Artist Interview: Clare Barron
Note: This interview contains spoilers about the contents of Dance Nation
Tim Sanford: So, let’s talk about how theater caught you.
Clare Barron: I was in a Shakespeare troupe for children in my hometown of Wenatchee, Washington, which was run by the playwright Heidi Schreck’s mother, Sherry Schreck. It was called The Short Shakespearians. And it was like kids ages four to 14 and we did a Shakespeare comedy every summer. I was late to start — I think I started when I was like, oh gosh, 12? 13? I don’t remember anymore. I just remember that it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I was by far the oldest fairy — like all the other fairies were, like, four and I was like 11 — and my job was basically to wrangle the baby fairies. And then, I also played Philostrate that year, who was the servant, and then the next year, I played the Concubine in The Comedy of Errors—
We changed the Concubine to the Fortuneteller, so I was a fortune teller instead of a concubine. And I had to have an accent for that part, I remember. And then I played Rosalind. I got like a big upgrade and played Rosalind when I was 14.
Were you interested in theater before that? Like it seems sort of a big leap: “I’m gonna do some Shakespeare in the summer!”
I think The Short Shakespearians was kind of a phenomenon. I remember I went to a production of The Tempest they did, and the costumes were all so beautiful. They were all homemade from the mothers: elaborate, sparkly, sequin-y Elizabethan costumes made from cheap fabrics at Jo-Ann’s. There was something very seductive about this homemade world. My mom hated to sew and was not happy about the idea of having to make a costume but she asked me, “Would you want to do something like that?” And I think I just said, “Yes.” It was really like being at camp or something. And you developed these really intense friendships. And it was only after doing that for years and years that I was sort of like, “Oh I guess I like theater,” and started auditioning for the high school musicals.
Did you know Sherry Schreck before this?
Well, she lives like two blocks from where we live. I think we knew her by reputation but not personally. It was a small town.
Did you have to audition?
No. Sherry would just assign us parts. You had to kind of work your way up the ladder. Hence starting as the fairy and, like, slowly—
Working your way inexorably to Rosalind.
— becoming the prostitute and then becoming Rosalind.
Let’s pause and enjoy the progression. So this was about the age of...?
This was my middle school years.
Like the Dance Nation characters.
Yeah. And I was also dancing ballet at this age with a woman named Joan Mason, who actually passed away on our dress rehearsal, which was like a very strange coincidence. She was 96. She lived a very long life. She was sort of the grand dame of ballet in Wenatchee, Washington. And there was a lot of overlap between The Short Shakespearians and the ballet company; some of the other girls in The Short Shakespearians were also in the ballet. And Sherry knew Joan — there was sort of a little ballet-Shakespeare mafia. And similarly, Joan had this like huge closet full of all these costumes — like rabbit costumes and mice and queen costumes from Snow White to Beatrix Potter. And I remember so strongly when I played a girl at the party in The Nutcracker, the blue dress I wore and we had to do our hair in braids in this particular way, and being backstage and it was just so magical. You’re still at that age where it’s kind of like theater, but it’s actually more like make-believe. Like you actually kind of believe it as you’re doing it. So that was as much my theater beginnings as The Short Shakespearians – both of which were quite remarkable for a small agricultural city in eastern Washington State. It was more like a hiking, water-skiing, tractor-driving kind of place and here you had 20-year-old Shakespeare and ballet companies.
What was your “ah ha!” as an actor? Was it Rosalind? Or was it something later?
My “ah ha” as an actor was when I went to the Tisch Summer Program. One of my best friend’s dreams was to go. He was a year older than me and I was totally in love with him. So the next year, when I was his age, I was like, “I want to go to Tisch.”
This was when you were in high school?
Yes, the summer before my senior year. So I applied and I got in. And the month before I went, my boyfriend broke up with me suddenly. I found out later he’d been like cheating on me, but at the time I didn’t know, so it was very disorienting and confusing because it came out of nowhere. And when I went to the Tisch summer program when I was 17, I like cried through the whole thing. Like, no matter what scene I was in… I was just crying, and so I got the reputation of being one of the best actors because I could like cry so easily. And that made me feel really talented.
How did writing enter into this?
Writing enters with a woman named Deb Margolin, a playwright/performer that I met that summer at Tisch. She taught a writing workshop I took and I wrote a monologue. And then I think I actually reached out to her when I was deciding where to go to college because I was looking at Tisch and I was looking at Yale, and Deb was like, “Go to Yale,” basically. “I’m going to Yale to teach.” And so I, in some ways, followed Deb to Yale.
