Written by Victoria Myers
May 13th, 2015
The other week we were having a pretty bad day in Interval-land—One of those, “Maybe going to live on a farm wouldn’t be such a bad idea?” type days. Then we got to talk to Lisa Kron and, not only was she fascinating, but she reminded us why it’s such an exciting time in the American Theatre. Seriously—Lisa is inspiring. Most recently, she wrote the book and lyrics for Fun Home and received Tony Award nominations for both. Fun Home is also nominated for Best Musical and is tied for receiving the most nominations of any show this season. An actress and writer, Lisa was previously nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for Well, which she also wrote. She also has a background in solo performance and, naturally, we were really excited to hear her talk about how her past work developed and helped her shape Fun Home. And not only is she on the Board of The Lilly Awards, but she’ll be hosting the annual awards ceremony on June 1st complete with an opening production number. Our conversation with Lisa was wide-ranging, and every moment was full of insight. We suspect (and hope) that after reading this interview people will go want to go out and do something—we definitely did.
You have a background in solo performance. It seems like that would be an interesting perspective for creating a musical like Fun Home.
I never really saw theatre when I was a kid. I didn’t come from a family that went to the theatre, but we did listen to musicals. I think I was drawn to those kinds of theatre songs and great scores. Then I did summer stock and did musical theatre in summer stock. So I think it was kind of in my bones that way. I’m not a singer, but I’m an actor and I was in shows where I sang, so I think I had a sense of how those songs worked from the inside like that. Being a solo performer led me to becoming a playwright because I was interested in dramatic action. I was interested in why some kinds of material I’d perform had some kind of lift and seemed to take off and other things would take more work. I think, over time, I figured out that it was dramatic action that was making it happen. So I sort of trained myself to be a writer and to understand something fundamental about how theatre operates. Then I did shows like 2.5 Minute Ride where I didn’t just tell stories, but I turned myself into a character who tells stories and then something happens to her. I expanded that out to do a show like Well where this character of me stood on stage intending to tell a bunch of stories, but with a whole bunch of other people on stage who weren’t going to go along with what I was going to do. So I think there were mechanisms of theatre that helped me with Fun Home and figuring out how to make a piece of theatre based on Alison [Bechdel]’s book. I was also interested in my work of telling autobiographical stories not to tell the story of my family but to use them to explore ideas like, in the case of 2.5 Minute Ride, to explore memory. So I think that helped me to understand how theatre could be made of Alison’s book.
Did it also affect the collaboration process?
One of the ways that I learned about theatre was by working in my collaborative theatre company, The Five Lesbian Brothers, at the WOW Cafe. In a certain way, being a solo performer doesn’t help you learn about collaboration. When I started working with the Brothers, I really thought that I would be running the show and I was very quickly disabused of that notion. It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I think in that collaboration, and just being around the collective, over and over again there were times when I thought I knew something and a decision would be made and I’d think, “That decision is completely wrong” and many, many times I’d find that I was actually wrong; people knew something that I didn’t know. We wrote collectively in The Five Lesbian Brothers and there’s a difference between someone saying, “This is what my idea is…” and someone saying, “Just write it.” Someone would write her idea and you’d say, “I see. I see what you’re trying to say,” because the description of work is never the same as the actual work; if it was you wouldn’t need to write the actual play. It was a completely transformative experience for me. So Jeanine [Tesori] and Sam Gold are also collaborators in that way. The impulse is not to say, “I don’t think that will work.” The mode of operating is to say, “Show me. Let’s try and see what happens.”
Let’s talk about adaption. It seems like something that’s often misunderstood in terms of the line between merely changing the form of something and the changing of the form but also bringing in the essence of the people doing the adaptation and making something that is a third entity.
