By Seth Reines, September 2017 Issue.
The year is 1998 and the scene is the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Here, the statuesque Northwestern University senior and Miss Illinois Kate Shindle is belting out “Don’t Rain on My Parade” as part of the Miss America pageant.
Shindle was later crowed as the 71st Miss America. And, with a platform of AIDS awareness and prevention, she becomes the first national beauty pageant winner to champion LGBTQ issues. Brandishing her rhinestone tiara, she gains access to political arenas that were previously not willing to listen to other AIDS activists.
That same year, the director of Northwestern’s musical theatre program contacts me [then artistic director of Illinois’ Little Theatre on The Square] to ask if I can help one of his students, Shindle, acquire her Actors’ Equity [union] card.
My theatre is producing Into The Woods, a remarkable piece, but a tough sell in the middle of the Midwestern cornfields. Miss America as the Witch? Perfect! Mothers with little girls in party dresses and tiaras line up to see Shindle’s beguiling performance.
In 1999, Shindle relocates for New York with her equity card, ready to conquer Broadway. A local TV anchor sees her waitressing in a Manhattan eatery and soon she is the hot topic on every late-night talk show. And everyone’s burning question is “What happened to the $50,000 Miss America prize money?” Her answer is simple: The money can only be spent for scholarship purposes. But the controversy gives Shindle unprecedented media coverage and she is starring on Broadway as Lucy in Jekyl And Hyde within weeks.
The following year Shindle tours the country as Sally Bowles in the Tony-Award winning revival of Cabaret, returning to Broadway to repeat the role in the summer of 2001. In the years ahead she creates memorable roles in such Broadway shows as Legally Blonde and Wonderland.
Fast forward to 2015, when Shindle is elected President of Actors’ Equity Association, a union representing more than 50,000 actors and stage managers. She becomes the youngest in the union’s history and only the third woman to hold that position. With a platform of gender and ethnic diversity in theatrical casting, she also aggressively battles Trump’s proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts arguing, “The arts are not a frill or a luxury or some kind of vanity project. The arts are part of who we are as a nation and they put our nation to work.”
Today, Shindle is back on the road playing Alison Beschel, America’s most famous lesbian cartoonist, in the 2015 Tony-Award winning musical, Fun Home.
“Being portrayed by her in the musical feels like a lovely, twisting kind of cultural progress,” the real Beschel quips. “Suddenly, there’s this inexplicable but undeniable continuity between the marginal lesbian and the beauty queen … I find it delightful.”
The show boasts the first female writing team to win Tony Awards for best book, score and musical. Lisa Kron, who penned the show’s book and cowrote the music with composer Jeannie Tesori, said she felt the success of Fun Home is “indicative of a very specific moment in the queer community’s fight for equality.”
After a critically acclaimed opening and several extensions at New York’s Public Theatre, the show opened on Broadway just before same-sex marriage became legal nationwide.
Based on Bechel’s autobiographical novel with the same name, Fun Home follows Alison Bechel’s coming to terms with her closeted father’s suicide while dealing with her own sexual identity. Moving between past and present, Alison (played by three actresses) relives her childhood in her family’s funeral parlor/home, lovingly nicknamed the “Fun Home.”
Shindle plays mature Alison, narrating the central character’s road to discovery. Noting a dramatic shift in mainstream culture’s attitudes towards the LGBTQ community and coming out.
“In a lot of ways Fun Home shows a generational difference between how Alison Bechdel herself dealt with her own sexual identity when she was in college in the early 1980s,” she explained, “versus her father, who is obviously a generation older and had to conceal his.”
Additionally, Shindle said she hopes Fun Home will help audience members “come to terms with their past so they can move into the future.”
After every performance, audiences greet her at the stage door, affirming how much the show’s message hits home. In her own inimitable way, the actress, activist, union leader, beauty queen continues to be a staunch ally of the LGBTQ community.
Fun Home, which won five Tony Awards including 2015’s Best Musical, opens ASU Gammage’s 2017-2018 season.
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