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‘Fun Home’ Teaches the Power of Adaptation

Classroom Connections

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Kate Shindle in the national tour of “Fun Home.”

Photo by Joan Marcus
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Educators attended "Fun Home" at the Ahmanson Theatre and spoke with Center Theatre Group teaching artists about the experience, and how it can be used in the classroom.

In Classroom Connections, Center Theatre Group invites groups of educators to enjoy a night out at the theatre—followed by a discussion of the show and where they found inspiration over food and drinks. The goal is to talk about the bridges we can build between the craft of theatre and the craft of classroom teaching.

In this edition of Classroom Connections we brought three teachers who could easily combine their powers to make their own musical to Fun Home, which is playing the Ahmanson Theatre through April 1, 2017! We invited a drama teacher, a music teacher, and an English teacher to the show. Song, text and performance—all the ingredients you need to make a Broadway hit.

Jill Novick (drama) and Tony Spano (music) both teach at Culver City High School while Brian Padgett teaches English at The Valley Academy in Granada Hills. After the show, I asked them to reflect on this central question: “What ideas and inspirations did you gain from Fun Home that you can integrate into your own classroom curriculum?”

Brian Padgett was excited that the story was based on a graphic memoir and of the fact that the narrative comes through the lens of one character, author Alison Bechdel, at three different ages—offering three different points of view.

“I’m into POV!” laughed Padgett. “I’d talk to students about what experiences might inform the adult Alison character and the playwright’s decisions for audience members,” he said. “They’d have to explore why the writer made specific choices to tell the story through the point of view of the one character [Adult Alison] who was not there during any of those times that played out onstage.” Padgett already teaches a graphic narrative unit to his English students, and he talked about the power of this form of storytelling. “One of the major pieces that we look at in tenth grade is [Art Spiegelman’s] Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Graphic novels can be a really powerful way to ingest the story, because some students get really put off by lots of text on the page. With Maus, we talk about visual representation. But Fun Home can provide a modern example of how to tell a story with pictures and text that students can easily relate to.”

For Jill Novick, the content of this show is important because her curriculum as a drama instructor often rests on students understanding the emotional connections and relationships between themselves and other people in the world.

“This story would appeal to a lot of them,” said Novick. “I was thinking about specific students that would get a lot out of it for personal growth and just dealing with the idea of sexuality at that age,” she said. She also felt Fun Home resonated with the final project she assigns her theatre students. “I ask them think about their lives, to think about life as a teen and write scenes and monologues. They put it together and make a piece out of it. Some do open up. It’s a process. To me that is what theatre is all about. I teach it every day,” she said. “[Fun Home] is so personal. And because it’s such a personal story, I think it lends itself to a connection that all students can make with it.”

Like Padgett, Novick was also struck by the fact that the show started out as a graphic memoir. “Who would think you would go from a graphic novel to a musical? It shows you can tell your story in so many different ways,” she said.

Nineteen-year veteran music instructor Tony Spano immediately recognized this as a valuable aspect of Fun Home for his students. “I could see using it as a tool for [studying] adaptation, and it would be interesting to show how source material can be used,” said Spano. “I could talk about several examples of source materials and how this particular source material was adapted into a musical. Maybe have them read a chapter of the memoir and then show them a scene that was adapted into the musical and how it showed up on stage. I’d ask them, ‘What parts were adapted and what parts weren’t, and most importantly, why?’ There’s lots and lots of information and story in the Fun Home book that didn’t make it to the stage.”

“I like to have kids create their own work,” continued Spano. “This is a great example of autobiographical work in a different way and talking about memory as she is writing and drawing.”

One particular scene that all three teachers agreed was a wonderful example of storytelling was the Fun Home commercial number, “Come to the Fun Home,” sung by the young actors in the show. The three teachers were quick to point out that death is difficult to discuss in classrooms. But the show displayed an expert use of stagecraft in telling the story of the family’s funeral home business, including the corpses the children saw early on in their lives.

“The writer took all the information that could have been sad and scary and turned it into something great,” said Spano. “And most importantly, it served the story. The song moved the story forward. It continued the narrative in an expert way. I’d love my music students to pay attention to this song as an example of how to serve the story.”

Before the evening came to a conclusion, Spano came up with one more idea for a project inspired by the show. “Students could find images that represent stories of [their] life. Just look online or in magazines, anywhere,” he said. “They could create sort of a collage graphic novel filled with images that tell their story. And of course add captions and eventually set it to music.”

Jill Novick nearly knocked over her water glass with excitement. “That’s a great assignment!” she said. “You know, there could be a kid in my class right now or Tony’s or Brian’s that winds up onstage. And I’m thinking we sparked something! Who knows? We sparked something in them.”

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