Do you know about The Bechdel Test? It’s a pop culture feminist metric which arose from a conversation that cartoonist Alison Bechdel had with a friend, Liz Wallace, in the mid-1980s. The test, which applies to works of fiction (but mainly to films), names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.
It comes in very useful in an age in which discussions about gender equality have become mainstream. In fact, I attended a meeting today in which Amy Wakefield, the First Lady of Los Angeles, explained how the Mayor has been successful in his promise to make gender equity in his administration a priority. Los Angeles has more women in managerial positions than in its history and all commissions have at least one woman on them. Hollywood is struggling with gender equity questions as well, so the Bechdel test is useful wedge for individuals to use when it comes to parity in movies and books.
But I digress.
Bechdel wrote a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For for 25 years (1983-2008) and established herself as (in her own words) “a counter cultural institution for lesbians and discerning non lesbians all over the planet”. In 2006 she wrote “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” which was named Time Magazine’s Book of the Year in 2006. Fun Home is the first graphic novel I’ve been able to read as easily as a novel. With humor, and incredible pathos, Bechdel tells the story of her own coming out while also chronicling the tragic tale of her bisexual father’s suicide. As the New York Times review notes, “very few cartoonists can also write” and the masterful blending of memoir and comic expand the boundaries of each form with emotional precision and humor.
Bechdel’s discovery of who she really is endearing because she makes it universal, and the staggering facts of her family’s history are remarkable just on the merits. It turns out Fun Home is code for the funeral home in the basement of the Pennsylvania house Bechdel grew up in. As a child, Alison played in the coffins with her brothers and – you probably know this already – the book was turned into a hit Broadway musical. Turns out, the kids playing the coffin is a truly cute musical number… crazy, but the kids think they can make an advertisement that will help the family business grow.
Alison came out in college just as her father’s carefully constructed facade of a life was falling apart – the joy of her sexual identity discovery is matched against a growing awareness of the misery of her parents’ lives. But, part of the energy of Bechdel’s story is the thrill that she and her father have homosexuality in common. At the moment when she is ready to embrace this, he kills himself.
Comedy, tragedy… musical?
Fun Home was turned into a musical by Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesoro (music) and won 5 Tony Awards last year (for Best Musical, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score). It was workshopped at the Ojai Playwrights Conference in 2009, so is returning to Los Angeles for this production.
The plot follows Bechdel remembering her life, watching it play out, and trying to set it down on the page. Three actresses play her part – one in elementary school, one in college, and one the mature author, who stays on stage and watches her life come to life as she draws it. The central knot to be resolved is her attempt to come to emotional grips with her father.
Here is a nice interview between Bechdel and KPCC’s John Horn about the process of adaptation – it’s worth noting is that the character of the mother is more fully fleshed out in the play than in the book. Ironically, Bechdel’s mother died before the play opened, but the song in the musical that deals with Alison’s mother’s pain is perhaps the most moving in the production.
I particularly loved this podcast between Alison Bechdel and Recode Decode’s Kara Swisher, taped in March 2017, which covers her (lack of) involvement with the production of the play, the mainstreaming of The Bechdel Test (she’s encouraged that it’s more mainstreamed now, twenty years later), and her next book project (to be called “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” about fitness and mortality).
The traveling production of Fun Home is playing at the Center Theater Group through April 1. 2017. The show in LA is slightly different than it was in NY – obviously, the cast is different, but so is the staging. Both productions were directed by Sam Gold, (who is profiled in this article from the New York Times Magazine).
The Center Theater Group’s production of the play takes place on a tradition proscenium stage – whereas the NY staging was in the round. Folks I know that saw both shows surmise that removing the theater-in-the-round element reduced the energy created by pitting the three Alisons together. Nonetheless, the musical numbers are colorful and the performances affecting. It’s amusing to watch the kids play in the coffin, and touching to watch the college-aged Alison discover her sexuality.
Be warned that this is not a show for kids younger than 16 – the material deals with sexual infidelity, sexual identity, suicide, and does include a glimpse of a dead body. The story is sad, but its fascinating to understand how an artist’s sensibility is developed. And, in Fun Home the final image is one of liberation. Her father has taught Alison to fly.
Bechdel is a national treasure, an artist pushing the boundaries of form and cultural significance. If you have read and loved the book, it’s certainly worth going to see the show during it’s run in LA. If you’re curious and willing to take a stab on something new, it’s probably a good idea to read the book first, or at least take a peek at a few of the pages of the book to capture a sense of how Bechdel draws and thinks.
Upcoming Shows at CTG:
James Lapine & Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (April 4-May 14, 2017)
Jersey Boys (May 16- June 24, 2017)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Aug 2-Sept 10, 2017)