The many hats of Kate Shindle: She was Miss America 1998. She’s the youngest-ever president of Actors’ Equity. Now she’s heading the cast of the Tony-winning musical “Fun Home” on tour at the National Theatre.
Based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (of “Bechdel test” fame), the groundbreaking 2016 Tony-winning show deals with Alison — played at three ages, with Shindle in the senior role — coming to terms with being gay just as she learns her father has lived life in the closet. As the show settled into its D.C. run, Shindle came to the Washington Post for a Facebook Live conversation. The interview has been condensed for length; watch it in full here.
Nelson Pressley: You said when you first saw this you really wanted to be part of it. Why is that?
Kate Shindle: Equal parts just an emotional response to it, the quality of the writing, which was really, really rare. Also, the prospect of traveling this show across the country at this particular cultural moment is not something I can talk too much about. There are a lot of kids who are gay, who are thrown out of their houses for being gay, or live without any parental support, emotionally, financially, whatever. They don’t get to have a childhood because they woke up one day and realized that they were attracted to someone of the same sex or gender.
I just keep going back to the fact that I’m straight, and my first crush on a boy was when I was five years old, and everybody thought it was adorable. What if I had woken up when I was five and had it been a little girl? Would I have been told that I was a mistake for the next 15 years? And what does that do to you? We’ve gotta stop doing that.
NP: This is from Julie: What is the biggest challenge about performing in different cities every few weeks?
KS: San Francisco was like, performing for a hair trigger audience. And so any tiny little thing they did, that audience ate it up.
NP: What’s it like having this in Washington now?
KS: I read an interesting article in The Guardian where our director Sam Gold was talking about touring a show championing LGBT rights at the time that the presidential administration may be trying to cut back on them . . . It’s a particularly profound moment to tour the show.
That said, our second city was Durham, and there were a lot of people who said, “What’s it gonna be like to take this show to North Carolina?” Durham was almost sold out before we even opened the tour, and those audiences were amazing. I think that in the era of HB2 [the “bathroom bill“], there are a lot of people in North Carolina saying, “Hold on a second. You don’t speak for me, and I’m gonna go support this.”
NP: North Carolina is a shorthand for a certain kind of political view, maybe. You’ve talked also about assumptions that come with being Miss America.
KS: I was 20 when I became Miss America. I was three years into a theater degree at Northwestern. I was a Dean’s List student. As much as it was a transformative year for me, and an amazing experience, it was mind-boggling to me that as soon as that happened, overnight some people stopped treating me like I had a brain. I kind of got a chip on my shoulder of it. I realized I had about ten seconds to talk with someone enough so that they would go, “Wait a minute: you’re not exactly what I thought.”
At the same time, I spent 90% of my time advocating for HIV education and prevention. And I was invited to places where AIDS activists had been trying to get in for years, and nobody would let them in. But they let Miss America in to talk to their kids about HIV, even in some of the conservative, rural or suburban areas.
NP: You were in Washington recently as Actors’ Equity’s president, advocating for the National Endowment for the Arts.
KS: The argument that I made about the NEA was actually primarily a jobs argument, because all over the country I’m seeing these communities where even in some cases industry has gone. Look at Pittsburgh: the city got together and said, wait, we’re going to save our city, and we’re going to use the arts to do it. And they invested in performing arts centers, they invested in arts management training, and they invested in real estate acquisition.
You look at the Durham Performing Arts Center, the Smith Center in Las Vegas, downtown L.A., North Hollywood. Cleveland is a more mature example. And it’s not just the people on the stage who have jobs; it’s the people who take the tickets, who work in the administrative offices, and then the ancillary benefits like parking garages and restaurants. So those are the very middle class jobs have gone away when the industry leaves, and can be supported by investing in the arts. And because the NEA requires a dollar for dollar match, those dollars get leveraged many times over.
NP: What do you say to people who argue that theater or the arts should stay out of politics?
KP: I don’t particularly care for it when people say things like, “Shut up and act.” Because I have spent my whole adult life building a platform for myself. I’ve had great support doing it, I’ve had great luck, I’ve had great privilege. At the same time, I don’t think that because I chose to make my living as an actor that means I’m automatically ruled out from participating in the national conversation.
NP: There’s a longstanding argument about the NEA and that kind of funding being elitist. How do you tackle that?
KS: With the information. Those grants go to every single congressional district in the country. And it struck me when Mick Mulvaney [the White House budget director] said, “We can’t ask coal miners to pay for PBS.” My instinctive response was, “Don’t coal miners’ kids learn their alphabet from ‘Sesame Street’?” I actually think that PBS is as nonpolitical as you can get in most respects.
NP: We have a question from Heather: Have you ever met Alison? What was she like?
KS: I met her first at a party, and I was really intimidated. She’s so cerebral, as you would expect, but she’s also really warm, and we rode bikes and talked about bikes! She’s a rock star in a lot of circles.
I am playing a fictional version of Alison Bechdel. There are a lot of characters based on real people, like Mama Rose in “Gypsy” is a real person. “Evita”: real person. But they’re not coming to your opening night in Cleveland. So it’s a little intimidating. She’s sort of been a cheerleader, she’s happy to do press, she’s happy to show up, but she doesn’t seem to meddle. That’s kind of a dream scenario if you’re trying to adapt somebody’s material.
NP: Gia is asking: Would you say that “Fun Home” has opened the door for similar stories to be told on stage?
KS: I think it has. It’s the first musical that made it to Broadway with an openly lesbian protagonist, and it’s real. The more time you spend doing it, the more I meet people saying things like, “I’m not gay, and my dad wasn’t gay, and we didn’t have this same conversation that Alison and her father needed to have but I’ve definitely been on that car ride” that we see at the end of the play, where Alison and her father are in the car together [singing “Telephone Wire"]. There’s so much that they need to talk about, and they end up talking about not much of anything.
NP: You are on two pretty strong tracks: the acting track, and the activist track. You seem pretty comfortable in both worlds. What do you see for yourself going forward? More stage? More activism? Keeping it going in both directions?
KS: Yes, yes, and yes. I used to think I was going to go into politics, and then I decided I didn’t want to do that. And now I’ve found that the best thing for me to do is just to keep doing things I like. I’m thinking that there’s probably a reasonable chance I’m going to run for office someday, but I’m not sure when. It’s not in my immediate future. We’ll see.