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A Day in the Life of Emily Skeggs of ‘Fun Home’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

The Tony-nominated actress, who plays Medium Alison in ‘Fun Home,’ shares an epic 24 hours traveling to Orlando with her ‘Fun Home’ family to perform in an emotional one-night-only benefit concert to support Equality Florida and Orlando’s LGBTQ community

Ever since she can remember, Emily Skeggs was a voracious storyteller, connecting with people through her imagination. “I would make up languages,” says the actress. “I claimed that I could speak Wigglish or Wiggie.” Growing up in New York City, her parents always encouraged her creativity and often took Skeggs to see shows. “I always knew performing was in my blood,” she explains.

In the first grade she even co-wrote a play called Star Girl with her best friend Emma, which they performed with their entire class. “Emma was the star, and I was the girl,” shares Skeggs. “The star would come down at night and have adventures with her.” She was also interested in marine biology, psychology and teaching, but she ultimately learned that those interests held their allure in other ways. “There’s a storytelling to science, teaching and learning that I have found through acting,” she adds.

Emily Skeggs

Emily Skeggs

While a drama major at the famed LaGuardia Arts High School, she began working professionally, like acting in the musical Take Me Along at the Irish Rep. She then studied theater and writing at Emerson College. A year after graduating, Skeggs was cast to be an understudy in the Off-Broadway production of Fun Home at the Public Theater.  “I got to watch the show every night, which was incredible,” says Skeggs about understudying Joan and Medium Alison. “It’s an amazing way to understand the importance of the story you’re telling. I entered Fun Home with a gratitude for the material which can be harder to get when you’re inside it.” She ultimately took over the role of Medium Alison, reprised the part for the Broadway production and was nominated for a Tony Award for her Broadway debut.

Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical centers around the Bechdel family’s journey through the eyes of Alison at three different ages — as Alison tries to understand the mystery of her father. “People always ask, ‘How do you let go of it at the end of the day?’ But there’s so much laughter backstage, and we have created a community,” says Skeggs. “When I feel really down or angry, I know I can always go to the show and feel better by the end. The words, story and music grab me and take over. And the people around me grab me and take over too. In this industry it’s very rare to find a group of people who are close and have each other’s back.”

On September 10, after more than 600 performances, Fun Home will close on Broadway as the North American tour launches in October. “I’m sad that Fun Home is closing, but I’m excited for what’s to come,” says Skeggs, who next plays activist Roma Guy in the ABCminiseries When We Rise, written and executive-produced by Milk writer Dustin Lance Black and directed in part by Gus Van Sant. “Fun Home has opened up new doors in musical theater and shown what’s possible to be a commercial run and draw acclaim and audiences.”

In July, because of the generosity of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the show’s producers, co-producers and the Wyndham Orlando — the entire cast, crew members, musicians, creators and many others associated with Fun Home flew to Orlando for a one-night-only benefit concert performance at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Proceeds from the concert will support the future work of Equality Florida and the victims of the horrific Pulse shooting. “It was the most incredible experience I have ever had as a performer,” says Skeggs. “I have struggled feeling that I want to make a difference in the world and help people. Fun Home and specifically that performance in Orlando made me feel it was more possible to do that with theater and art.”

Skeggs shared her day with us:

Sunday morning. We had two shows the day before. I woke up and carpooled to LaGuardia Airport with Beth Malone and one of our producers, Tom Casserly. We met all bleary-eyed and tired, but really excited and looking forward to the day.

We arrived at the airport and made it through security in pretty good time. We were all huddled together around a group of chairs. At the terminal, I ended up falling asleep on the carpet.

The flight took off. Some of us had gotten no sleep. Some of us had just a couple of hours of sleep. Some of us had a couple drinks the night before. On the plane we were this ragtag group — a big Fun Home family sleeping on each other’s shoulders. Everybody had volunteered their time. In addition to the whole cast, we had musicians with us so we were still able to have some of that beautiful Jeanine Tesori orchestral feel. Plus we had our stage manager, child wrangler, wardrobe supervisor, hair designer, a bunch of the kids’ parents, two company managers, our press friends, some of our producers and [creators] Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori and our director Sam Gold.

Once we landed in Orlando, we got onto our bus as a group and drove to the Phillips Center for tech rehearsal. On the way, we didn’t realize we were going to pass Pulse. It’s a small, nondescript black building, but passing it was incredible. People were outside leaving flowers and candles. It was a huge, beautiful memorial and had so many rainbow flags, which was gorgeous.

