Final Bow: Fun Home's Emily Skeggs on Her "Days and Days" as Medium Alison
Making political statements in both song and hair from her time as an off-Broadway understudy to a Tony nominee.
Broadway folklore is made by stories like Emily Skeggs' journey with the musical Fun Home. Her first performance as Medium Alison was as an understudy during the show's 2013 off-Broadway run at the Public Theater. Flash forward to the spring of 2015 and the role had handed her both a Broadway debut and a Tony Award nomination. While on September 10 Skeggs ends her life-changing run in the Tony-winning musical about the life of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the young actress has nearly three years of LGBTQ activism, leisurely hair maintenance, and stories of poor audience behavior at the Circle in the Square Theatre to share before she leaves the house on Maple Avenue.
1. What is your favorite line that you get to say?
I love the interchange between Joan and [me] when I realized I've figured out how to write to my parents and tell them I'm a lesbian. There's so much excitement and exhilaration and relief from it that when she asks, "How are they taking it? What did they say?" I realize I didn't even think about that part and I say, "I don't know, I just put it in the mailbox just now." I love how simply and beautifully that interchange reflects those first moments of discovering who you are — that sort of myopic giddiness of finally feeling like yourself and nothing else really matters in that moment but that feeling of truth inside of you.
2. Everyone loves inside jokes. What is the best one from your show?
I think my favorite involves Beth [Malone] and Judy [Kuhn] at "places": The show is such a journey and a hike for Beth since she's onstage the whole time. It's truly a feat of strength and endurance to perform her track — so much so that it became a joke…Everyday when Beth's cue light goes on, Beth will say something like, "Judy, I can't, no, no, not again." And Judy grabs her by the shoulders and says, "OK Beth, look at me. You have to do the show…NOW." And they usually do an amazingly exaggerated stage slap and Judy will fake kick her through the curtain and onto the stage. It perfectly encapsulates how much fun we have backstage while also really taking care of each other.
3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?
I guess my favorite not-so-dangerous incident happened one night when Roberta [Colindrez] and Joel [Perez] and I rise out of the stage for the beginning of the "Raincoat of Love" daydream sequence. It's this awesome badass moment where we rise up through the floor in a plume of smoke and it's this incredible alternative reality in small Alison's mind that's just full of love and uber-cheesy happiness and we look SO COOL. But one day our lift stopped so it was just our singing heads popping up out of the floor — and because of the smoke you couldn't see our bodies so we just looked like little singing floating heads.
4. What was the most "interesting" present someone gave you at the stage door?
Right now my favorite present is this incredible stuffed-animal bear dressed in a handmade Medium Alison sweater, complete with converse sneakers, baggy jeans, the knee socks, and of course those iconic tighty-whities. It was given to me by our ultimate Fun Homie, Ianina, and she just recently gave a Joan bear to Roberta! We love them so much — they sit in our dressing room together and it's ridiculously adorable.
5. Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can't say your family!)
Alison Bechdel, duh! And her family. They love coming and we love having them there. It's this mutual relationship where I think for them it can be a difficult but ultimately cathartic and soothing thing, and for us it just keeps us honest — because at the end of the day it's their story. Sometimes when I'm really caught up in my own problems I pretend she's in the audience to free myself of my own B.S. and tell her story with dignity and respect.
6. If you could change your major to any one person, who would it be?
Roberta. I mean come on.
7. What have been the pros and cons of the Alison Bechdel haircut?
You know, even the things I think of as cons are actually pros at the end of the day. It's SO EASY — I can roll out of bed and fly right into my day without doing anything…And it's actually pretty versatile — I can pin it up if I wanna look girly, style it funky, or bowl it out if I'm going for the Ringo Starr look (surprisingly a very enjoyable style). Also, I get mistaken for a boy a lot, which honestly sometimes on the streets of New York City is way better than getting called attention to because you're a woman. My cat-calling rates have plummeted, which, while it's socially and politically problematic from a feminist standpoint, makes walking around this town so much more enjoyable.
It's been cool on a political level too. There was a mix-up on a flight attendant's print-out and it said "Mister." At the beginning of the flight, which I was dressed pretty androgynously for, they said, "Can I get you some water...Mister Skeggs—?" to check that that was in fact the pronoun I'd prefer. But I couldn't really hear them over the engine and was in the middle of something so I just heard my name and said, "Oh, yeah sure." Assuming that meant that was the pronoun I preferred, they very politely and with respect called me "young man" and "Mr. Skeggs" the whole flight. It never occurred to me to correct them because I don't care about pronouns and also because they were doing the right thing. My cousin is transitioning and I knew flying was something that she was worried about so this interaction gave me a lot of hope for her and those like her who are pursuing their authentic lives.
So in a lot of ways the Alison haircut has been both a very versatile haircut and many micro-political statements — and to that I say YAS QUEEN.
8. What is the most distracting thing you've spotted an audience member doing during a performance?
We can see everybody — particularly when they are on their phones. It's just like a personal spotlight for the rude. And for some reason people really love to bring full meals in many plastic bags that they individually wrap and unwrap during the show. Every time that happens, after the show Beth and I look to each other and say "SNACKS? You like SNACK?"
The really hard ones are when people decide to comment on the show to each other while it's going on…One time we had a school group that was pretty vocal and when Roberta and I kissed a student yelled, "Get a room!" It was pretty upsetting in the moment but then I thought to myself, "We have one, and you're in it," and I went right into singing "Changing My Major" with that in mind. That student felt uncomfortable for whatever reason, they voiced their uncomfortableness, and then I got to respond by breaking it down for them in what I think is the most empathetic and relatable song about discovering your sexuality ever written. They got really quiet when they realized, "Oh sh*t, this just got real," and by the end of the song they burst out into applause. I'll never forget that.
9. How have you enjoyed blending theater with activism through Fun Home?
Because of the current political climate, just performing it every night is a political statement. Not that the show itself is a political show — it's really not. But because of the subject matter and because of what's happening now in the world, it's been made a political event. We have a great relationship with PFLAG — we marched in the pride parade with them and have had meetings with educators; we did a benefit protest performance of an abridged lecture version of the show down in Charleston when the legislature cut the public funding for the University of South Carolina for providing the graphic novel as suggested reading for their incoming freshmen; we went down to Orlando after the attack there and performed the show as a benefit in an act of solidarity with the people there; we raised over one hundred thousand dollars for the victims and their families and for Equality Florida, and I can easily say it was the most profoundly important performing experience of my life and one of my biggest honors. Being so ingrained in the political culture by simply telling a story every night has profoundly changed me, both as a citizen of this country and as a performer. And on the micro level it has instilled in me a compassion that I strive to lead with everyday.
To sum it all up, the day I went on for the first time as an understudy in this show back at the Public, our director, Sam Gold, gave me the advice of a lifetime. He said to me, "Your job is to support everyone else onstage with you and to help them tell the story they have worked so hard to build." I carry that with me in everything I do. That is my job as an actor, and that is my job as a citizen of the world.
I am indebted to the Fun Home team on many levels, and will always call them home.