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In Lisa Kron's plays, joy and sorrow share the stage
In Lisa Kron's plays, joy and sorrow share the stage
An interview with Kalamazoo-born, Lansing-raised Lisa Kron is full of thoughtful pauses, some lasting several seconds. Often, she will answer a question, then rephrase it, changing a word or two to make a point even stronger. She edits as she speaks.
Kron has been carefully tweaking the story of her life for the past three decades, especially in one-person memory plays like “Well” from 1996 and “2.5 Minute Ride” from 2004. (The latter is being staged through Dec. 4 by the Matrix Theatre Company in southwest Detroit.)
Tuesday marks the Detroit premiere of her Tony Award-winning "Fun Home," a story she adapted from a 2006 memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. The musical will be at the Fisher through Dec. 11.
“The big challenge for me,” says Kron during a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., “ is the same as with stories of my own life. How do you dramatize something, in this case a graphic novel, and turn it into a piece of theater?”
She credits musical partner Jeanine Tesori with helping her learn to write song lyrics, something with which she had little experience with when she took the “Fun Home” assignment. Since their success with the show, the two have been fielding pitches and might end up working together again.
"Fun Home" opened Off-Broadway in 2013, then moved in March 2015 to Broadway, where it received mostly glowing reviews and 10 Tony nominations. It took home five, including best musical. Kron won for writing the show's book and lyrics.
Getting personal onstage
"Fun Home" is about Bechdel's childhood in the 1960s and 1970s and her eventual realization that she was gay. Three actresses play the cartoonist-to-be at different points in her life. The show also explores Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her father, Bruce, who committed suicide after years of struggling with his own sexuality.
According to Kron, the play's main question is summed up at the end of the first song, “It All Comes Back.” She quotes the final line: “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”
“This paradox, this thing that she’s wrestling with, that’s what `Fun Home’ is all about,” says Kron. "Why, why were we the same and yet our lives turned out so differently?”
How much of this had to do with the eras in which the father and daughter came of age?
“Not as much as you’d think,” says Kron. “The piece isn’t just about if Bruce had lived in a different time. It’s not an indictment of society, although the damage of the closeted world is certainly a circumstance. The damage inflicted by a homophobic world is certainly present in the piece.
“But people always came out, even when it was most dangerous. What’s interesting about Bruce is that he fancied himself as an artist, an iconoclast. … He wanted to be a kind of very cultured, singular, rebellious spirit. He was obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He imagined himself as a cosmopolitan. But in order to really be the things he wanted to be, to have that kind of intellectual and spiritual bravery, you have to be willing to step away from what you know into the unknown. And he couldn’t do that.”
Kron says "Fun Home" was easy in some ways for her to adapt because she and Bechdel have plenty in common. Both women are gay and in their mid-50s, and both came of age in small colleges. “I was at Kalamazoo College at the same time she was at Oberlin," the writer notes. "Writing those dorm room scenes, I was pictured my own dorm room in Kalamazoo. When she was going to the gay union, I was picturing the women’s interest group room, which was our version at Kalamazoo. So I felt like I knew that world pretty well.”
Kron grew up in an activist household. Her father was a Holocaust survivor, and her mother was instrumental in integrating schools and neighborhoods in the Lansing area. (She still has family in Lansing.) Though she wasn’t a theater geek when she attended Lansing’s Everett High School in the mid-1970s, she realizes now that "I was always heading in that direction; it had its hooks in me. I was always interested in telling funny stories and in middle school decided that I wanted to be that girl that everyone would say: `She’s the funniest girl I’ve ever met.’ It was a conscious quest.”
The theater program at Kalamazoo College proved to be a perfect fit. “Everyone on campus went to foreign studies and did a senior project,” Kron remembers. “It was a small Midwestern college, but everyone was going out into the world and coming back all at the same time.”
As part of an urban studies program, Kron spent four months working for a Philadelphia city councilman and got her first taste of life in a city larger than Lansing. Connections through a theater teacher landed her a gig in a bus-and-truck theater company run by legendary actor-producer John Houseman. She barnstormed the country for nine months.
Both of those experiences helped prepare her for her move to New York City in 1984 after getting an offer to sublet an apartment. She had no employment prospects but soon she was getting acting jobs and honing her skills as a writer.
“We just threw ourselves out into the world then," Kron says, recalling waking to her first New York sunrise on a foam mat on the apartment floor. “It was easier to do because you needed less money. Now it’s so expensive. I can’t imagine doing it the same way today.”
She eventually wrote two major plays, both in the form of memoirs. “2.5 Minute Ride” juxtaposes a family excursion to Cedar Point amusement park with a trip she made with her father to Auschwitz, the Nazi camp where much of the Kron family perished. “Well” recounts her mother’s activism and a debilitating illness that Kron suffered during college.
Like "Fun Home," the plays capture the stifling sorrow of everyday life and also life's unbridled joy.
"Theater is about what people don’t see coming," Kron says. "That’s what’s funny about it. It simultaneously captures the epic pathos of human yearning with the ridiculousness of our minute-by-minute falling short. I think it’s the tension between those things (that makes good theater). If you only have one, you just lose a lot of the experience of being a human being.”