We’re (not) Going To Disneyworld
Fun Home goes to Orlando
4:30am is awfully early for a theater actor to be waking up on any day, let alone a Sunday off. But it’s Sunday, July 24th, and I’m up before dawn joining the rest of the Fun Home Broadway cast, flying a thousand miles to Orlando for a special one time performance of the show as a benefit for Equality Florida and a gift to the families, first responders, and community we can only assume are still struggling to come to terms with the horrific events at Pulse Nightclub exactly six weeks earlier.
Our group of 32 red-eyed adult cast, crew, and support and 3 bouncing child actors, converge miraculously on time at LaGuardia with wigs and costume pieces fresh from the previous night’s performance now stuffed in carry on luggage, and board the 2 hour flight south. The mood is festive, if weary, and takes on all the laughing and excitement of a field trip with favorite classmates as we board a bus from the Orlando airport heading down Orange Avenue to the Dr. Phillips Center, site of tonight’s performance.
And then someone notices it.
First, it’s the scattered crowd of people standing in postures of reverence and curiosity. Then it’s the head-high black mesh strapped to the chain link fence wrapping the perimeter of the site like a shroud, adorned with handmade signs, photographs, and expressions of grief and resolve. And finally, the Pulse sign drifts into view, somber and still, bearing witness to this place of anguish and loss.
Later this afternoon on a break from rehearsal, we will be among those paying respect with tears of incomprehension. Standing under the unblinking sun, amid the makeshift altars, we will tie our small offering to the fence: a child’s yellow Fun Home t-shirt, sacrificed by the smallest of our number and signed by us all with messages for still other mourners to perhaps read and find comforting. For now, though, the bus slips slowly by and a deep silence settles on our group.
As much as we had been planning and working tirelessly toward this day, thinking our preparations would actually make us ready for what lay ahead, I suddenly feel woefully unprepared for this. And I don’t think I am alone.
The news of the horror in Orlando had struck the heart of our company deeply. Over the course of our 3 year journey from the Public Theater to Broadway, we had witnessed the Supreme Court rule in favor of Marriage Equality, saw the Stonewall Inn become the first national monument to LGBTQ rights, hosted visits from Ambassador Samantha Power and a group of UN Delegates from countries around the world. We had watched the limits of commercial Broadway musical theater expand to include a butch lesbian protagonist for the first time, not only embracing a new, emotionally complex and human scale idea of what musicals could be, but celebrating it with Broadway’s highest honors. We felt that our humble little show had somehow arrived at the moment American society was deciding to embrace all its citizens and truly begin to live up to its founding principles. The freedom and the imperative to be one’s authentic self — the heart of our show — suddenly seemed safe and possible.
And then a lone murderer seemed to have undone that in an instant. Rick Caroto, our hair supervisor, explained beautifully why the attack in Orlando was so chilling for the LGBTQ community. “When you’re growing up a young gay person, no place feels safe. And then, one night you go to a gay bar, and you can suddenly breathe for the first time. You know your father won’t see you there and you can completely be yourself, surrounded by people who care about you for who you are. It’s our church. And when you take away that safe place, when you violate that…then no place in the world feels safe anymore.”
Pulse had been a place of sanctuary and celebration for a community that was inclusive and open. It was a place familiar to many in the entertainment community, gay and straight alike, the kind of place any one of our friends, regardless of identity, might find themselves visiting while on the road. The massacre that awful Sunday felt personal. It could have been any of us that night. And as I sat in a quiet moment of the performance at Circle In The Square following the tragedy, in the play, but also in this terrifying new world where all our homes feel threatened by hate, a small and simple response occurred to me. We should go to Orlando.
It was no more than an impulse at first. A desire to answer the hate and fear first hand, to put feet on the ground and stand with those most affected by the tragedy.
I had learned from experience the value of that kind of direct action. In 2012, I was part of a Broadway concert in Newtown, CT for the Sandy Hook families. And in 2014, Fun Home made a trip to Charleston, SC, standing up against the South Carolina legislature’s attempt to punish the College Of Charleston for recommending Alison Bechdel’s celebrated memoir to freshmen. There is certainly great value in Broadway companies and performers doing benefits and fundraisers, mailing the proceeds to those in need, and they do this often and with extraordinary generosity. But sometimes it is most important simply to show up.
So, I wrote an email to the Fun Home creative team and producers asking what they thought about taking the show to Orlando. Next, a message to my friend Scott Hutcheson in the New Orleans Mayor’s Office connected me with Celeste Brown in the Orlando Mayor’s Office, who in turn suggested I call Kathy Ramsberger at the Dr. Phillips Center. Then, at the suggestion of Tom Viola at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, I contacted Nadine Smith, CEO for Equality Florida.
It’s easy enough for one person to have an idea and light a match, but it takes a close knit little army to gather and direct all the resources required for an entire Broadway production to travel 2000 miles round trip on a day off and give a full concert benefit performance. Our army of producers, creators, cast, crew, staff and multiple unions immediately signed on and found creative ways to make this unprecedented event a reality. Complicated plans came together with remarkable ease, simply because the desire was so great on the Fun Home company’s side and the need so strong from the Orlando partners. Wanting to do the most good in the most sensitive way, the production asked the local partners for guidance in planning the details of the visit and identifying the beneficiaries of the monies raised.
Once the details had been sorted and flights booked, all that remained was the task of adapting a fully staged production in the round for up to 775 people a night to a 2700 seat proscenium theater on a bare stage. Director Sam Gold gathered with the cast days before the show, adding a 3 hour staging rehearsal to an already long week that followed 16 straight shows without a day off. To the relief of everyone involved, the conceit of actors simply standing at nine microphones across the front of the stage, with a single costume each and minimal stage directions (read on stage by book and lyric writer, Lisa Kron) was not only adequate, but deeply moving to all in the studio.