Did you write other stuff before you wrote this monologue?
When I was, like, seven, I read Little Women and became obsessed and wanted to be a writer from like first through third grade. And I wrote a bunch of “novels.”
Dance Nation is kind of your version of Little Women.
It’s got all the types. What happened to your writing after the third grade?
I got really into animals. I grew up in a house with 12 animals.
What was your strangest animal?
We had an iguana.
Yeah, we had a six-foot iguana who was so big that he didn’t have a cage, so he would just walk around our house. He was my mom’s baby. So I got really into animals and wanted to do wildlife biology. And, also, I met these amazing people who had a wolf and did like wolf education in rural communities.
All this stuff is in your play!
Yeah, the wolf thing is definitely from that.
And the pets in the “I want to heal the world through dance” section.
Like if dance could stop people from abandoning their pets.
I was very into pets. And then I got the acting bug. And it wasn’t until later that I started returning to that early writer impulse but in the theater this time, instead of novels.
Did you like the monologue you wrote?
The first one? The one I wrote for Deb? I performed it and I cried. So I felt pretty good about it. (Laughs)
Was that why you wrote it?
I don’t know. I’ve always been like such an emotional person. And I’ve also always been like such a perverse person, filled with weird thoughts and feelings and things I’m not quite sure how to express. And so I think when I first started writing, when I wrote that first monologue and could combine my emotion with my perversity and then like put it public, there was like some chemical reaction that happened that was just like very, very exciting to me. And when I saw Deb again at Yale, I kept writing — for a while the only thing I could do was write monologues. Like I didn’t quite have the brain yet to think in plays. And like monologues were so immediate and so emotional, so for a while I really just wrote solo pieces that I would perform myself. And then I took a couple playwriting classes at Yale and started writing my first kind of lumpy plays.
What was perverse about your thinking?
I feel like I’ve always had a very big interior fantasy life that was a little bit out of control. Like Zuzu in the play. I was like dreaming about my biology teacher delivering my baby, and weird fantasies like that. I also have always been explosively emotional and struggled with my emotions. And also I am a very sexual person and also a very bodily person…like in my body. And my parents are like these chill, crazy people who go hiking in western China and paint their house hot pink and are super adventurous and curious, but I grew up in a community that was conservative and pretty Christian. And a lot of my friends and I wanted to save our virginities for marriage. So there was definitely some intense repression going on in terms of having sexual feelings but feeling like I couldn’t act on them. And so writing became an outlet, I think, for me to get out all these emotions and urges that I felt I had to repress.
Surely you must have learned at some point that the feelings you’re calling perverse were shared by other girls.
By other people! But yes, I never felt totally alone in having these feelings, but also I felt totally alone. I do remember when I arrived at Yale they put us in suites. And they tried to put us in suites with people they thought we would be “compatible” with. So I had five roommates and we all had ties to Christianity, and every one of us except one was a virgin.
And did that contribute to you feeling perverse?
I don’t think I thought of myself as perverse then. I think I had a positive relationship to my interior life. I liked being weird.
I guess the older you get, the better perversity sounds. (Laughs)
Yeah, exactly. But I did have a lot of shame around actually having sex. That’s where my shame came in, in my actual relationships, not so much in my interior life. I was never more religious in my life than my freshman year at Yale. And I think that’s because I had been separated from my community. Here I was on the East Coast, at an institution like Yale, surrounded by a totally different culture. I grew up in a small town on the West Coast at a public high school and going to Yale with kids from New York City and prep schools was really disorienting. And it was right after the Bush/Kerry election so all this political stuff was really at the front, and I came from a red part of the state, even though my politics were liberal. And I felt so lost. And I developed a really intense, internal relationship with like Jesus basically. I remember going on these long meditative runs, and feeling like Jesus in my body. But this is not answering your question.
Well. You’re describing your interior world and your point of view. What was your writing like?
Well, my first play that I wrote in college was called Trouble in The Flesh, and it was about a young woman well into her twenties who was still a virgin. And she was the caretaker for this old man. She had to like wash him, and dress him, and he had a wife that then later, it was revealed that the wife was a ghost. She had already died. And the young woman falls in love with the old man. And when I took it to my advisor to read, she was like, “This play is about losing your virginity.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? No, it isn’t.” And now, of course, I’m like, “Oh my god, yes.” That play was totally about all these complicated feelings I had about having sex or not having sex, or when to have sex, or who to have sex with. So, I was already, on an unconscious level, using my writing to process some of these feelings.