I don’t know how you would adapt something without doing that. You can’t separate a work of art from its form, so once you undertake adaptation you are going to fundamentally change the nature of that thing. There’s content and there’s form and they are inextricably tied; certainly if you’re going to transform something into a musical because a musical is not a naturalistic form. If you have something long—like a novel or a graphic novel—you’re going to have to pick and choose, since with a novel you can pick it up and put it down, but with live theatre the demands of that form are based on the fact that you are holding people’s attention hostage. You are responsible for their consciousness. So your demands are very different. Also, you can say things directly in a book—you can describe the inner workings of consciousness. You can’t do that on stage. Theatre is all behavior. The play always needs to know more than any character in the play. It’s not interesting if your character is the authoritative voice of your play, but in a book the voice of the main character can be the authoritative voice, they can be their own context. Then you also have to generate material. In Fun Home it was extremely difficult to figure out what those characters would say—how do you make a scene? There are no scenes in the book of Fun Home. There are moments in time. There’s a frame where a kid is eating a bowl of cereal and a parent is leaving and then you have Alison’s narrative voice saying, “While this was going on at home, this is what was actually happening.” And that’s what we didn’t know—whatever was said there. That’s not a scene. The story has to be told through the actions of characters who are unaware of the defining moment of what’s going to happen in the future. What do they do? What do they talk about? So material had to be generated and we’re not Alison so it has to be drawn from our lives.
We talked to Jeanine about this and we’re curious to hear from you as well: did you find your brain working differently adapting something that wasn’t just words but also images?
Alison’s work is interesting since it’s visual but also intensely literary in a way that’s not theatrical. I loved it because that’s the thing I’m interested in—I’m interested in the nature of theatre because I started out telling funny, anecdotal stories and I worked for years at trying to figure out, “How do I turn that material into theatre?” So I feel deeply engaged in that question and I was deeply engaged in that question with Fun Home. How do I find theatre here?
If Fun Home wins Best Musical at the Tony Awards, it will be the first time a musical written entirely by women has won. We’ve been tweeting about it non-stop and we know some other people have picked up on it too. What’s that like? Does it feel like pressure?
It doesn’t feel like pressure. First of all, let me just start by saying that it’s absurd that we don’t just fix the parity issue. There’s no reason to not just fix it. At some point in our world of interviews here, I felt like every single interview that Jeanine and I had was about being a woman in the theatre and why there weren’t more women on Broadway. I wrote an email to our press department—they were great about it and I didn’t have that many of those interviews after that—and I was like, “This question has been asked and answered so many times. Stop asking us.” Why don’t you ask some men? Why don’t you ask some producers? Why don’t you ask some artistic directors? In a way there’s this echo chamber of being stuck in this moment. There are so many reasons that plays are chosen—cast size, budget, shaping the season—why not make that kind of diversity part of it? We now know, thanks to the work Julia Jordan has done, that all the myths we were taught to believe are not true: plays by women make as much money, they win as many awards, they are about the same diversity of topic. Women are writing enormous plays. The only reason for it is unconscious bias on the part of men and women in positions to make those decisions. So let’s just stop it. So I start with that. There is another thing that I’ve been thinking about this discussion and that is this idea that this has never happened before. There are particulars about Fun Home that have never happened before and I feel very excited about those things. The idea of a song from Fun Home being on The Tonys on national television feels really moving and exciting to me. But I also think there’s a thing that happens, which is that over and over again we’re always here. It’s always, “Here’s this person who has done amazing work and now things will be different,” and then it’s not different. Part of the reason it’s not different is that we forget those productions, we forget those women. I don’t know if you saw the BBC series The Hour? It was really great.
Yes! We interviewed Romola Garai [the lead of The Hour] when she was here doing Indian Ink.
If that had been an American drama, that character [Bel Rowley] would have been depicted as if she was making decisions about how to behave as a woman and a woman in a leadership position and like she was the only one. One of the things I really loved about it is that it didn’t ignore that fact that she was a woman working in a man’s world and a sexist environment, but it also didn’t assume that she was the first one. Her and the woman reporter [Lix played by Anna Chancellor] were part of a world of women who had been working and making work all along. There’s a way in which I feel like if we keep acting like none of this has ever happened before, it’s part of the reason it doesn’t move forward, since the things that do happen get erased and erased and erased. And I think it’s really important to stop doing that and to say, “There seems to be a limit in which we cannot go, but let’s not pretend…” I definitely think there’s something to celebrate about what Fun Home is, but I think it’s equally important to remember that women have always been making good work.
