Making Us Visible to Each Other: The Work of Lisa Kron

By the time she took the stage in 1996 in her solo play 2.5 Minute Ride as a character named Lisa Kron, Lisa Kron had lived several theatrical lives.

After a childhood in Lansing, Michigan and college an hour away at Kalamazoo College, where she majored in theatre, Kron moved to New York City and began working as an actor. While becoming ever more frustrated by the limited roles available for women—especially women who read as queer—she had a revelation when she saw the work of the performance group Split Britches. They “blew my Midwestern MIND,” says Kron. “And—they made it themselves. To me this was a revelation… It turned out you could make your own show.”

Through Split Britches she found the WOW Café in the East Village, a collectively run performance space where, reflects Kron, “They were all lesbians. Even the women who weren’t lesbians were lesbians. Shows were put up…with sets and costumes made literally out of trash from the streets. They were full of magic.” In 1989, she co-founded the groundbreaking theatre troupe The Five Lesbian Brothers with performers she met at WOW. They eventually found success on the larger stages of The Public Theater and New York Theatre Workshop.

The plays Kron and her four collaborators created were often off-the-wall, centering lesbian stories with tongue firmly in cheek. Their first play, Voyage to Lesbos—set in Lesbos, Illinois—follows bride-to-be Bonnie as five women help her prepare for her wedding…and maybe sabotage it at the same time. It features musical numbers, high-camp 60s satire, and some particularly entertaining uses for a vacuum cleaner. Their other work had similarly evocative scenarios: Brave Smiles…Another Lesbian Tragedy features loneliness, suicide, alcoholism, pill-popping, blacklisting, and a malignant brain tumor, all played for very sad laughs. Brides of the Moon is a sci-fi sex comedy with a spacecraft of five female astronauts whose libidos have been suddenly triggered. The Secretaries, set “some time before Windows ’95,” follows five Slim-Fast obsessed and occasionally murderous secretaries at a lumber mill.

And while Kron was writing within the collective, she was also branching off to create her own solo work in a different key, writing about family—mostly her own. While working with the Five Lesbian Brothers, Kron developed the solo show 2.5 Minute Ride (1996) which she describes as “a roller coaster ride through the Kron family album.” She weaves together two journeys she took with her elderly father—one to Auschwitz, where his parents were murdered after he escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager; the other to the Cedar Point amusement park, where he insisted on riding extreme roller coasters despite his near-blindness, diabetes, and heart condition. From writing a solo show about her father, Kron developed Well (2006), a play about her mother, Ann, which she called a “solo show with people in it.” It had a full cast and included Kron playing the part of Lisa, in a story about her and her mother’s struggle with chronic illness.

Kron’s most widely known work is Fun Home, which she adapted from Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir with composer Jeanine Tesori. Bechdel’s book explores her childhood, her coming out as a lesbian in college, and her adult life as a cartoonist alongside her unresolved relationship with her father, a closeted man who was obsessed with maintaining an image of a perfect marriage and family in their small Pennsylvania town.

It took Kron and Tesori seven years to recraft Bechdel’s narrative into a musical. As Kron explains, “There are no scenes in the book. There are moments in time. There’s a frame where a kid is eating a bowl of cereal and a parent is leaving and then you have Alison’s narrative voice saying, ‘While this was going on, this is what was actually happening.’ That’s not a scene.... It was extremely difficult to figure out what those characters would say.”

Although arduous, the adaptation process yielded a popular and critical success: following a production at The Public Theater in 2013, the play transferred to Broadway and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical. The musical was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Coincidentally, Kron’s wife, Madeleine George, was also a Pulitzer finalist that year for her play The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence.)

But at its core, Fun Home shares DNA with all of Kron’s work for the theatre. Reflecting on feedback from straight audiences that they were surprised at how relatable they found Alison’s struggles and insights, Kron said, “What I realize that people are trying to say to me when they say that is that something has happened to them where their idea of the world has gotten bigger... You walk back out onto the street and then suddenly all these people are visible to you, that had never been visible before. ...And that is the point of theatre, to make us visible to each other.”

—Adrien-Alice Hansel