I’m interested in how your work has expanded over time. When I look at your plays, they feel very personal but not confessional, per se. And all of your characters seem living, breathing. But what astounded me about Dance Nation is how the canvas just explodes. And I guess what I’m wondering is if the exploratory expressiveness of your writing remained an end in itself or did it develop into an aesthetic in its own right. Does that make any sense?
I think it does. I mean, the answer for me is that I always write a play out of a huge well of emotion. Like in almost an embarrassing way. I don’t really write a play until I emotionally need to write a play. And then I do. And I’m sort of profoundly uninterested in writing a play that I don’t emotionally need to write. I do think that as I’ve written more plays, my sense of dramatic structure has just naturally increased. So I’m more unconsciously able to build the scaffoldings and the world around the emotional core. So with Dance Nation, there is a white-hot emotional core, and then I enjoy building the building around that. But I would never build the building before tapping into that center. If that makes sense?
Is that something you discovered as an undergraduate? Did you feel called to write?
No, no, no. Or maybe! I don’t know. When I was an undergraduate, I only wrote plays when I was in a playwriting class and had to write a play for an assignment. So, in some ways, the emotional need in those undergraduate plays was a little more accidental and unconscious. I was writing what I thought was a “Good Play.” I was reading like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and wanting to write like that. And if my own stuff showed up, it was more accidental. But the thing that Deb taught me that was so, so precious and that has given birth, really, to my entire writing process was, “Write today what you would need to say, if you were to die tomorrow.” Which is a very intense prompt! But I think that’s where this seed of urgency came in my writing. Like I want to be writing as if there’s a clock on the wall. So after I graduated college, I applied to every single playwriting program under the sun. I got rejected from every single playwriting program under the sun, and then I quit playwriting. I ended up following my best friend from college who is Syrian-American to Lebanon and living with him for a while. Then when I came back, I just was like, “I’m gonna be an actor.” And then the blinders were on, and I was just like acting, acting, acting, waking up at six in the morning to go stand in the line at the Equity building and pray for a slot to be seen for a two-minute audition.
Were you getting parts?
(Big sigh) Kind of.
(Laughs) (To Kim Golding, New Works Lab Fellow) Can you transcribe that sigh?
I just remember this experience of — I had to go to three callbacks to be in a reading. And it was bad play. And when I got the part I was like, “Oh I’m so happy! I got the part.” And then later I was like, “I had to go to three fucking callbacks to be in a shitty reading.” That’s the level of what we’re looking at here. The one good thing that came out of that period is I actually got my Equity card out of working with David Herskovits and Target Margin. I did this amazing production of The Tempest with them that Purva Bedi, who’s in Dance Nation, was actually in. That was like a real turning point for me, in terms of finding an artistic community.
How did you get that? You just had an audition?
I went to one of those auditions at Equity at 7 AM. They’re called Equity Principle Auditions. And they’re basically fake auditions because nobody’s actually looking to cast you. That’s my cynical view of them. But when I went to the EPA for Target Margin, the difference was, David Herskovits was at that EPA the whole day.
He’s such a great guy.
He’s a really good guy. So, I auditioned for him and didn’t get the part, but he kept my headshot, and a year later he called me to come and audition for The Tempest. And then I got my Equity card.
And you did Heidi’s play, what was it called again?
The Consultant. At the Long Wharf.
That’s a high-profile gig.
Yeah, that was a real thing. I mean, I also have known the playwright since I was like a child, so maybe it doesn’t count! The crazy thing about that gig is that it was happening while my life was falling apart. My dad was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer. And at the same time, my relationship of five years ended, and that guy was my boss. I had been working at his company and he fired me when we broke up. So I had no job, and no health insurance, and my dad had cancer, and I was out in Washington helping take care of my dad, and I got a callback for Heidi’s play. And I remember filming the callback in my dad’s hospital room and the callback was set in a hospital room, so it was like a really weird—
Did you cry?
I totally cried! Of course, I cried.
We haven’t gotten back to you starting to write again.