In putting together this site we read a lot of interviews with people and we noticed that women are hardly ever asked, “What do you think…”
Well, I really appreciate that you led by talking about work. I think it’s the crucial thing: how do you make work? As opposed to, “What’s your advice for women trying to make it?” You know what I mean? That’s an interesting story, but it’s not the lead story. It’s interesting how many women—and I do this too—will say, “I was really lucky. I didn’t have an ambition.” But this is so great. This is the crucial thing. To look at the biases that are built into these types of questions.
One of the reasons The Interval was started was because people weren’t talking about these issues in a mainstream way or they were talking about them in a very limited capacity and were not getting the full spectrum. Like you can’t find the statistic on the Tony Awards website of who was the first woman to win Best Director of a Musical. People aren’t made aware of what women did or the context in which they did it. But we had been wondering how you and Jeanine felt about now being the face of these facts since we think they’re important to have out there, but we also feel that, obviously, you two should win on merit and people have an odd way of conflating the issue.
Well, who knows why anyone wins a Tony. It’s a very complicated issue. But I’d be surprised if anyone was given a Tony for being a woman. A couple of thoughts. You know, my partner, Madeline George, was also nominated for a Pulitzer for her play, The [curious case of the] Watson Intelligence, and Jeanine and I were nominated, and Annie Baker won. It was a crazy set of coincidences since also Annie and Madeline are from the same town and Madeline used to babysit Annie. We were listening to NPR and they said, “It seems like some sort of insider baseball,” and I was like, “How would that work?” Then the host asked, “Do you think this is some kind of corrective?” Like the Pulitzer committee was interested in some sort of corrective [that same year, 2013-2014 there were no new plays by women on Broadway] and this woman said, “I’d like to think that wasn’t the case but that’s probably true.” I have to say I was enraged. And Madeline’s father is a neuroscience professor and we were talking to him about it because we were like, “If there was no bias, wouldn’t statistically every few years it would be all women.”
It’s like that Ruth Bader Ginsberg quote about women and the Supreme Court. She was asked how many women on the Court would be enough and she said, “Nine,” and went on to say that throughout most of the history of the Court no one ever questioned that the best legal minds in the country at one time could all be men, so why would we question that they could all be women?
That’s right. I think it’s a problem in the arguments around this, and for parity in the theatre, that we argue these things based on fairness. I think we undermine ourselves when we do that because the arts are not a meritocracy. You don’t progress because you’ve put in the hours. You progress because you have something to say or you intersect the zeitgeist in a certain way. You have to make something that intersects with your audience in a dynamic way and, if you do that, that’s the thing that has value no matter who you are. It’s very frustrating. And part of what’s frustrating is you can make great work and not be given the resources because of these systemic biases. The problem with those biases is not only that it’s not fair but, to me, it’s not good for the art. There’s a thing that gets said a lot in argument, which is that we need women’s voices, we need to hear women tell their own story. Every time I hear that I die a little bit inside. To me, the reason to hear people’s voices is not so they can tell us about their little portion of experience, but I want to know the story of the world—different parts of the world. And when we say that we want to hear women’s, or whichever group’s, voices, we’re still assuming there’s this overarching universal—this white, male universal—and then we’ll fill in those blurry areas by letting these other groups give some information. Rather than saying that the world looks different depending on where you stand and what we want to do is say to this person, “From where you stand, what does the entire word look like?” We want to assume that they have the authority to tell the story of the world. That’s the operating principle of the theatre. In the theatre there’s not a singular narrative voice. Theatre, as my partner Madeline says, is about the democracy of consciousness. Every character in the theatre speaks from their own complete consciousness and, rather than being told the story, we watch it play out. We watch this person with their 360 degree view of the world meet this person with their 360 degree of the world and, in that way, we break out of the human conundrum of the limitations of our own consciousness. We can see the limitations of the view of each character. So Willy Loman [from Death of a Salesman] doesn’t get to tell us the story of the world; he gets to tell us his story and we see the limitations of his own consciousness and that’s why that story matters to us. So the theatre will be better once we have other people telling us that story. I see men really trying to write better women characters and they really get stuck. And women do too, frankly. Giving women motivations that have to do with the yearning to have a meaningful life, to make a difference in the world, struggling with their system of belief, so many times in plays that gets reduced to, “Can I get that man to love me?” We understand what other people are like by watching plays where we see people fully manifested, so the more we see different people doing that, the more we can understand about different people. Parity is good for the theatre specifically because it reflects the operating principle of the theatre.
