Aimee Doherty on Finding, and Keeping, Perspectives in the Alison Bechdel Bio-Musical 'Fun Home'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday March 16, 2020

[Editor's note: Since this interview was conducted, The Company Theatre has postponed "Fun Home." The show's run will now take place March 26 - 29. For more information, please click here.]

Boston theatergoers who have been serious abut their sampling of what's on around the city's stages have come to know Aimee Doherty as a multi-talented performer who can take on Shakespeare with the best of them and, when it comes to singing and dancing, ranks among the best of them — as her two Elliot Norton awards (for "Into the Woods" and "On the Town," both produced by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston) and her to IRNE awards (for the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Merrily We Roll Along" and the Moonbox Productions staging of "Cabaret") will attest.

Doherty is now starring as Alison — grown-up Alison, that is — the central role in The Company Theatre's production of "Fun Home," the multiple Tony Award-winning musical based on openly lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic novel memoir, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori.

(And by the way, yes, Alison Bechdel — famed also for her groundbreaking comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" — lent her name to the "Bechdel Test," which, simply put, measures the authenticity of women's roles in works of fiction by whether they find anything to talk about with one another that doesn't involve a man.)

"Fun Home" is about the shifting perceptions of a daughter's relationship with her closeted father, Bruce (Michael Hammond). Small Alison (Riley Crockett), Medium Alison (Jaclyn Chylinski), and the adult version of Alison (Doherty) all have their own ways of seeing and thinking about Bruce, understanding who he is and what sort of impact he's made on their life and who they are.

EDGE was delighted to catch up with Aimee Doherty and hear her perspective on a show in which perspectives are in abundant supply.


EDGE: With everything that's going on right now around coronavirus concerns, I was worried the show might be affected.

Aimee Doherty: Yeah, it's unprecedented. It's a day-to-day type of a thing — every time I log into Facebook there are a few developments happening. It's a really weird time to be in the gig economy!

EDGE: I've seen the show produced by Company, and been impressed with their productions, but I'm not sure you've worked with them before. Have you appeared in other Company Theater shows?

Aimee Doherty: I have, actually. I did "Company" with Company. I played Amy — maybe ten years ago? Fifteen years ago? It was a really great production!

EDGE: So Aimee Doherty played Amy in Company's production of "Company." That's almost as meta as Adam Driver playing a bus driver named Paterson in a town named Paterson in the movie "Paterson!"

Aimee Doherty: Right? I know! It was very confusing to everybody!

EDGE: "Fun Home" is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, and the show has music by the wonderful Jeanine Tesoro. I'm wondering if you've done work by Tesoro before.

Aimee Doherty: I have not, unfortunately. I haven't done any of her work before, but I have been a longtime admirer of her stuff.

EDGE: I'm also wondering if there are any particular favorites among the songs you get to sing?

Aimee Doherty: I love "Telephone Wire." It's such a universal song about needing to reach out to a person and communicate with them, and you just can't bring yourself to do it. It's such a heart-wrenching song about missed opportunity. So that is my favorite song, I think.

The beautiful thing about playing Alison is I get to be on stage the entire time, so I get a chance to — even thought I'm not singing these songs — witness the songs, and let them wash over me and the character. There are just a million turning-point songs in the show — "Changing My Major" and "Ringing Keys," and "Welcome to Our House," the song that the mom sings, is just gut-wrenching. I couldn't pick a single song that I like the most, because every night it changes.

EDGE: Have you done a lot of research in reading Alison Bechdel's comics, given that you're basically playing Alison Bechdel?

Aimee Doherty: I had read the comics, and I have done some research on her — YouTube videos and what I can find online about her. It does feel like I have a responsibility to get her right, you know? But at the some time, to bring myself to the part. It's a really interesting thing. I think, to my knowledge, I have only ever played one other character that was a real live person. It's an interesting feeling of responsibility that you feel toward that person.

EDGE: From what you've seen of Alison Bechdel in the YouTube videos and so forth, do you really feel like her voice and her personality saturate the show?

Aimee Doherty: I do. I mean, she isn't a super-huge personality; and in the show she's not, either. It's an interesting question... this is a dramatization of her life, so of course the moments are probably heightened quite a bit more than they were when they actually happened. But, yeah, from the stuff that I have learned about her, I do believe that it's fairly accurate.

EDGE: There's not just one Alison in the show — you play "Older Alison," but there are also two other, younger iterations of Alison, as well. How has it been, working with two other actors who are playing the character? Do you have much back and forth with them to figure out how to make Alison different or keep her the same at the different ages?

Aimee Doherty: Yeah, it's been really interesting, I did "Gray Gardens" a while back, and that was another time when I got a chance to share a role with another actor. We have shared mannerisms; we kind of took a step back and watched each other, just to come up with a physical language that is woven throughout the show, and a vocal cadence... yeah, it's really interesting, and it's a give and take. I get a chance to watch the entire show, so I watch them a lot. We take cues off of each other — it's been a really cool chance to collaborate on one role. It's very unusual to get a chance to do that.

