Cerveris documented his experience in Charleston with the cast of Fun Home for Playbill.com.
Last year, as part of The College Reads!, an annual campus-wide reading initiative at the College of Charleston, students were given free copies of Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home." About a month ago, members of the South Carolina legislature chose to intervene in the education process and expressed their objection to the book by voting to remove $52,000 in state funds from the school, which neatly coincided with the cost of the annual educational reading initiative.
When this news reached the Fun Home company, the immediate response was a spontaneous tweet suggesting a cast road trip and Facebook posts of support for the students and the school that was soon met with an invitation from Todd McNerney, Theatre Department chair, to bring the cast of the Public Theater's recent celebrated production — along with creators Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori and Bechdel herself — to perform a lecture/performance of songs and scenes from the show. Using no state funds and performed at the Memminger Auditorium (which is not a part of the campus), privately funded grants from 17 separate academic departments at the C of C, along with private donations, paid for travel and accommodation for the cast, creators and music director Chris Fenwick with valuable logistical support from NY producers Barbara Whitman and Fox Theatricals.
[After] an extraordinary flurry of work, we were all reunited in Charleston for what would be one of the most extraordinarily meaningful pair of performances I've ever had the honor to be part of. It was a night that a community suffering legislative bigotry, institutionalized ignorance and political bullying, responded [to] by coming together through art and education to listen, learn, be moved and, ultimately, be united by a message of compassion and understanding. And we, the company, had the rarest of opportunities to volunteer bodily to make a tangible difference far from the familiar platforms in New York.
The day of the concerts was a comedy of errors and near nightmares as flights were delayed, arrivals confused and hurried plans were made and unmade. Rehearsal happened with whoever was on hand at the moment. One of the most surreal moments was watching The Real Alison Bechdel (dubbed T-RAB that day and probably henceforth) rewriting her remarks at her computer on stage left, while [actress] Beth Malone, as her [on-stage] alter ego, wrote in her script on stage right... as Alison Bechdel. We finished with almost enough time to gobble some graciously donated meals before taking the stage for the first of two shows. But before we could take the stage—in fact, when we entered the auditorium from the dressing rooms—as Tom approached the podium to welcome the audience, there was an extraordinary, spontaneous roar and standing ovation from the 750 people in the sold-out hall, lasting several minutes. It was overwhelming...
Eventually we took the stage and Alison began to speak, sharing her thoughts about her family, her father, the process of writing the book and the dizzying experience of watching her life and writing become a work of musical theatre. We then launched into the opening of the show and the evening moved seamlessly from fascinating and enlightening commentary from our creative team into scenes and songs from the show. On a bare stage with a piano, we told Alison's story through Jeanine's music and Lisa's words. And just as it had every night at the Public, the show seemed somehow to make everyone—regardless of gender, age, race or sexual identification—feel that it was their story. Because everyone with a family struggles to understand them and, when understanding eludes them, to accept them with compassion and forgiveness and gratitude and love.
The second show was nearly just as full [and] began with another long thunderous standing ovation before we began and ended with a question and answer period with the audience. The conversation was civil, not spiteful; more about asking questions and wanting to learn than settling political scores. For all the controversy that gave rise to the night, the evening itself was only controversial to people who weren't there. Senators from the legislature have blasted the concerts as hostile provocations and vowed to double their efforts to make the university suffer for the sin of educating its students. But what actually took place was a profound meditation and exploration of the most truly Christian values of compassion, understanding, family, forgiveness and love. And it was the clearest proof I've ever experienced in this digital age of theatre's enduring value to society and its exclusive capacity to bring people together — literally cutting through all the noise that would divide us from our neighbors so we can see our shared humanity.
The next day, I stayed and explored the beautiful city of Charleston and spoke with Beth Lincks head of the playwrighting program at the College. She described the electric feeling on campus and in her classes after the previous night's events. Students who had never spoken in her class before suddenly began offering personal opinions and questions. Others belonging to groups who felt marginalized for reasons beyond gender and sexuality shared their deep connection to the story even when they didn't share the characters' exact circumstances. The campus was alive with discussion and thought and debate and...learning.
I left with such a fondness for the remarkable, insightful, erudite, passionate, brave and supremely hospitable people we'd met and worked with in Charleston. And with a great gratitude for this chance to reunite with my colleagues and share the transformative power of this beautiful play with them, with its creators and with T-RAB, the extraordinary woman who has shared her life with us all so that ours can be more full of things that matter and less concerned with things that don't. No one knows what the future holds for Fun Home, but if we never get to play it together as a company again, I had the ultimate experience of it this night in South Carolina. It's the kind of night that is why we ever wanted to have lives in the theatre, and the kind of night that can change and sustain lives.