Do you feel like there’s more pressure on women and their plays for them to be universal and represent every woman? We’ve noticed that when a woman writes a play, especially with a female protagonist, people act like that protagonist must represent every woman ever.
I think we’re learning what a female protagonist looks like and I think it’s a relatively unexplored territory. With Fun Home one of the things that happened in development was that there were a lot of notes about how Bruce, the character of the father, wasn’t three dimensional enough. Some of those notes were really great, but there was a way where I kept thinking, “But he is elusive. He’s not known.” And at some point I thought, “Oh, these notes are based on a belief that he’s the protagonist.” He’s not the protagonist and yet it’s reflexive to believe that’s the case. One of the things I really loved about the movie Bridesmaids was I thought there was something so unusual about it in that her [Kristen Wiig] character was for herself. I thought that was something new, in terms of a female protagonist, that I hadn’t seen. It made me realize that there was this archetypal understructure of “I’m a wife,” “I’m a mother,” “I’m a girlfriend,” that somehow didn’t exist in that movie. I think it’s happening in TV all over the place. When I was in college and I did my senior thesis on roles for women in theatre, the point of it was there were no roles for women where women talked about work, friendship, aging—they were always in relationship to men. The theatre is behind in this actually. It’s going to change.
Things can only be read through a cultural context. If Fun Home had come to Broadway a few years ago, I don’t know if it could have been read. It’s been surprising to me the degree that it can be read. These straight audiences are having a direct relationship with these characters. They then complicate it in their own minds after the fact and are like, “It’s more than a story about a lesbian,” and I’m like, “Well, it’s exactly a story about a lesbian.” And you didn’t have trouble processing that while it happened, but now you can’t figure out how to make that work, but the reason they can make it work in the moment is gay marriage and Ellen and Rachel Maddow and that creates a scaffolding of information. The best situation for that, and to make that transition, is when there’s a really mixed audience and people teach each other how to hear. I think in terms of female protagonists, that’s in the process of changing. We’re going to be able to soon see the many different manifestations that we can’t even really imagine right now of women as independent, primary carriers of a story.
What’s your process like as a writer? What’s your way into a story?
It depends on what it is. I’m not a natural dramatist. I don’t think very many people are natural dramatists; it’s really cutting to theatrical action rather than talking about things or mulling over things. And that’s quite difficult for me, since I can just talk and talk. So I’m always looking for moments where I feel like something opens out into something theatrical. What can happen? What can open out into theatre? My favorite way to work is in workshop. I really like to write on actors and go back and forth. The ideal place to do it is Sundance—it’s the greatest situation. But a 29-hour contract where you can bring in pages and work with directors and actors for a day [is helpful]. The minute I can hear dialog coming out of people’s mouths I can hear it in a way that I can’t on the page and then I can shape it in the room. Then at the end of the day I talk with my collaborators, go home, watch some bad TV, go to sleep, and get up in the morning and write some new pages before I go in. I really love that.
How do you think new work could be better developed?