Yea. It happened in a really weird way. So basically I was focusing on acting, and I guess I would describe my acting career as I had just enough bright spots to not quit, but not a lot in between. Also, the other thing you should know from my acting career is I almost entirely was cast as like 15 year olds. And that’s a little bit where the inspiration for this play came from like, “Why can’t anyone see me as a woman?!” And around this time my roommate and best friend, an amazing playwright Alex Borinsky, was like, “Annie Baker is teaching a three-week course in Florida. We have to apply.” And so, you only needed 10 pages to apply. You didn’t even have to submit a play. So I was able to go back into my college plays, and pull out 10 good pages that I felt proud of and both Alex and I got into the program. It was at Atlantic Center for Arts, a couple of hours outside Orlando. There were a lot of playwrights there our year, like Josh Harmon and Rachel Bonds and Brian Otaño. Annie was the “Master Artist.” She would teach a class for an hour each day, and the rest of the time was free. And we’re supposed to write a play over the three weeks. Annie kind of walked me though writing what I kind of consider my first adult play. She’s an amazing teacher; she had a lot of fantastic techniques — a lot of which I think she got from Mac Wellman at Brooklyn College, which is where she went — but they were totally new ideas to me. And she was exposing me to totally new writers, and it kind of like blew my mind. So I wrote this play called a boy put this girl in a cage with a dog and the dog killed the girl, and it felt different from all my earlier plays. And that play got me into Youngblood, which is this writer’s group for playwrights under 30 at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
What was your Circle Mirror [Transformation] story again? How old were you?
I think I was around 22. I had just graduated from college. And Heidi’s mom was in town, and she knew I was in New York now, and she asked me if I wanted to go see Heidi’s new play. So, Heidi’s mom brought me here.
Heidi being Heidi the actor, for the record.
Yea. Heidi Schreck’s mom, Sherry Schreck, who founded The Short Shakespearians, brought me to Playwrights Horizons to see Circle Mirror Transformation.
By Annie Baker.
Just being here in the space, seeing something that felt so different, and new, and alive, it really changed me.
Was Youngblood productive for you?
Yea, it was super productive for me. I would not be a playwright without Youngblood. After I got into Youngblood, I didn’t write a play for a year. I was still doing acting jobs; I just didn’t write a play. And then you have to do a reading with Youngblood at the end of the year, and so like three weeks before my reading I freaked out and wrote a play.
What was that?
It was called Baby Screams Miracle, which ended up being done at Clubbed Thumb. But the same exact thing happened the next year. I didn’t write a play all year and then I had like three weeks before my final Youngblood reading and I scrambled and wrote a play. For like two or three years in a row, the only reason I wrote a play — ’cause nobody was asking to read my plays at that point — the only reason I wrote a play was because there was this annual pressure from Youngblood saying, “Hey. Where’s your play?” Also, Youngblood just like gave me community. You’re literally part of like 25 writers; you’re just surrounded by other playwrights who become friends.
So was that impulse you talked about — an emotional need that churned up and forced you to write — was that still the motor of these three-week long writing processes?
Yes, and no. There are little pockets in them. But the first play that really came out in that way was called Dirty Crusty, which is about ballet. It’s a super sexual play. And starting with Dirty Crusty, writing from that motor of need becomes much more the M.O. Then I wrote I’ll Never Love Again, which is the play that happened at The Bushwick Starr that was made out of my diary. That was written in response to a toxic relationship I was in. And then I wrote You Got Older, which was written in response to my situation with my dad’s cancer diagnosis and my breakup. And then I wrote Dance Nation.
Were you influenced by other playwrights at any period of this process?
Yeah, totally. I remember when I was writing at Atlantic Center for the Arts, before I would write, I would read another playwright until I got inspired to write. I remember reading Young Jean Lee while I was writing that play. Even though my play didn’t resemble what I was reading, there was something about being inside of something inspiring. I also feel like I get more inspired by writer’s behavior than necessarily their work. I really admire writers who are sort of like bad asses, who are really protective of their work and stand up for themselves.
Who’s in that category?
Anne Washburn. I think Anne Washburn is a visionary. She’s super community-minded. She’s always creating new programs that help other writers. But I also feel like what I admire about Anne Washburn is that she really takes risks in her writing and that each play is a really different experiment. And I love that about her. I feel like Annie [Baker] is also someone who really has this sort of force about her. I feel like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins does. I really like that Robert O’Hara writes and directs his own work. I feel like his work could only come out of his brain. I get really annoyed when I see writers’ work that feels derivative of other people. Even if it’s good, if it reminds me of some other thing, I’m sort of not very interested in it. Obviously we’re all influenced, we’re all derivative of something! But I want to feel inside of that — that baggage that we all carry — I want to feel something really singular. And I feel that way every time I see a Robert O’Hara play.
When you were first getting attention, with Annie, Youngblood, Clubbed Thumb, did you get a sense of what it was about your work that was appealing to people? Did you get a sense of, “Oh I should write more towards this because this is working?” You know? Or was it totally self-directed?
