB: I know! She’s incredible and she’s, what, 10?
AE: Right! Ten years old, and stood on that stage and sang a monologue song to an entire theatre full of adults and had everyone captivated.
AB: Yes, she’s incredible. Also, the way Jeanine and Sam worked with the kids is incredible. They’re very committed to creating a positive experience for these child actors.
AE: You could tell the direction was phenomenal. It was really well rounded, beautiful show. I’m glad it’s gotten the attention and the critical acclaim that it deserves.
AB: It’s kind of mind-blowing.
AE: Your graphic novel Are you My Mother came out last year. Now that you have tackled the huge subjects of mom and dad and allowed yourself to be expressed in a very vulnerable way, what are you focusing on now?
AB: I had such a crazy year. I’ve been trying to sit down and get started on my new project but it’s been very hard to do that. My mother died this year, I’ve been traveling constantly. It’s been totally insane. I feel really burnt out on intimate, scathing, searching, family memoirs. I want to do something that’s lighter and easier. [laughs] I have an idea that I’m working on but I can’t really talk about it yet. I have to still write my proposal, which is due in like, a week. But it’s going to be lighter and funnier than what I’ve been doing.
AE: I’m sorry to hear about your mother. I was not aware that she had passed.
AB: It’s been really, a crazy year. Then her partner died just a couple of weeks ago.
AE: Oh no.
AB: It’s weird to have all this loss going on at the same time as this very exciting thing with the play happening.
AE: My last question is from another reader (@kiki_miserychic). She wants to know, has there been a time when you couldn’t make the visuals in your mind manifest in your end product?
AB: Huh. That’s an interesting question. It’s hard to separate out the visuals in my mind from the end product. My drawings always fall short of what’s in my mind. That’s the challenge of doing them. You have to somehow capture a real time or place, a real thing that was happening. If I ever got it exactly right, I might just stop working. I might think, “Oh I got it. Now I’m done.” It never quite matches up, so it’s just always this constant pull to keep trying.
Fun Home is playing in New York through December 15.