The only thing that really exists in theatre is production. I think development structures are getting better. I think the work that Todd London and company has done and the push that the Mellon Foundation has made is having an impact. You can write a book and you finish writing it and people can read it now or later. Theatre only exists in real time, in relationship, as it’s unfolding in the collective imaginative mind of an audience. That’s the only time theatre actually exists. The only way you can learn about theatre is by doing theatre. One of the things I will say that is a problem for women, and this is something that artistic directors need to have in their mind, is we judge men based on their potential or the idea of their potential and we judge women based on their accomplishments. But women can’t have those accomplishments unless we give them the chance to learn things on stage and that is a crucial difference. And I think if artistic directors can realize that they’re doing that then that would be helpful. The greatest thing to happen to me was there was cheap real estate in the 80s and I was on stage all the time.
(vi.) Actress and Writer
We’re always interested in people who do more than one thing. How did that come about for you?
When I was at the WOW Cafe, I was there because of Split Britches, which was different than anything I’d ever seen before and I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. The work was exquisite, but so much of what went on at WOW was this crazy, exploding mess and that was sort of antithetical to my Midwestern, linear thinking and desire for control of the punch line. No one was paying any attention to anything going on at WOW, for better or worse. Everyone—theatre, film and TV people—were coming down to the East Village to check out the work but were completely ignoring WOW. It was completely enraging to see that work get left out of the history books, but what it meant was there was no reason to be there except for the pleasure of making work. When Wendell Peirce of the show Treme, which I totally love, talks about that show, he described capturing the culture of New Orleans, which is a lived culture. It’s not commoditized. It’s not a thing you pay for and then go experience. It’s in everything you do: how you eat your meals, how you celebrate holidays, what you do after work. And that’s what WOW was like. It was a world in which you had a completely different paradigm. It was just presumed you had a lesbian universe and then you could just go from there. And it was where you lived. We just made shows and did every single thing there. That was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me. The East Village had all of these venues then and little by little people would say, “Do you want to come do a thing here?” So I was trained sort of like a vaudevillian and I was standing on stage telling stories. What it meant was I didn’t have an institution telling me who I had to work with, what it had to look like, who it was for. I just got to do whatever. And I have a history of having the most perfect timing, so I was there right at the moment that the institutionalized theatres started to open their doors to this lesbian work. Right as the Five Lesbian Brothers’ work got to a certain level of accomplishment, New York Theatre Workshop said not, “Do you want to do a gay and lesbian festival,” but, “We’re going to put your work on the mainstage.” That hadn’t happened before. It didn’t happen to women who were five and ten years older than me. So I had a lot of control over what I did.
Did you ever have trouble getting people to take you seriously as someone who does more than one thing?
I was a performer and then I started to write. I had shows like 2.5 Minute Ride and Well and I was very proud of the writing of those shows, but I felt like I wasn’t viewed as a playwright because part of my thing was to perform as if I was just standing there talking to people. There was an incredible amount of technique in that and there was an incredible amount of theatrical construction to that, but it looked like it was just happening and I felt like I couldn’t get credited as a writer. Then when I did In the Wake—and people have very mixed feelings about In the Wake, some people really loved it and some people really hated it, which is legitimate, I have questions about it as well—there was a thing that happened with it which was that people couldn’t see it as a play. They could only see it as a solo show. It started with these monologues at the top, which were seen through the lens of me as a solo performer, as if there aren’t a million plays that don’t start with that device. That was frustrating to me—that it was critiqued as if it was a twisted solo show and couldn’t be seen as what it was. I felt like I wasn’t being seen as a writer. Then I started to perform less and write more. Last year I had this theatrical dream where Good Person of Szechwan was in the Newman and Fun Home was in the Martinson at the same time in the Public Theater, and I remember this young guy interviewing me for Good Person of Szechwan and he was like, “What is that like for you to be on stage?” and I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I’ve been around for a long time and these young people were like, “She acts?” I think I felt for a long time that people liked that I did these two things, and then I realized that people have a hard time holding that in their heads. It was fun to do both of those things at the same time. It was the most glorious experience of coming down into the lobby and have people talk to me about the plays and I wouldn’t know which play they were talking about.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
Maybe the Little House on the Prairie books, which I slavishly attached to. A couple of years ago, I read a couple of them again and they’re so astringent. But the real answer is that my parents are both really funny storytellers, and it’s probably that. My family had a lot of canonized, mythic stories about our family origin. My family likes to talk about themselves.