I definitely got lots of valuable feedback and had amazing mentors. But also, I tried not to listen too much to what other people thought of my writing because I didn’t want to write towards any given outcome or idea of success. I wanted to keep it private, and I wanted each play to be new. I did find it really exciting to write something that people told me they felt secretly. I mean, it all goes back to this feeling of repression, and the desire to say something that people feel like they can’t let come out, and so they’re given, like, a release when the play lets it out into the room.
I think that repression gets expressed tonally in your work through big powerful, almost expressionistic scenes that break out along with very intimate, inarticulate dialogue.
I think that’s true. Even though my plays have a lot of blood and guts in them, they also have a lot of small, very quiet scenes. And I got some positive reinforcement in that regard too, that kind of made me keep that quiet color in my writing. But like the work I was doing in Youngblood, for example — I remember there’s this piece I did in Youngblood that was extremely confessional, and it ended with Alex [Borinsky] and I like drinking my menstrual blood basically on stage. So, there’s definitely part of me that’s always been drawn towards that kind of intensity.
Does it amuse you when Sofia anoints herself with her menstrual blood and the audience goes “EWWWWW!” Only one or two people do it, but it always surprises me. Like really? “Ew?” It’s 2018, you know.
I’m always shocked how squeamish audiences are. Also, the moment where Ashlee touches her sweat and puts it on Connie.
Right?! It’s just sweat for Christ’s sake. You know in Uncommon Women — did you read that play? (Clare shakes her head) There’s a character, Rita — Swoozie Kurtz played her — who announces, “I’ve drunk my own menstrual blood!”
You Got Older got a lot of attention. That play would seem to have been written out of the kind of strong internal motor we were talking about. Did it?
I wrote You Got Older literally when my life was in crisis. I was part of the Soho Rep. Writer/Director Lab. And an hour before the Lab, we’re supposed to bring in 20 pages, and I would panic and write 20 pages, and bring it into the Lab. So I was writing it in an hour chunk, every two weeks basically. And then some of it, I was literally writing in my dad’s hospital room. Not on purpose, but just things were coming into my head when I was staying with him. I wrote a lot of the Mac and Mae scenes — Mac is this guy that the daughter has a relationship with while she’s dealing with her father having cancer — and I wrote that stuff while I was home with my family. Also, the whole time I was writing the play, I did not give a shit about it. Like I was not trying. If that makes sense. I was really not trying. My mind was preoccupied.
So, when you went home to Washington, you didn’t have a clock to like—
I didn’t have a clock.
How did You Got Older turn into a production?
I was the Page 73 Fellow, and they came to my Soho Rep. reading. And then, very shortly after, were like, “We want to produce it in the fall.” And it was very fast. Like I hadn’t even told my parents I had written the play…and I found out I was getting a production. It was very emotionally intense.
That’s understandable given how much was going on in your life. But was part of it because it’s also such a benchmark in your transformation as a writer.
I did not enjoy any of the success that came out of that play.
One, probably, just to be like very, very candid — I was dealing with some pretty significant depression and mental health issues. One, because I think I felt incredibly weird about having success out of something that caused my family a huge amount of pain. And it really isn’t about my dad. Like the dad in the play is not my dad. I mean, they’re certain little things that are my dad. And my dad after he saw the play, he was like, “I should get a co-writing credit. Because you stole all these things I said!” And I did steal, like, his best stories. But I just also think I felt a little bit weird having that play turn into something really positive for me. I had an allergic reaction to having any amount of, like, success. Like I felt very, very guilty basically.
In Dance Nation, that happens all the time, but usually articulated as: “My success is at the cost of someone else’s failure.”
I do think that there’s this feeling in the theater world that we’re not living in a healthy ecosystem right now. I think that resources are scarce. And I think that people are exhausted. I think there’s no good way to make a living in New York, and there’s no good way to make a living as a playwright. So, I do feel like it’s kind of a toxic environment, in terms of — I don’t even want to say competition because I don’t even feel like it’s really competing, but I feel like a lot of people don’t feel good about the way things are. And so it feels a little overwhelming when all of a sudden you get a pile on of good things because this is what the theater industry likes to do. It likes to pick one person, and then give them everything. And it’s very frustrating because lots of times — and you can throw me in this boat, like I can be one of these people — but lots of times the play’s like not that great. Or, it’s not that different than any other number of great plays. But because it gets like anointed in some way, all of these institutions are like, “This play, this play, this play, this play.” And they’re saying “this play” not because they’re actively choosing this play, but because they’ve been told that this is the play that is — I think — you’re frowning at me.
