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  1. Stage

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel talks 'Fun Home,' growing up around death and coming out

Carly Gold plays Small Alison, with Lukâ\u0088\u009A© Barbato Smith as Christian and Henry Boshart as John in Fun Home, a musical built around Alison Bechdel's autobiographical novel. The show is coming to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts Nov. 28-Dec. 3, 2017. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The name for one of the smartest musicals in recent years started as a sardonic joke between siblings.

Fun Home, which opens Tuesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, captures not only the funeral home run by Alison Bechdel's parents, but the shame and secrecy surrounding her father's homosexuality. Bechdel wrote Fun Home in cartoon form. It was published in 2006, toward the end of a 25-year run of her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. In 2015 Bechdel, of Bolton, Vt., married her partner of seven years, artist Holly Rae Taylor.

We caught up with Bechdel by phone before Fun Home opens at the Straz.

Did you always identify as an artist first?

I kind of resisted the idea of being an artist. I was raised by these really cultured parents who really wanted me to become an artist, so of course I had to resist that. It wasn't conscious but looking back, I think I became a cartoonist as a way of rebelling. It was a way to become an artist but in this really low-brow, different kind of way.

Did your parents bring you into the funeral business when you were young?

We spent a lot of time sweeping floors and so on at the Fun Home, as we called it. I didn't actually go into the embalming room. One of my brothers did and went on to work in it. I was spared that part. For us growing up, it was just the atmosphere we lived in. It didn't seem that strange. My friends would be freaked out when they found that we lived near this funeral home. But for us it was just normal. So it brought an interesting dimension to my experience of death when my father actually died to have had all this weird history with the trappings of death. You would think you might be more prepared for real death, but in a way it was almost more surreal.

Do you think your father was a happy man?

No. He was very complicated. He took a lot of pleasure in a lot of things. He was very passionate about our house, restoring it, and antique, collecting things. He had a lot of energy and vitality, but really I feel like he was always running or being pursued somehow.

Did you suspect that he had issues he did not want to face?

I know this sounds unlikely, but no. When I finally came out at age 19, I was absolutely floored when I found out from my mother than my dad had been having affairs with other men through their whole marriage. I was absolutely blown away. It had never occurred to me.

Do you think there was a relationship between your coming out and beginning to write creatively?

I was 19 when I came out. And within that next year, I started to have enough wherewithal and perspective on things to see what kind of a remarkable story it was, that we were both these gay people growing up in this small town and that our lives took these different courses. And I felt that this is a story I really need to tell. But at age 20 I couldn't do that. I didn't have the skills. I couldn't talk about these family secrets — there was no way I could reveal that my father was gay, or that he had killed himself. So I just sort of put that desire on the back burner and for many years I thought, how am I going to tell that story? But in 1980, I couldn't have had any one read this story. It was just too queer, too particular. But by the time it finally was published in 2006, people were able to see gay people as humans, to see their stories as human stories. So much had changed.

What was seeing the musical like for you?

It was quite powerful. I really didn't know what to expect. When I first heard some of the music I was just really moved. To hear actors singing as me and my father together, or me and my father singing, it was really kind of wrenching. But in a way the music functions kind of in a similar was as the drawings in the book. The play has the story and the music, and the book has the story and the images. I just feel so much respect and gratitude for these creators. I didn't know quite what I was risking by having it turned into a musical, but I was so lucky that they did it with great care and great respect that it was a true story about real people.

In creating Fun Home, did you ever get hung up on whether it was going to sell? If you had thought about that, I don't know if this memoir gets written.

Yeah, I had to decide for myself that I had to tell this story just for my own well-being. I worked on it for a long time before I even thought of selling it. I couldn't quite bear the thought of signing a contract for this project until finally I had enough of it assimilated, I knew what I was going to do. But I didn't study writing, I didn't get an MFA. I was totally figuring out how to do that as I went along.

Therapy plays an important role in your second book, Are You My Mother? Are you still in therapy?

I've been in therapy for 30 years. I'm a huge fan. I think everyone, if they could, should go to therapy every week. If we did that, I don't think we would be in all these crazy situations like with these sexual predators. People would work their s--- out, they wouldn't have to act out on other people all the time.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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If you go

Fun Home

The show opens Tuesday and runs through Sunday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $31 and up. (813) 229-7827. For show times, go to strazcenter.org.

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