EDGE So, there's three Alisons, and, in the case of this production, there are also two directors, Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman. How do they divide up their tasks and find a unified vision?

Aimee Doherty: They have been co-directing for so many years that it isn't really a big deal. They are always in the room. They don't tag-team where one director will come in one day, and then another will come in another day, so you very rarely get conflicting direction, which is really nice, because that can be one of those things that will trip an actor up — if one director is telling you to do something a certain way, and another director is telling you to do it in a completely different way. But they have been working so long together that they are really pretty tightly on the same page. And also, they divide up tasks really well — like, Zoe designed the sets, and Jordie did the prop design. On top of having their directing duties, they also have individual other jobs to do within the show, so they get a chance to express themselves, artistically, individually — which I think works really well for them.

EDGE: In addition to playing against two other versions of Alison, you're also playing against Alison's father, Bruce, who is played here by Michael Hammond. How is your working vibe with him?

Aimee Doherty: Oh, it's lovely! I mean, Michael, in real life, has got such a wide-open, optimistic personality, which is really interesting to see — he's just about the opposite of Bruce. I think that a trap that any actor can fall into is to embrace, and only embrace, the biggest characteristic of the role they're playing. Bruce is a fairly depressed man — repressed and depressed — and it's easy to fall into that trap of playing depressed. The beauty of Michael is that his natural instincts are the opposite, so that it gives it this cool texture of this man who's smiling through so much pain and anguish and confusion — trying to hard to keep that mask on. You feel for him. He's kind of a hard character to love in many respects, but you see him fighting so hard to protect his family from what he's going through, and I think Michael does such a nice job of adding that layer to the character. It's actually really hard not to kind of feel really sorry for the character the entire time! I have to remind myself as an actor that I can't fall into that trap of just being sympathetic to him all the time, because you don't want to watch an actor do the same thing for the entire show. But it's hard to be mad at Bruce.

EDGE: That's one of those universal things. Bruce is deeply closeted, and his daughter is a lesbian, but anyone can understand how parents can spark resentments in their children. And then, of course, you grow up and with some life experience you start to see a fuller picture of whom they are and what they've done. And, of course, it's easy to find yourself in the same place they were in, that you didn't understand before.

Aimee Doherty: Exactly! It's so cool to have one character but different perspectives [as with the different Alisons]. There's a section of the show where Medium Alison is on one side having a conversation with her father, and Bruce is on the other side, and you see him giving little crumbs and trying to connect with her in whatever way that he can. And she's missing them — she's young, she doesn't understand. He's not coming right out and saying it, so she's missing these tiny little lifelines that he's trying to throw out to her. It's so cool to have one character be oblivious to these small acts of love that he'd been trying to give her, and to have that same character be on stage and starting to realize, "Oh my god, I missed it. I missed it! I wasn't ready to hear it; I was too young to understand." Sometimes the things our parents tell us aren't so much in the moment, but they're like a message in a bottle — they just hope one day we can open that bottle and read the message.

EDGE: I think the last time we spoke was in 2013, when you were in "On the Town" at the Lyric Stage — you took home one of your two Elliot Norton awards for your role in that show, but it was a fantastic cast all around, with Michele DeLuca, John Ambrosino, Phil Tayler, Lauren Gemelli, and Zachary Eisenstat. What have you been up to in the past couple of years?

Aimee Doherty: One of the biggest was "Merrily We Roll Along" at the Huntington. To be part of the beautiful work of art was a dream come true, really. And I got a chance to do Sally Bowles again [with Moonbox Productions, in 2018], which was really nice because, again, with this [idea of] perspective... I got a chance to do [Sally Bowles] at New Rep many years ago, and that was wonderful, but I was a pretty young actor at that time, and as a woman — a young woman especially — it's difficult to let go and be okay with people seeing the ugly parts of you, the selfish parts of you. And I don't think that the first time I played Sally I was ready to be able to do that; I think that getting a chance to do that with experience was kind of cathartic — just to embrace the ugly. It was very freeing.

EDGE: What's coming up for you after this show?

Aimee Doherty: Well, after this it's going to be... I'm putting it out there into the universe... "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" at the Lyric, with Jen Ellis and Jared Troilo and Neil Casey. I'm really looking forward to that.

EDGE: I don't know if it's luck or what, but you work with such great ensembles!

Aimee Doherty: I have had incredible luck all my career! I mean, the first couple of shows that I did, "Company" and "Into the Woods," were with the most talented actors in Boston, and I got a chance to learn from them everything I know. I've been incredibly lucky, I have to say!


"Fun Home" runs March 26 - 29 at The Company Theatre in Norwell. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.companytheatre.com/fun-home/.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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