I don’t want to be that person. I love your play! I saw You Got Older, and I don’t think it was the first play of yours we read. I’ve got a gatekeeper of my own sitting over there in the literary office [Associate Artistic Director Adam Greenfield].
He read a boy put this girl in a cage with a dog... He totally read that play. I know he did.
But I was so moved and blown away by the honesty and by the brave writing.
No, I appreciate that. And as I’m going off on my tirade, like, I’m really, really proud of that play. And of that production, in particular.
When were you able to be proud? Did you ever feel some satisfaction? Did you get far enough away from it that you could say, “Huh, I’ve come a long way”?
I loved working with Anne Kauffman. And I had a lot of moments in that production that made me feel proud.
Brooke Bloom is a good actor for your work.
She’s amazing. Our whole team was, like, really amazing.
Reed [Birney] will be mad if he reads it and I haven’t mentioned him.
Reed was especially amazing.
He’s just a magician of the craft. He totally blew me away. And my relationship with Anne was really special and really amazing. And I’m totally embarrassed to say this, but in trying to be transparent about questions of success and ambition, I totally did have a moment when I found out I was winning an Obie. And I remember walking around the streets towards the river, and it was a cold spring day, feeling like, “Wow. This is something that I…” I didn’t like specifically dream that. I wasn’t like, “Please. This is what I need, Lord. Like give me an Obie.” But like, it was definitely like—
“Dear God, let me play the part of Gandhi…”
Exactly! It was definitely something that I saw as a benchmark. And I definitely was a little bit stunned to have that reaction to my work. So I don’t want to say that I felt no joy around the success. But I also felt a lot of stress and a lot of guilt. And it was mostly just because I wanted everyone to do well. Like here I am sitting on six commissions. Like I want everyone to have that kind of—
“That would be perfect.”
I know! That would be perfect!
How did Dance Nation come about?
I first wrote the first 10 pages of it for the Clubbed Thumb Biennial Commission in 2013. So, the first 10 pages came out of an application.
And you’re talking about the scene after the broken sailor, when the lights come up and they’re warming up.
Yes, exactly. Those pages sat around for two years. And then in 2015, I wrote the Ashlee monologue, which is this crazy monologue in the middle of the play where she says that she thinks she’s gorgeous, and she thinks she’s really smart, and she’s gonna be, like, the king of the world basically.
So you wrote the first scene for this application you were writing. Where was the emotion that was driving it?
The part that came out of emotion, in those first pages, is the Zuzu monologue: “People say I dance with a lot of grace and that I’m beautiful and above-average and stuff. Here’s what they don’t say. They don’t say I’m sensational.” Just that fear of trying your best, and it still not being good enough. That you’re missing a crucial something.
Was your relationship to dancing as a kid coming back to you for some reason?
The only part of this play that is related to my experience with dancing is the friendships. I had such intense, intense friendships with the girls that I danced with. And we really, really loved each other. That was the biggest part from my own life. I had a really hard — Joan, whom I mentioned, my ballet teacher, she was really a tough lady, but very, very different than Dance Teacher Pat.
So, when you wrote the Ashlee monologue, was that linked to the other scene in your mind right away?
Oh, yeah. I knew it was related to this play.
So, you wrote that scene and put it away, but you thought there’s something here. I’ll get to it when I need to.
I probably had to write a play for grad school. I went to Brooklyn College, and I wrote the first draft there. Often times when I have to write a play in three weeks, I go find something that I’ve already started and then I just finish it. So yeah it came together pretty quickly. And yeah, it came from a personal place, but all over the spectrum, you know? I really identify with all the girls in the play; in some ways they’re all like shadow versions of my different personalities.
There’s so much in Ashlee’s monologue. It is kind of a titanic affirmation of her power as a woman and a person. But she also talks about her discomfort accepting it.
I think there’s something really uncomfortable with a woman being like, “I like my body. I like my breasts. I like my face.” It’s like that song, “She doesn’t know she’s beautiful.” What’s that song?
Kim: Oh. Ah... One Direction? “You don’t know you’re beautiful?” That...?
I don’t know! I think it’s a country song. I’ll look it up. But there’s this song that’s like “She doesn’t know she’s beautiful,” and I feel like that’s sort of how women are supposed to feel about themselves. We’re all supposed to be beautiful and not know. Like be totally unaware. But that monologue also just came out of a kind of devilish part in me that wanted to have a 13-year-old girl say all those things. I remember being that age and feeling so powerful. And obviously, it’s kind of a paradox because I also feel that at that age I was crippled with insecurity. I felt bad about myself all the time when I was 13. But I would have these moments when I was 13 where I just felt like I ruled the world. You know? I just felt this intense ferocity and this feeling that “I was amazing.” And I still remember those feelings. And sometimes I feel like it was the most powerful I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
I’d like to talk about the structure surrounding Ashlee’s monologue. It comes out of what you call the Baby Sexy Robot Dance that starts with Zuzu.