Three days later, fresh from our visit to Pulse, my colleagues and I stand onstage, overwhelmed, sleep starved, grasping for lines that flow so freely when connected to the space and movement of our normal show, now elusive in this unfamiliar, static staging. I try to ward off a nagging fear that we may have been too ambitious and overestimated our emotional capacity to perform this already raw and difficult story in this even more raw context. Our comfort zone draws even tighter when delays mean we have to leave the tech rehearsal unfinished so we can check in at the hotel we have yet to see, quickly shower, and return for press and the performance. Back at the Phillips Center, getting into costume is a welcome moment of calm and familiarity. We feel ready at least to try to do what we do and hope it is received as the offering of love we mean it to be.
Thunderous applause greats us as we walk onto the vast empty stage and take our seats. Lisa Kron takes the microphone and introduces us as “the cast of Fun Home from New York,”and the sold out crowd begins a second ovation, this time rising to their feet for another full minute. Finally, Kron addresses the room. “The first thing I would like to say, on behalf of all of us, is we’re so sorry.” In the sudden silence that follows, several voices call out, unamplified, from various locations in the darkened auditorium, “Thank you.”
In that moment, the vast hall with its three balconies becomes as intimate as our tiny circular home, and a living, personal connection is made between the humans on both sides of the proscenium that is visceral and lasting. We offer up a show that I expect to remember forever as our finest hour in the 722 performances over three years that will be our legacy. Stripped of everything, the performances seem liberated and infinitely detailed. Laughter, of the kind that is in inverse proportion to the depth of great sorrow erupts and washes over us all throughout the night. Watching from the house, Assistant Director Ashley Monroe will later tell us that portions of the show making comic use of the realities of funeral homes and dead bodies are greeted by the victims’ families in attendance as a chance to relax for a moment and join with others laughing at the absurdities of life and death that have been their reality of late.
For our part, the joy of one last time to sit on stage watching, treasuring and marveling at each other as artists and friends is the night’s simple gift to us. Or so we think. The final trio of songs that close the show are not performed tonight so much as they are lived, with an immediacy that is devastating until, at the last note, cheeks are wet with tears on both sides of the footlights. And then an ovation the like of which I don’t know that I’ll ever hear again, heartfelt, sincere, and a catharsis all its own, washes over us like a rain of universal compassion and shared love. To borrow Joyce’s words, “over all the living and the dead.”
The rest of the night is a series of snapshots and memories. There is the fleeting moment in the afternoon when a tall stage hand stops what he’s doing to look steadily into the eyes of his listener and say, “Thank you for being here, we really need this,” with tears in his eyes. There is the story retold by two company members who hired an Uber in the afternoon to drive them to Pulse. As they are making their way along the fence, they see their driver stand, sobbing, in front of the memorial. Costumer Angela Simpson puts a hand on his shaking shoulders and asks him if he’s ok. “I just haven’t been here since…” he tells her. “I worked here. I was one of the originals. I helped put the place together in the very beginning. I haven’t been able to bring myself to come back. Then you guys wanted to come, and you told me what you were doing here, and I thought, ‘Maybe this is the time.’”
In the end, donations covered the expense of the visit so that more than $113,000 will be donated to Equality Florida, fifty percent distributed to the families and fifty percent funding Equality’s work for LGBTQ rights across Florida. But money was never the point. Funds have poured into the city from around the world since the tragedy, as individuals and groups have sought to find ways to express their condolences and help the families and city recover. What Fun Home sought to do was address the need Nadine Smith spoke about at the post show reception. “We are still struggling with how to be together since that day,” she said, “You have no idea how badly we needed this.” Six weeks to the day, the desire to laugh together and move forward can wrestle with grief that is oblivious to the passage of time and news cycles. “I was just thinking, this is the first week I haven’t cried,” said Smith’s wife, Liz. “That is, until tonight watching the show. But tonight it was good to cry.”
As we board the flight home, many of us wearing the ‘Orlando Strong’ t-shirts that were gifts from Equality Florida, we’re greeted by a female flight attendant whose face softens when she sees us. “I’m from here. Thank you. We still need this. We used to go there. I have so many friends who lost people. It just means so much to be remembered.”
It’s another excruciatingly early morning flight, but the safely sleeping faces of colleagues and dear friends around me look different in the darkened airplane cabin. I want to always remember them like this. Safe and innocent, good and kind, exhausted by the work of caring. And I want to remember all the love we saw here.
And as the plane lumbers skyward, releasing our physical connection to this place, I remember a conversation from a just a few hours ago. It was with Mr Ms Adrian, a drag performer who worked at Pulse. We met at the post show reception, and like the other former employees in attendance, he wanted us to know what the club had meant to the LGBTQ and Latin communities.
“It was the most beautiful place you can imagine,” he told me.”When you were there you felt free and loved and beautiful. And then this terrible thing happened, and we lost so many of us.”
He tells me that a little while ago, the owners invited some of the staff to return to the building and say good bye. He believes the building will be purchased by the city and torn down. “Maybe they’ll build a memorial,” he says. He had a rare night off on the night of the shooting, which may have saved his life, and he struggled with whether he wanted to go back. “I was afraid to go to this place that was our beautiful home and have my last picture be of all that awfulness. But I decided to go, and it was still there! All that joy and all those beautiful times and all those beautiful people, that’s what I saw. All I felt was love.”