Nikki Muller on playing a lesbian cartoonist in Pangdemonium's Fun Home
Heart to heart
You're back on stage again! What have you been up to after we last spoke to you since The Effect in 2016?
I finally explored Bhutan over the New Year which was always on my bucket list! Television has been keeping me busy with a new season of Food Detectives airing soon on Channel 5. Work with Fox Sports had me covering F1 and the tennis at Wimbledon. What I'm most proud of is just having launched a private dining passion project called "Intimate Suppers" with a dear friend of mine, Celina Tan, who used to own and run Celina's Gastrobar on Duxton Road. We have themed dinners and bring in special experts in various fields to add spice to the event!
Could you tell us more about who Alison in Fun Home is, and what attracted you to this role?
Alison Bechdel is a graphic novelist and lesbian cartoonist. The musical is based on her graphic memoir about her life, childhood, her journey of discovering her sexuality and it also serves as a cathartic exploration of a unique and often dissonant relationship with her father. I was attracted to the mere fact that this novel was a healing journey for Alison. It was a medium for which to explore her profound grief at the loss of her father whom she so desperately sought connection with.
Other young actors play the role of Alison at different stages of her life too. What was the process like working with the younger versions of Alison?
This was an organic exploration. As the rehearsal process evolved, we each somehow managed to embody certain personality aspects of the other actors in order to create a relatively solid and consistent character. The truth is, each "Alison" is different in that the experiences she goes through at different ages shows heartfelt naivety, wonder, bewilderment, anger, confusion and eventually acceptance. As "Big Alison", I have to take these experiences of my younger self and gel that into the 43-year-old woman now faced with coming to terms with her family history through adult eyes.
Alison has to deal with a lot of self-acceptance and self-discovery, both universal themes regardless of one's sexuality. Did you borrow or pick apart your own experiences and adapt them to this role?
This role has forced me to take a long and hard look at my family and our experience with loss. Also, my mother is gay so I had a nice long chat with her about the difficulties and intricacies of self-acceptance and coming out after having a family. It was interesting for mother and daughter to have this conversation, which I think is the kind of affirmation and connection Alison wishes she could have had with her father. So it's been a really lovely and touching voyage to slowly peel off layers that we put on as we get older.
What do you think you've learned about yourself in playing Alison?
Revisiting your past is never easy, so I've been encouraged by Alison's bravery to embark on the tough but necessary process of attempting to make peace with all the things left unsaid or misunderstood. I've learned that you need to face the tough stuff head on and that the journey is anything but comfortable. However, being kind and gentle with yourself in the process is key to the eventual release and moving on.
What do you think are some valuable or important lessons around relationships between fathers and daughters that can be pooled from this play?
I think no matter what your relationship with your father or mother is or was, you learn to understand that they are human and that they weren't given a play book. We tend to idolise our parents but we must understand that they too make mistakes. Hopefully some people in the audience will be able to tap into this and relate somehow. In fact, I'm certain they will.
How timely do you think Fun Home's story is right now, in Singapore, looking at how tolerant or intolerant of a society we have here?
I think the more we talk about what some may consider uncomfortable topics, the more dialogue and discourse we create as a society, there's a better chance of the fear and stigma eventually dissipating. Lets face it, we all know where Singapore "officially" stands on the subject matter but that doesn't necessarily reflect the entire public sentiment. Alison Bechdel calls herself a "professional lesbian," meaning she was determined to come out and be proud of her sexuality and champion the freedom to be herself. This is why she calls herself a lesbian cartoonist and not just a cartoonist. She did this because she believes her father was tormented by his "inauthentic life" wherein he did his best to maintain the veneer of a perfect traditional family while seeking affairs with men. He was pained by his sexuality and it caused all sorts of chaos, turmoil and emotional dissonance across the entire family spectrum.
I hope that anybody grappling with their sexuality will see this show and start to believe that being true to their authentic self, whatever that looks like, is essential to their happiness and that of those around them.
Fun Home runs till 15 October at Drama Centre Theatre. Book tickets.