Well, it really starts with the pussy game at the barre. So, it really starts with Zuzu’s mom having a fight with Dance Teacher Pat, and poor Zuzu’s alone in the dressing room. And then the girls play this pussy game at the barre, where they whisper “pussy” to try to get Amina, who’s leading the class, to say “pussy” out loud. So, there’s like this little current of feral fun. And then Zuzu gets her fangs. And she’s feeling very upset because her mom and the teacher are fighting. Her fangs come out of that emotion of feeling upset. And she comes into the class with her fangs, and they all start to dance. And it’s somewhere between the intersection of that little pussy energy—that little sexual energy — and the ferocity of Zuzu’s fangs, then like all the girls get fangs. And they sort of do this weird feral dance of sexual energy and rebellion, and they scare the teacher away. And out of that comes this monologue where this 13-year-old girl basically says everything that she likes about herself, and how she’s gonna make you her bitch basically.
I want to go back to Zuzu’s fangs coming out of hearing the tension between her mom and Dance Teacher Pat. The way you describe it felt like they’re an expression of her pain.
I think so. We were talking about this the other night; there’s something kind of tricky in this play about pain and self-destruction leading to power. Like normally we think about self-destruction as something that makes us less powerful. But there’s something in this play where pain and the desire to hurt yourself is a way of burrowing deeper into something, to a place of more primal power. I think that’s what the fangs are about.
Dance Teacher Pat, you said, was different from your ballet teacher.
Oh, for sure. Yeah.
Where did he come from?
That character, honestly, came a little bit out of Dance Moms which is one of my secret inspirations for the show. It’s a reality show that follows this group of like 10 to 13-year-olds who do competitive dance. And their teacher is this crazy woman named Abby Lee Miller, who actually just got out of prison, I think, for tax fraud. And she’s just like a bully, basically. She’s this really intense, intense teacher, but she clearly loves the girls and loves dance, and is also an amazing choreographer. So, it’s a very complicated mix of things. And Dance Teacher Pat is not the male version of Abby Lee. He’s his own person. But some of the qualities in her are in him. He definitely crosses boundaries and pushes things too far.
He’s also so funny — his scenes are. And that’s one of the things that’s, for me, so different about this play is how happily comedic it is at times.
Yeah. It’s weird. I don’t normally write very comedic plays, so I don’t quite know why—
Why you gave yourself permission to?
Yeah. I don’t know.
Yeah. I think you gave yourself permission to go stylistically wherever it wanted to. Something allowed you just to open it all up.
Yeah, it’s weird. I don’t remember writing this play. I remember rewriting this play, for sure. But I don’t really remember writing it the first time.
Do you remember liking it?
Like, as I was writing it?
No, at some point like, “Oh. This is different. This is pretty good.”
I’ve had moments of liking it and I’ve had moments of loathing it. I’m super hard on myself. I think the other thing that’s really scary about writing impulsively, is you’re kind of like, “What have I done???” You’re not quite sure what you’ve made. Whether it’s for good or for evil. You know?
I often hear this from writers, that things come out of them that they do not feel they control. I will ask about structural subtleties, the interplay of motifs or imagery and they will acknowledge the legitimacy of my observations but disclaim their role in fashioning them. Sometimes I think that part of writing is channeling. You’ve talked about growing up religious, and in the talkback the other night, you mentioned you think there’s a spiritual component to the play. Would you talk about that?
There’s a lot of spiritual stuff in this play, and I always worry the spiritual stuff will be funny, rather than — I mean, I’m always looking for — this sounds so pretentious — but I’m always interested in moments of transcendence in theater. And I’m always hoping that these moments of transcendence or whatever won’t happen for people all at the same time. Like my ultimate theatrical experience is for everyone to cry, but they’re all crying at different moments, so it’s more of a personal path through the play.
What do you think are the spiritual moments in the play?
The chanting, the prayers, parts of Ashlee’s monologue, the future monologues, the moon tracking slowly across the stage...
I’m curious what your view of the locker room scene is where they all strip down and change in front of us.
