Wheaton actor/director/educator returns to the stage in Copley Theatre's 'Fun Home'

  • Wheaton actor Stephen Schellhardt co-stars as the closeted Bruce Bechdel in Copley Theatre's revival of the musical "Fun Home" based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel of the same name.

    Wheaton actor Stephen Schellhardt co-stars as the closeted Bruce Bechdel in Copley Theatre's revival of the musical "Fun Home" based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. Courtesy of Amy Nelson

 
 
Updated 8/11/2022 9:53 AM

Late last year, theater artist and former BoHo Theatre artistic director Stephen Schellhardt stepped away from the theater that had been his artistic home for six years.

But the multihyphenate actor, director, choreographer and educator didn't remain idle. Last spring, the Wheaton resident co-directed and choreographed The Second City's "Queer Eye: A Musical Parody." Currently, Schellhardt is co-starring in Copley Theatre's revival of "Fun Home," the Tony Award-winning musical based on writer/cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir.

 

"Fun Home" marks the first time in seven years that the veteran of Marriott, Drury Lane, Writers, Northlight, Goodman, Porchlight and Chicago Shakespeare theaters among others has been on stage as an actor. The coming-of-age story about a young woman discovering her sexuality and attempting to connect with her father as well as the opportunity to work with the show's co-directors -- Paramount Theatre artistic director Jim Corti and Landree Fleming -- was more than enough to convince Schellhardt to play closeted family patriarch Bruce Bechdel.

"This is the kind of story I wanted to be telling," said the Joseph Jefferson Award winner. "It was a role I didn't want to pass up."

Playing the role meant incorporating everything he's learned as an actor, director, teacher into one character, says Schellhardt, adding he's "exactly in the role, in the production, in the story I'm supposed to be telling at this point in my life."

"It's a bold choice, a brave choice to tell this story," he said referring to the tuner, part of Paramount's BOLD series inaugurated earlier this year at the Aurora theater's intimate Copley counterpart.

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He's also referring to the mature subject matter -- identity, sexuality and mental health -- which the musical confronts in a straightforward manner.

"Being a father, being a queer man around the age of Bruce and having a tight and complicated family myself (the role) resonated with me at a level I haven't felt before," said Schellhardt, who describes his character as complicated, obsessive and a man "unable to live his truth who has grown up repressing his feelings."

How that manifests emotionally makes for a fascinating character study, said Schellhardt, who grew up in Winnetka and graduated from New Trier High School and Carnegie Mellon University.

"I believe we should be able to express ourselves for who we really are and live our lives authentically," he said.

Milla Liss plays Small Alison and Stephen Schellhardt plays her father, Bruce, in "Fun Home," running through Sept. 18 at Aurora's Copley Theatre.
Milla Liss plays Small Alison and Stephen Schellhardt plays her father, Bruce, in "Fun Home," running through Sept. 18 at Aurora's Copley Theatre. - Courtesy of Amy Nelson
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While acknowledging that identity and sexuality are challenging subjects for many people to confront, Schellhardt says it's important that people do so, even if it makes them uncomfortable.

"We need empathy right now," he said, "to look at other people's stories and say: 'I see myself in there.'"

"At the end of the day, what we need to feel more in this world is love and connection," he said.

After nearly three years being disconnected from his fellow artists and audience members, Schellhardt says being in a room with his colleagues has been therapeutic, joyful and scary.

"I got in my car after the first rehearsal and burst into tears," he said, "It's been a long time for all of us."

Overwhelmed, Schellhardt said it felt like coming home.

"We have spent too long on our couches watching Netflix," he said. "We need to be connecting ... this story demands it."

"Fun Home" in particular lets audience members facing challenges similar to Bechdel's characters know that they're not alone.

"There's hope," Schellhardt said, "and that is really beautiful."

• • •

"Fun Home"

When: 1:30 and 7 p.m. Wednesday; 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 18

Where: Copley Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, (630) 896-6666 or paramountaurora.com

Tickets: $67-$74

COVID-19 precautions: Masking encouraged

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