Fine Arts Center's LGBTQ reception and talk-back unpacks the queer themes of Fun Home

From left: MacKenzie Beyer as Joan, Allison Mickelson as Alison, and Jessica Kahkoska as Medium Alison.

On First Friday, April 6, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College hosted a unique reception for the LGBTQ community that Nathan Halvorson, associate director of performing arts, called “a dream come true.” For four years, he said, he has wanted to extend a hand to local LGBTQ organizations and individuals, and to invite them to experience the FAC collectively. Of course, the FAC’s current theater production, Fun Home, holds natural appeal for LGBTQ folks, but he hopes this may become a regular event, not just for plays featuring LGBTQ protagonists.

The reception included catered food, wine and beer, and full access to the galleries, along with a community of LGBTQ guests and the typical FAC First Friday festivities. Prominent LGBTQ locals such as Rev. Nori Rost were in attendance, as well as board members of Colorado Springs PrideFest and Springs Equality, plus yours truly, accompanied by my token straight friend.

Following the reception, we all filed into the packed theater to see Fun Home, the Tony Award-winning musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel/memoir about the reconciliation of her identity with her father’s tragic death and his own suppressed sexuality.

It turned out to be a stunning and unique performance. While most productions tend to put a great deal of effort into the setting of the Bechdel family home — important in both metaphor and literal interpretation — Halvorson wanted to construct a setting that suggested the events of the play happened within Alison’s mind, as she reflects on her memories. The effect is often surreal and consistently appropriate for the tone, with enough set pieces to suggest setting and Alison often hovering in the background, observing her own memories. During one impactful scene as she struggles to remember details of her childhood home, cast members wheel set pieces away before she can sketch them, a disorienting flurry of movement.

Actress Allison Mickelson, who has played the role of Alison (Bechdel) in the past, was absolutely stunning. She looks like Bechdel, talks like Bechdel, and spends every moment she's onstage doing what she calls "active listening," where she takes part in a scene simply by being there in the background and hyper-focusing on her co-stars. Together with her younger counterparts, Jessica Kahkoska (as Medium Alison) and Kelly Tanberg (as Small Alison), they form a seamless portrait of a woman growing from childhood to middle age, and coming more fully into her identity and gender expression along the way.

Knowing my own internal bias toward Alison Bechdel and lesbian-centric narratives, I asked the aforementioned straight friend how she felt about the show, to see if its themes and messages resonated with her at all. She exited the theater just as moved as I was, though in different ways. For LGBTQ people, Fun Home (set mostly in the ‘70s and ‘80s) is a part of our history and an accurate and relatable picture of one woman's journey out of the closet, but for everyone else it still presents an insightful look at identity, coming of age, and complicated family relationships. Gay or straight, we can all relate to that.

That is, partly, what Friday night’s talk-back covered. Following the play, Colorado College assistant professors Rushaan Kumar (feminist and gender studies) and Ryan Platt (performance studies), along with Halvorson and members of the cast, hosted anyone who wanted to join them in the FAC’s Deco Lounge. The informal panel covered topics from the set design to the power of the original graphic novel, to queer-specific topics such as “flagging” (the practice of indicating one’s queerness in hopes to lower the risk of finding a romantic partner), and whether or not the story of Fun Home is outdated.

Younger LGBTQ people in the crowd seemed surprised that there were still married men in the closet in 2018, and that many subsections of the population still “flag,” even though we are supposedly living in a more enlightened age. But while generational divides were clear and could have easily become contentious, the group maintained a sense of mutual respect and support. LGBTQ people (including more lesbians than I’ve ever seen in one room at one time), straight people and cisgender people of all ages, races and modes of gender expression engaged in honest conversation, and thanked each other for working toward a better future. The conversation acknowledged Colorado Springs' own past as the "Hate City," and the ongoing efforts of Focus on the Family to destabilize efforts toward LGBTQ equality. The conversation hit close to home, literally, and was all the more valuable for it.

"Hopefully, this dialogue has just been opened at the Fine Arts Center," Halvorson said in closing.

The FAC will host two more talk-backs during the show’s run. Friday, April 13, Colorado College associate professor and associate chair of the English department, Jared Richman, will lead the talk-back with a focus on the original graphic novel. Friday, April 20, Ryan Bañagale, Crown Family Professor for Innovation in the Arts in CC's department of music, will join Halvorson to talk about Fun Home from a theatrical perspective, and how it fits into the genre. The crowd may be less LGBTQ, and the topics may be different, but there's a lot to unpack with Fun Home, and talking it over can only help attendees internalize its themes.