Many articles on you mention being Jewish. Do you feel that influences your work?
I’d say that identity, for sure. 2.5 Minute Ride is about my relationship with my father and his particular take on his story and his history. There’s a central story that he told a lot when we were kids and that was sort of the central moral lesson of our childhood. He left Germany when he was fifteen and then he was in the American army and went back to Germany and interrogated German soldiers. There’s a story that’s the centerpiece of 2.5 Minute Ride where he’s interrogating this guy who’d been in the Gestapo and at the end of the encounter my father says that he looked at him and thought, “Oh but for the good fortune of being a Jew, I might have been a Nazi.” Then Well deals with my mother’s community work and her work to racially integrate the neighborhood we lived in. I think both my parents had this sense of that to not fit in was a positive thing. I think that informs everything that I do and think about.
I once read an article where the supposition was if you were Jewish and a writer you were always writing about the Holocaust.
I don’t know if that’s true. I think my father was very suspicious of received narratives. One of the things that I think helped him move through his life and the losses that he had, was this sense of himself as being part of a very long context. He knows a lot about world history and Jewish history. I think he was always someone who was questioning narratives about things and I think that is a habit of mine that he taught me. Marsha Norman says that all writers have their stuff—the same story they go back to again and again and again—and that’s my habit. That’s what made me a good match for Fun Home because Alison does the same thing. So my interest in writing about his experience in the Holocaust was that of the daughter of a trauma survivor to repair that damage, which one cannot do. But that show was kind of a breakthrough show for me artistically, since what I was interested in was the codified reaction to the Holocaust. I think theatre deals with a pre-narrativized reality so I was interested in how to get past that very powerful narrative and to get to some other relationship to some part of that story. So on those terms, I resist that statement, but maybe because it’s exactly true.
Who were your heroes growing up?
To say the nerdiest thing: my heroes were my parents.
Who are your top five favorite female protagonists?
1. Gertie Nevels in The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow
2. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in Parks and Recreation
3. Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) in Prime Suspect
4. Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More
5. Caroline Thibodeaux in Caroline, or Change
When did you first feel like a grown up?
When I was a sophomore, my midwestern college had a program called The Philadelphia Urban Studies Program and somebody had said to me, “It’s really, really great.” So we came to live in Philadelphia and it was really like being thrown into the water and learning how to swim. My friend Marybeth and I had to learn to survive in a way we never had to before. Like we didn’t have a bed and we found a mattress on the street and took it home. We were in this apartment on the ground floor in South Philly in the 80s. I don’t know what we thought we were doing. We didn’t know how to take public transportation. We were from the Midwest. I felt like I grew up being there. It was magical. I love that city. But that really felt like an experience of being a very ill-equipped adult.
(ix.) Lilly Awards
You’re hosting The Lilly Awards coming up and you’re also on the Board and we were wondering if you could tell us a little about that?
I just think they’re really visionary. The statistical work that Julia Jordan and company undertook has been…after so many years of all of us trying to make a difference, nothing has made a difference like, “Let’s just get some hard data.” I think things are starting to change and that’s why—you cannot argue with the data. And it was transformative to me to look at the data. I think it’s really smart. Awards make a difference, for whatever reason. It’s very helpful. And I think it was proactive to just say, “Let’s just fix it. Let’s make these awards.” The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize is the same way and it’s incredibly helpful for people to put on their resumes. I’m not a very active member of that Board because I can’t keep up with those women. But what I can do is host the Lilly’s, which I really enjoy. We’re working on an opening number now. It’s going to be really exciting.
Can you give us a hint about what it’s going to be?
There might be some Ziegfeld costumes. There might be some feathers. It’s going to be good. It’s such a great event.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
Fix it. Just fucking fix it. You don’t have to do it every year, but just say that within a three or five-year period, that within that period of time you’ll have parity. Just fix it.
Photo by Eva Weiss.