Alison Bechdel and Beth Malone to talk ‘Fun Home’ at Winter Words in Aspen
If You Go …
Who: Alison Bechdel & Beth Malone at Winter Words
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Wednesday, Jan. 27, 6 p.m.
How much: $20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
After decades of writing and drawing in relative anonymity, cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel found herself in the mainstream.
In 2014, she was a awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, and last year a Broadway musical adaptation of her 2006 memoir “Fun Home,” about growing up gay with a closeted father, won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It’s still playing eight times a week in Manhattan, with Snowmass Village actress Beth Malone leading the ensemble cast as the grown-up version of Alison.
Seeing her life played out in song on stage was surreal, Bechdel said. Seeing her story become a popular culture phenomenon was perhaps more so.
“It’s been a strange ride,” Bechdel said in a recent phone interview. “I was used to, for most of my career, being quite a marginal figure. My identity as an artist was as an underground cartoonist. I’m happy the way things have gone, but it takes some getting used to — to see my work embraced in this bizarre, mainstream fashion.”
Bechdel will be in conversation with Malone today at the Winter Words literary series. The event doubles as an unofficial homecoming event for Malone, whose breakout, Tony-nominated role as Bechdel on Broadway came after years as a beloved member of the Aspen theater community, stretching back to her time as a Crystal Palace dinner theater performer in the 1990s and continuing as recently as her turn as Fantine in the 2013 Theatre Aspen production of “Les Miserables.”
Malone spent four years perfecting her Alison, as “Fun Home” moved from workshops to the Public Theatre off-Broadway and eventually into its triumphant and ongoing run at the Circle in the Square on Broadway. During the development of the musical, Bechdel — who lives in Vermont — would periodically drop in on rehearsals or talk with Malone and the other actresses portraying her, but she was only peripherally involved.
“I learned later that (Malone) was kind of watching me for my gestures and how I do things, but I wasn’t ever conscious of it as it was happening,” Bechdel said.
Last spring, Malone described their relationship as a “tentative friendship,” and said Bechdel was hands-off about the performance. Bechdel said she saw Malone steadily develop an “Alison” character distinct from Alison the human being.
“It changed with time,” she said. “Earlier, she played more of an exact copy of me with all my verbal tics and things — that didn’t really work, so a lot of that affect went away. She was more confident and she was the way I wish I could be right now — speaking with confidence and clarity. In some ways, I’m trying now to model my real self after that character.”
Bechdel’s syndicated comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” ran from 1983 to 2008 and established her as a sharp social observer and feminist voice — gifted as both a visual and verbal storyteller. The strip may be best known for launching what became known as “The Bechdel Test,” pointing out the dearth of female representation in film by judging whether any scene in a movie portrays at least two women talking to one another about something other than a man (four out of the eight current Best Picture nominees pass, a recent Wall Street Journal story noted).
While representation of women in pop culture remains unequal 30 years after she published the test, Bechdel has been heartened by breakthroughs in film and television with products such as Amazon’s “Transparent” about a transgender woman.
“I think there’s been a lot of progress,” she said. “It’s kind of mind-boggling. I just finished watching ‘Transparent.’ It’s from this incredible feminist perspective that’s also really entertaining and terrific. I feel there’s been a real shift in recent years, like it’s been really accelerated.”
Over the past decade, Bechdel moved from the short comic strip to the full-length graphic memoirs “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother?” Writing short-form stories for 25 years honed her fast-twitch creative muscles. But by the time she suspended the strip, after the taste of the possibilities of long-form narrative in “Fun Home,” she felt constrained by the shorter format.
“I felt like toward the end of my work on ‘Dykes to Watch Out For,’ that those panels of that weekly strip weren’t enough anymore,” she said. “The things I wanted to say and do needed more space than that. So doing this longer-form thing was a natural evolution.”
These days, Bechdel is at work on a third memoir. It’s focused on her relationship to physical fitness and the trends and fads that have come and gone in the U.S. over her lifetime.
Aspen, of course, comprising most of the statistically fittest county in the fittest state in the union, is an ideal place for Bechdel to turn her reportorial eye on the subject. Having grown up skiing on the icy slopes of the East, Bechdel said, she’s curious about the vaunted Colorado snow and local ski culture.
“That’s what I’m excited about seeing,” she said.
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