Lauren Patten on stepping into Fun Home full-time, her history with Spring Awakening, and leading the Bowl Dykes at Broadway Bowling

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by Angela Tricarico

Lauren Patten is one of three actresses to play Alison Bechdel in the Tony Award winning musical Fun Home. As Medium Alison, Patten plays Bechdel in her adolescence as she attends Oberlin College and comes to terms with being a lesbian. Patten made her Broadway debut as a standby for the roles of Medium Alison and Joan, Alison’s college girlfriend, and has stepped into the hit musical full-time while Emily Skeggs, who originated the role of Medium Alison, is on hiatus for TV work.

Patten talked with Stage Door Dish about learning from Alison Bechdel, her experience with Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, and Broadway Bowling.

You’re stepping in for Emily Skeggs. Did she give you any parting words about Medium Alison?

Emily and I have been close from the beginning and I’ve been there since the beginning of rehearsals as well so I got to observe a lot of her rehearsal with Sam [Gold]. That was really helpful, I was grateful I got to be there for that part of it. I watched a lot of the interpretation of Alison being shaped in the early rehearsals. We’re both so mutually supportive of each other. Every time I’ve gone on because she was sick or filming something, she would say ‘Write me a card or decorate the dressing room a little bit’, and it was a really exciting thing for both of us for me to be able to be part of the show on a daily basis and for her to be stepping into these amazing TV roles that she gets to do now. It was a very nice parting.

What’s your favorite thing about playing Medium Alison?

I love all of it but I think there’s something about Medium Alison’s character that a lot of people identify with because she represents that turning point that so many people, gay or straight, recognize in themselves in college when they’re really becoming and owning who they are. That’s a beautiful experience to go through on stage. I talk with fans after the show and hear so many people say ‘I saw myself in you, that’s how I was in college, I felt like I was watching myself’. That’s really nice and really rare.

Do you ever get that feeling with the character yourself?

Totally. Of course, the actual issue for her is coming out as a lesbian, but that experience of seeing something you want- seeing Joan, who’s out and comfortable with herself- and having it be scary, that’s everyone’s teenage and college years. I relate to that in terms of friendships, but also in my career. I’m working with people who are so incredibly talented and experienced and sometimes feeling like a doofus because I didn’t know what to say and being so excited to be working with them and be in the same room as them. I can relate it to that.

Fun Home is unique in that it shows three different stages of Alison. What’s the collaboration like between you, Gabriella Pizzolo, and Beth Malone?

There are definitely physical things that we all share. The starting point is the real Alison Bechdel; she’s been around, we’ve all met her, she’s seen the show several times, we’ve hung out with her, and she has YouTube videos of herself out there. These are all resources to watch her and see what she’s like. The physical stuff helps link us for the audience to show we’re the same person. There was never any sitting together in a room and brainstorming how to do scenes. That came naturally out of rehearsals and the way that Jeanine [Tesori] and Lisa [Kron] have written the text. The way Alison thinks is so very specific and intellectual. It was really all in the script for us, which was very lucky.

When you were a standby, you also covered Joan. Has that influenced the way you play Alison?

Yeah, I think there’s something nice about performing Alison after performing Joan. The whole thing for Joan is ‘What is it about Alison that interests Joan? What is it about Alison that’s cute and exciting and fun to be around for a character like that?’ It’s interesting to go back and play Alison after doing that. Obviously, Alison is not just awkward and goofy and finding her way, but also wickedly smart and really cute in her awkwardness. I think that can be a trap with characters that are in a transition period, where they’re out in the middle of nowhere and not grounded or not appealing to other people because they’re trying to figure out who they are. Playing Joan is great because I can look at Alison through her eyes as a really incredible woman.

Other than Medium Alison and Joan, which role are you most interested in?

I would love to do the Adult Alison track in a heartbeat. She has my favorite vocal score in the whole show; her songs are my favorite. Her parts in the finale and the opening are my favorite. Also, ‘Telephone Wire’ is a stunning song. It really is her show, in the sense that it’s her memories being created, and I think it’s interesting to play on stage and be watching all these memories. So I would like to step into that if the time comes.

How often do you think about the impact Alison Bechdel has had?

I think about it all the time. I actually just had friends at the show last night, and they didn’t realize it was the real story. I was telling them about Alison, and I asked if they’d ever heard of the Bechdel Test. They said ‘Oh yeah, of course I’ve heard of the Bechdel Test.’ I said ‘That’s Alison. That is her creation.’ Her impact on our culture is monumental. I think there was something special about being a standby during the initial stages of this show, when we first opened and got all the critical acclaim and the Tonys. People were talking every day about the impact this was having on our culture in the US and also on theatre as a whole. Being a standby and observing the show when it was becoming a phenomenon, I really got to appreciate that. Of course, everyone appreciated the show, but I wasn’t doing it on a daily basis, so I could take a step back and see how much impact we were having. Now stepping into this show, it makes doing a show over and over again so thrilling and so new every time when a new audience is experiencing something. We’re not just entertaining them with something fun and wonderful, it really means something for individuals and theatre.

What was it like performing ‘Changing My Major’ at the parade after the Women’s National Team won the World Cup?

That was super interesting. The women’s team is awesome, so it was great to be a part of that celebration. It was kind of funny, because we didn’t know what our audience would be, and I stepped on stage, and it was pretty much an audience full of ten year old kids and their parents. They cut to the audience, and the audience was like ‘What’s happening right now?’ It was also streamed on ESPN, so my audience was ten years olds, their parents, and middle aged white men. It was hysterical. I remember going onstage and thinking ‘Let’s just do this.’

