Can the Arts Bridge our Divisive Culture?
Karen Eilbacher Shines a Light on LGBT Community in Fun Home
By Maureen Lee Lenker
“Everyone has more in common than we give ourselves credit for. We expect not to connect with people, but there’s always something if we’re open to it.”
This revelation is what actress Karen Eilbacher experienced as an audience member when she first saw Fun Home – perceiving a greater understanding and a connectivity between the collective members of the audience when she left the theater. It’s something that she now witnesses from the stage every night as a member of the cast of the musical’s national tour, now playing at the Ahmanson.
As individuals and as a nation, we could all use a little more soul-searching of the nature Eilbacher describes. The musical’s subtle advocating for understanding and connection are needed now more than ever in a country (and world) that is increasingly divided. Though, Eilbacher cautions against labeling the show more relevant simply because of political climate. “It just so happens that our world really, really needs a show like this,” she says.
Fun Home is a five-time Tony winning musical. Based on Alison Bechdel’s memoir as graphic novel, it tells the story of Bechdel’s discovery of her own sexual identity in the midst of probing her relationship with her father, a closeted gay man who committed suicide when Bechdel was in college. Eilbacher portrays Joan, an out and proud lesbian woman who becomes Alison’s first girlfriend. For Eilbacher, the role was an opportunity to examine her own life, as she is a member of the LGBT community who found art an integral part of her journey.
Over the course of three years of performing in a play called She Likes Girls, Eilbacher realized that she was gay. She describes starting the production process identifying as straight (“whatever that means,” she quips) and going on a three-year journey to the realization that, like the play’s title, “Woah, yeah, I like girls.” Memories of that experience fill her with a mixture of understanding and awe for the tale of Alison Bechdel’s own coming out in Fun Home and her character Joan’s role in it. In regards to Alison’s experience as portrayed onstage, Eilbacher says, “I look back at my coming out and I have a lot of empathy. I have a lot of heart for a young woman going through that, especially in such a heightened time where she’s going off to college.”
More than anything though, she’s humbled to portray Joan each night. “It’s an honor to play a role where I didn’t know what was becoming of me as I was growing up and coming out, and I always looked up to the woman who I portray inside the role of Joan,” she says. “To now be in a place where I’m playing a woman like Joan, who[m] I still look up to . . . it’s like I’m mothering to part of myself.”
While her friends all felt she was perfect for the role based on her personality, Eilbacher says, for her, maintaining access to Joan is about dismissing negative thoughts, saying “yes,” and keeping a solid internal base of strength and confidence. Still, though portraying Joan requires a fair amount of meditating and head clearing, Eilbacher is touched by the opportunity to recognize and pay tribute to the Joans in her life. “I had many Joans. I had many ‘ring of keys’ moments,” she says. “I guess I’ve always been surrounded by Joan, whether I knew it or not given what I knew about my own sexuality. And there’s been lots of championing for myself, finding little pieces of Joan inside myself to make it through darker times.”
Eilbacher saw Fun Home on Broadway long before she ever knew she would be touring the country with it, and it became a profound moment in her own life. She attended the show with her parents and was struck by how it depicted recent experiences in which they could place themselves.
“Seeing Fun Home was incredible because there was material to possibly help facilitate a reference,” she says. For her, it wasn’t merely about seeing LGBT stories on stage, so much as it was providing a platform to further her relationship with her parents and deepen their understanding. “I was younger then. It was closer to the time when I first came out, and it just doesn’t end right there [with coming out],” she explains. “I want to live my life intimately with them as I’m sure they want to live their life intimately with me.”
Lest you think this personal experience be all about her parents gaining deeper understanding and insight into her identity, Eilbacher says the show actually gave her significant perspective in its depiction of Alison’s parents’ own struggles and challenges. “They’re still growing up, they’re still learning,” she says. “Fun Home put some perspective in my life that it’s two-sided. They might be trying to figure out what’s the best way for them to love me now, just as I’m figuring out what’s the best way for me to love myself and love others now that I’m more honest and open.”
She hopes others will find the same empathy and understanding in the show. For some, it might not be an easy sell – dealing with issues of homosexuality, the trauma of growing up and letting go, and suicide, it might turn off certain subsets of the audience. Still, Eilbacher relishes the chance to challenge people to step outside their comfort zones. “I’ve watched people walk out, and I’m totally cool with that,” she says. “When you come to the theater, you have the right to react. And the person you’re going to have to face, whether you’re in your seat or you leave the theater, is yourself.”
For her though, the show’s potency and relevancy have been present since day one. “As human beings, we’re constantly trying to connect, first and foremost with ourselves, so that we can then connect with other people and so on and so forth, so I don’t think it shifts too much,” she says. To Eilbacher, the show is about our shared struggle to connect and express ourselves, not something exclusive to the LGBTQ community. Yes, this message is supremely relevant right now, but Eilbacher sees the show as something that consistently lives in the present moment (even in its moments of “flashback”). As she says, “Fun Home is a show for everyone because it’s [of] the moment right now.”
That present moment transcends time and space, making itself more relevant in our political climate and surpassing it with its deeper, more universal themes.
Fun Home is being performed at the Ahmanson Theatre through April 1. http://centertheatregroup.org