Textually, I was really interested in the language shifting gears a lot. I feel like that’s what happens when you’re in those locker room situations, or having group chat. One second you’re talking about dogs, and then the next second you’re talking about masturbation. The conversation kind of has a life of its own. And so textually, I was looking for something with that kind of crazy flow. And then — we only wanted to do nudity in that scene if our actors were comfortable with it, so it was definitely a conversation, and I definitely think the scene could happen without it. But what we found is that the nudity in the scene — oh gosh — I mean, it does a lot of things in the play. It totally changes the audience perception of what kind of play it is, just from the first two scenes. You know, we’re watching these people tap dance, and then someone gets hurt, and then there’s this kind of stylized scene with the dance teacher telling them they’re going to Tampa Bay. And so then all of a sudden you’re in this intimate space, and you’re being close with these actors and their bodies in a very different way, and you can kind of feel the whole audience be like, “Whoa. This was not the play I thought I was watching.” And then, I think it also really grounds the play in the sense that this really is a play about women. It’s not a play about little girls. And we are embracing and celebrating our actual actresses wherever they’re at in their lives, as adults. And then also, for me, I’m just very interested in desexualizing female nudity. Here they’re all in a locker room, changing, and there’s something quotidian about it. And also because they’re all changing at the same time, we’re not really ever watching one person — it’s nudity in motion. And because there is this energetic text bubbling on top of it, for me, when I’m watching it, I find myself in a different kind of relationship to female nudity than I have felt at other moments in the theater. And I hope it functions like that for the audience, too.
I wrote in the program how I read this play right after the Access Hollywood tapes came out, and how it just excited me to have this play with women proclaiming the word “pussy” as an affirmation and a gesture of defiance to the pussy-grabbers. Would you talk about your use of the word?
Of the word pussy? I mean, it’s really complicated. A lot of people have shared with me, both in the cast and in the audience, that they don’t like that word. It makes them uncomfortable. I love the word. I really like it. I would have never used the word “pussy” growing up, or like even in college or anything. So there’s something, for me, about being able to use that word now as an adult that feels empowering. But then also, I met this woman when I was 22 who’s Greek, and she did this amazing performance piece called “Pussy Pocket,” and it was all about her pussy. And she would always say “pussy” with this amazing, Greek accent, and it kind of made me fall in love with the word. So what I hope for this play is that maybe even if in the barre scene, when they’re whispering “pussy,” it feels a little bit prickly for people who don’t like that word, I hope that by the end of the play, when they’re doing the chant, and it’s so clearly rooted in a source of internal power, both for men and women, that the word kind of transforms into something mythic.
I want to talk about Zuzu’s and Amina’s journeys. Zuzu’s big moment ends in disaster. But then at the end, she goes off with Luke and she ends that scene just beaming.
When I wrote this play, I wanted to subvert the underdog story, the American Dream myth where the Mighty Ducks win.
I can’t believe you saw The Mighty Ducks!
I love Mighty Ducks. I wanted to write a play where the winner keeps winning, and the person who normally doesn’t win, loses. But there’s a paradox in the play; Amina is the winner, she wins. Zuzu is her friend who’s always in her shadow, she loses. But Zuzu, who in some ways has the biggest emotional life of all the girls and who is the most mature and most imaginative, sees forward into her life, and sees backwards into her life and realizes that dance is not for her and she’s going to do something else, and that there’s something really freeing in that discovery.
So when she says, “From the time I was two, I wanted to be a dancer,” she doesn’t know that yet? And then the play shows her what she really wants?
I think she’s releasing that thing that she thought she always wanted. I think lots of us grapple with, “This thing that I thought I wanted to do makes me fucking miserable. How long do I keep doing the thing that makes me miserable?” And I think in this play she decides, “I’m not doing this anymore,” and is actually kind of relieved, and free, and happy. Whereas like Amina doubles down and is, like, totally tortured.
I don’t take Amina’s final monologue as tortured —it’s lonely and hard but she’s something like a hero to me. You see it as...?
I think she’s a hero, but I think there’s a lot of pain in what she’s feeling, I guess. I think that probably both Amina and Zuzu are going to be okay, but I think that Zuzu experiences her pain in the middle of the play and then comes out of it. And I feel like Amina experiences her pain at the end of the play, and we leave her still in it. I think she has a painful road ahead of her.
But for me, the final gesture of the play is Amina dancing. And it’s so beautiful and transformative. To me it really embodies what the play’s about.
Sometimes I see her final speech and her dancing as a giant “Fuck you.” It feels angry to me. Other times, I think she’s transcending something. She’s willing herself into the future and taking control of her own destiny and letting her life force out without apology — and there’s definitely something beautiful in that.