Speaking of sports, you’re the only girl on the Fun Home bowling team.

I’m the only weekly girl on the bowling team. We have many girl alternates, but for the six weekly players, who are most consistent players, I am the only one.

What’s the name of the team, and what’s Broadway Bowling like?

The name of our team is the Bowl Dykes. I believe Beth Malone came up with that. I captain the team. The first season, the team was captained by Jim Stanek, who’s the standby for Bruce, and I took over this season. It’s enormously fun. Our show gets out super early, and this is our way of getting to know people from other shows, since it’s literally Broadway taking over a bowling alley for a night. You play against people from other shows, and people who aren’t in shows right now can form conglomerate teams. I’ve met some of my good friends there.

Which team is winning right now?

Aladdin‘s team, Arabian Strikes, is winning right now. Bowl Dykes is second. We were in the lead, but Aladdin is really good. The scoring is very intricate, and there’s some very good teams that we’re beating right now, but it’s all based on who you’re paired against and how many points you win. It’s complicated, so I don’t pay very much attention to that part, but it’s fun to be close to the winner’s circle.

You were in Spring Awakening in LA. What attracted you to that project?

I really didn’t know anything about Deaf West, and I was asked to audition for it, and I said ‘Why not?’ I went in, and from the moment I walked in the room, I knew it was something special. There’s just something about the energy in the room, you could tell they’re really good people. So I sort of just stumbled into it, it wasn’t something I sought out, but from being in the audition room, I could tell that it was going to be incredible.

Did you get a chance to see it on Broadway?

Oh yeah, I saw it several times. I was at the dress rehearsal and cried my eyes out the entire time because it was so emotional and exciting that all my friends were there and it was really happening. I went back two more times to see different friends of mine. I got to see Lauren Luiz, who was the standby for Ilse, go on for the first time, and then Daniel Marmion, who was our standby for the adult men in LA, go on for Patrick Page.

Ilse and Medium Alison are both women trying to find meaning and their place in the world. What have you learned from playing both those characters?

Alison is dealing with this scary new world, this new part of herself. Ilse is going home after being abused by her father, and that’s a very monumental and scary thing. I think both characters reach out; Ilse is reaching out to Mortiz, and Alison is reaching out to Joan and her dad, who isn’t returning it. I think not letting fear keep you from reaching out is something to take away from both of those characters. That’s something I do take with me in life and I’m grateful to have learned it from these beautiful pieces of theatre.

What are some shows you’ve recently seen that you’ve loved?

I saw the revival of Les Mis, which is my favorite musical. This is a bad thing to say, but I actually don’t like a lot of musicals. I do love Les Mis, though, so that was exciting. I saw A View From the Bridge which was super interesting. I live and die for straight plays. I can’t wait to see The Crucible. I saw Prodigal Son at Manhattan Theatre Club. A friend of mine from NYU is in that, and I love John Patrick Shanley, so that was great. I also went to the opening of The Effect at Barrow Street. I love anything that has amazing dynamics.

Are there any shows on your ‘must see’ list?

I want to see The Color Purple, but they just took away the Sunday night shows. I was planning to see it in April but now I need it to stay open forever so I can see it. The Crucible, Bright Star, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Waitress. I worked with Jessie [Mueller] back in Chicago, so any time she’s doing something, I get excited to see her.

What did you work on with her?

We did a production of A Christmas Carol together. That was before she came to New York and before all of her super stardom.

Since you’re in college right now, if you could change your major to anything, what would it be?

The truth is, if I wasn’t an actor, I would be an academic type. The reason this is so hard for me to answer is because I’m really interested in a lot of different things. There’s very few things that I’m like ‘Nope, I would not like to learn about that.’ I would love to study history or philosophy.

You’ve worked with a lot of amazing people. What’s something you’ve learned from one of them that you’ll always keep with you?

There are so many things. I’ve worked with all these actors who are experienced, talented, and acclaimed, and all of the ones who have the type of career I want live with a reverence for the work. They have constant gratitude for the work, and it comes from the place of selflessness and serving a playwright and director’s vision. With everyone that I’ve worked with, there’s no sense of ‘I’m having a bad day, so the show’s not going to be that good.’ That reverence for the work is what I’ll take with me.

You moved from Los Angeles to New York for Fun Home. What are some of your favorite spots in New York?

I went to NYU so I like to go back and hang out there because it’s just a flood of memories. I live in Queens and there are a lot of baller places in Queens. There’s this Italian deli in my neighborhood called Sorriso that is so good. My favorite thing about the city is to just take an hour and walk around, it always makes me happy.

What are some of the differences between New York and LA theatre?

It’s a very different environment. A lot of the big paying theatre in LA is actually outside of LA proper. New York has that but LA has a ton of small black box theatre. We started Spring Awakening from a tiny 99 seat theatre. I like that rag-tag feeling of putting something together and being really proud of it and doing it by the skin of our teeth. That’s something I miss about LA theatre a little bit. With Spring Awakening, I remember the first preview I thought ‘I don’t know if we’re going to get through this.’ We almost had to stop from running out of money several times. I miss some of the grit that LA theatre has but there’s a reason why New York is the hub of the theatre world. The exciting new work that comes out of New York is like nothing else.

If you could switch places with anyone on Broadway for a day, who would it be?

If I could dance like Leanne Cope, I would switch with her. I don’t want to play the role as me, I want to be Leanne Cope because I cannot dance like that. If I could experience what it’s like to dance in An American in Paris, that would be great.

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