There’s a song in the musical Fun Home where “Middle Alison,” the college-aged iteration of real-life lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, declares that she’s “changing [her] major to Joan” after her first sexual encounter with her new girlfriend. Alison, a newly self-discovered lesbian, suddenly finds herself in an exciting, sexually awakened new world. Joan, who’s brazen but good-humored, plays a pivotal role in helping Alison navigate her new identity and the activities it entails.
While studies in Joan entail kissing and sex for Alison, they entail something different for Karen Eilbacher, who plays Joan in the national tour of Fun Home. And in the process of bringing her character to life, she has a breadth of choices to make and plenty of materials to consult.
“The [Fun Home] script is really well written, so it affords me lot of love and liking for the character I’m playing because there’s always somewhere to go and something new to read inside the dialogue,” Eilbacher says. And even if a line seems simple, she says, it’s her job to “really flesh out the life that exists within that one moment and that one line.”
Because the Fun Home musical is based on Alison Bechdel’s bestselling autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, every character in the show is based on a real person. Early last month, Eilbacher had the opportunity to meet the real-life Joan—Joan Benson—outside of the stage door in Des Moines, Iowa. Their meeting gave Eilbacher a new perspective on the character she plays.
“There’s a new layer to the process [having met Joan], and I’m most appreciative of that,” she says. “It’s just like [I’ve] absorbed her energy and her liveliness and her spirit.” She adds that she anticipates the journey of continuing to play Joan even more now that she’s met her.
This is Eilbacher’s first tour, and she and the rest of the Fun Home tour cast have been on the road since October 2016. Now in the heart of the tour, Eilbacher says that as she travels, different environments, different people, and even different foods affect her and the way she works. And in the political and social climate like the one we find ourselves in, she says, “There’s always something to work through given what the world is presenting, and I bring that into my work.”
Considering that climate, Eilbacher, who is a queer woman, says that her role gives her the opportunity to speak up for LGBTQ community. “It’s interesting to have to champion through all the [external political] bullshit sometimes and keep that positive atmosphere. [Joan] is a character in which I get to move forward as an artist and continue the positive voice for the LGBTQ community and for humanity.”
As a whole, anyone who watches Fun Home, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, can take something valuable away from it.
“This is a show for everyone,” Eilbacher says. “It deals with heavy issues but in a very humorous way and ultimately gets the point across that we’re all looking to communicate, looking to connect, and looking to understand and continue to be curiously curious about one another in productive ways.”
Fun Home is playing at the National Theatre in Washington, DC, through May 13. To buy tickets and see a list of upcoming tour dates, visit funhomebroadway.com.