At the Phillips Center, the band was set up, and they did a sound check. Then, we had lunch and did a tech of the show. The show was concert-style with eight standing microphones. For that one performance, we got to distill the show back to its core, which was such a beautiful experience. We all talked about it afterward. We’ve been running for a year. The show is in amazing shape, and we feel good about it. But there’s nothing that can replace standing at a microphone, saying the lines, singing the words, looking at each other and out to the audience. It reminds you what the story is about and who it is for.

After tech, some people took naps while a bunch of the company piled in the back of vans and drove to Pulse. I was asleep and missed the Pulse trip. Beth, Michael and Roberta put up a signed Fun Home shirt on the fence outside Pulse. [Beth Malone, Michael Cerveris and Roberta Colindrez are Fun Home cast members.] With Michael’s character [Bruce Bechdel], there’s an aspect of Fun Home that shows what it’s like not to be yourself and to not fully live your true life. In the face of violence and hate, it’s hard to find the bravery to truly be who you are, but Michael’s performance shows it’s worth it. It’s worth it to bravely and proudly be yourself — because the alternative is just so heartbreaking and awful.

We went back to the hotel, the Wyndham Orlando. Roberta and I sat at the pool with Vanessa Brown, our child wrangler, and Tyler Siems, one of our company managers. We got to dip in the pool before going back to do the show. I love to swim. I brought goggles thinking, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll do laps.’ Roberta, Vanessa, Tyler and I did a handstand competition and ended up floating in the water. We were coming up with names for gay bars from lines in the show.

We went back to the Phillips Center and had a nice buffet-style dinner together with salad, chicken pasta and steamed broccoli. It was great because we’re such a family.  Then, we got into costume and ready for the show.

The Phillips Center is a huge theater with around 2,700 seats. The second we stepped on stage, we had a standing ovation that lasted so long. We were all so proud that people were happy to have us there. I could sense from the audience that there was pain, but there was also a lot of gratitude. We had some hilarious moments, too. During the part where Michael says to Joel [Perez], ‘Unbutton your shirt,’ one of the guys in the front row yelled, ‘Take it all off!’ There was an incredible sense of joy in this place that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

Gabby feels with the utmost empathy and knew exactly why we were going to Orlando and understood its importance. And she’s also a kid. After the show, we were feeling all these emotions. We stepped off stage and I put my arm around her and the other kids in the show, Zell [Steele Morrow] and Cole [Grey]. Gabby started crying because she felt so much. She said, “I’ve been trying to keep it in all day.”  I don’t just learn from Michael and Judy [Kuhn], who are incredible Broadway vets and mentors to me. In a really profound way, I also learn from the kids. When things happen in the world, it’s easy to forget that kids are a part of it and feel the reverberations.

After the performance — which was beautiful — we had an awesome Q&A discussion.  There are people who live in Florida who love and identify with the show and listen to the soundtrack all the time but can’t get to New York. They were so excited that we came down. It made them feel validated, important and loved in a way that I wasn’t expecting.

Afterward, there was a little cocktail reception with people who worked at Pulse and friends and family members who lost loved ones in the tragedy. There were so many emotions. Over the past year, many things have happened in the LGBTQ community that we have been able to honor by doing the show. When Marriage Equality passed, it was an incredible day. On Pride after Orlando, it was a sad, beautiful, celebratory day. When things happen in the world, we feel it in the show and the audience feels it. To be able to go to Orlando was such a privilege.

We took the bus back to the hotel and got into the pool. Everybody got in the pool. Producers got in the pool. Kids got in the pool. Every single person got in the pool. The thing that really stuck with me was that we were all feeling the complicated emotions of deep sadness and pure elation — holding each other in the pool and throwing each other up in the air. The power of a large group of people coming together to reinforce happiness and togetherness will always strike me deeply.

Michael walked down the highway, trying to find a Popeyes, but it was closed. He found a restaurant and brought us all back Tater Tots, nachos, a burger and fries. While Michael was waiting for the food, he played one of those claw games where you pick up a stuffed animal. He won a little Kiss doll from the rock group Kiss. He gave it to the kids and now they hide it somewhere backstage to surprise people. They named it Orlando.

I was so amped up, but as hard as it was, I also needed sleep. So, I dragged myself back to my hotel room. The latest that people were up was around 3am or 4am. We had a 6am bus back to the airport next morning and then a show that night. I remember falling asleep thinking, this is a night I will never forget. As I go forward in my life, I will know what a true team can do. I will always be amazed by what we have reached and where we have found ourselves.

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