Playwright’s Perspective: Dance Nation
By Clare Barron, Playwright
It can be kind of paralyzing to make work about gender in a moment like this. And worse to have to talk about it. But I’m going to try.
This is a play about 13-year-old girls. It’s also a play about women, ambition, and desire. I wanted to write this play because I wanted to present a different picture of teenage girls onstage. One where trauma wasn’t the central narrative. One where “being the best” was.
The girls are played by women ranging from their 20s to their 60s because I was tired of the casting convention of hiring petite 25-year-olds to play 13. I didn’t want the characters in the play to look like what you think teenage girls should look like — because teenage girls don’t really look like that! Also, because the play is really about how we carry what happens to us when we’re 13 through the rest of our lives.
“No. I wrote the play.” He gasped in surprise.
“All by yourself?”
I, for one, am still struggling with a lot of the same things. For example:
I remember standing in a press line to talk about a play I had written. The journalist asked me if I was an actor. I said, “No. I wrote the play.” He gasped in surprise. “All by yourself?” Instead of rolling my eyes or telling him off, I laughed, shyly, and smiled back at him: “Oh, well, you know. I had lots and lots of help.”
In that moment, making him feel comfortable with his actions, with his words and his perspective — making sure that he didn’t think he had done anything wrong — was more important to me than standing up for myself and my work. And I do think that that is a pattern that has haunted me.
Sometimes I think that the subtitle of my professional and personal life could be “Clare Barron Makes Mediocre Men Feel Good About Themselves.”
That’s something I have to change. And I want to be clear that I think that all of this is as much about the world’s expectation that I be palatable to other people, well-behaved, sweet, helpless, and unassuming, as it is about my own failure to take real responsibility for myself as an agent for change in the world — as each of us are.
I feel a lot of shame when I receive any kind of recognition.
And also, in my case, sometimes that “helplessness” or seeming helplessness has enabled me to work within the system and succeed.
We participate in corrupt currencies all the time.
I feel a lot of shame when I receive any kind of recognition. In part, because I’m not comfortable taking up too much space. In part, because I’m aware that I’ve had it relatively easy. That there’s something precarious about being palatable to gatekeepers in a world that is so deeply unfair.
That’s the tricky thing about rewarding excellence: How can we celebrate a few when there are so many without the platform, without the access and who are met with deep institutional bias?
Or even, something more psychological:
I remember when I first started out in playwriting, my playwright guy friends would get really angry when they applied for something (a residency, a writer’s group) and didn’t get it. I was confused — I didn’t feel angry. Then I realized the difference: they thought they deserved it; I had convinced myself I didn’t.
The girls in the play are dealing with all these questions of who’s the best, who deserves to be recognized, what to do when the system (aka Dance Teacher Pat) is unfair, how to be friends and compete at the same time, how to stand up for yourself when you’ve been trained not to…
The difference is they’re only 13.
The difference is they’re still a little naïve. They still think anything is possible.
In the play, the girls audition for a “special part” in one of their competition dances. After the audition, one of the girls, Amina, runs up to her best friend, Zuzu. They both congratulate each other on their auditions, ignoring the fact that one of them will inevitably be disappointed. Then Amina gets an idea: “Maybe we’ll both just get it!”
Zuzu lights up. The thought hadn’t occurred to her. “Oh my god! That would be perfect!”