“I hope it’s emotional in a secret and private way, specific to your own heartbeat.”
Clare Barron is explaining, over a crackly phone line, her hopes for Dance Nation. In a previous interview I’d read, she said that “my ultimate theatrical experience is for everyone to cry”, a line which spoke to me, summoning up the power of being in a dark room where everyone’s mutely sobbing. But as we talk, she elaborates that “I want to write plays where people have an extremely emotional experience, but I don’t want to have one moment where we all cry. I want it to be a surprise, that’s sort of like my whole thing.”
Dance Nation is full of jolting, eye-pricking moments of surprise. Opening at the Almeida after a premiere at New York’s Playwrights Horizons in May, it follows a dance squad of pubescent girls, aged 11 to 14. They’re locked in a world that mixes competitive perfectionism with emotional intensity with the quirky, weird rituals that accompany the journey from childhood into the unknown. Their lives are shown in parallel: while one tries to learn how to masturbate, another lines up her prized plastic horses. And its lump-in-throat moments come from recognition as much as anything: of these girls’ fierce rivalries and surreal conversations and desperate longings.
It’s also very, very funny. Both because young girls are (both deliberately and accidentally). And because of the way it mixes bright pink sequinned studded kitsch with utter earnestness: the troupe’s acro-lyrical interpretative dance about Gandhi is an absurd masterpiece. It’s a mix that made me think of Dance Moms, the reality show that’s built up a cult following for its initially adorable, but increasingly troubling look at mother-daughter-dance instructor triangle. Barron explains that “I wrote the play because I loved Dance Moms. I also wrote the play because I hated Dance Moms. The kids want to win so badly, but they’re also so caring and worried about each other and their feelings. The programme got so dark, I felt like half of them were walking towards real emotional breakdowns. I started to think ‘I can’t watch this’, it got too real.”
Dance Nation gets at this darkness using supernatural elements that I’m not going to spoil here (because you should definitely go and appreciate this show in person, in all its blood and mess and animalistic wildness). But it sits within a kind of tone that feels quite specific to a certain school of New York playwrights like Annie Baker, Anne Washburn, and TEAM: taking hyper-naturalistic dialogue and slowness of a kind that you more often associate with indie cinema than theatre, and suffusing it with a sense of the world’s utter mysteriousness and oneness.
I ask Barron about the New York scene’s specific vibe – which feels so divorced from the Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee-influenced multigenerational dramas that have shaped decades of American theatre – and its relationship to the naturalistic modes that came before. She says that “It’s funny, because I feel like we got here through extreme naturalism. What Annie Baker did was push that so far that it became something else, something stranger. At the same time other people were just like ‘fuck naturalism’ and doing something crazy. I feel like those two things at the same time are what changed the landscape.”
Clare Barron has studied with Annie Baker, and explains that “She is an amazing teacher. Annie basically walked me through what I would consider my first proper play. She’d studied this method of teaching that centres around things you hear by accident. It rests on a lot of eavesdropping exercises, and really thinking about behaviour, as opposed to looking at situations in a more external way. The plays I’d written in college were like bad versions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? They weren’t mine, they weren’t ‘of me’. With her, I wrote a play that was completely different to anything I’d written before. It unlocked the door to writing plays that felt like me, that felt like what I wanted to write.”
Dance Nation is, like the work of many of Barron’s contemporaries, formally experimental. She calls it a ‘memory play’ – but unlike Glass Menagerie, it’s not tied to one specific autobiography. Its central dance team are played by women (and one man) of all ages, who seem to be dredging up their experiences from strange recesses of their memories: “I wanted to find people of all ages who have the spirit of a 13-year-old still inside them”. As she goes on to explain, “I think the play is about how being a teenager affects your entire life, and how much your peers and adults you meet as a teenager shape you. I just remember being told ‘you’re good at this!’ and then you believe you are good at this, and all of a sudden that’s what you do with your life. That was why I wanted to stage with work with women of all ages, as a way of thinking about that how these moments will ripple out through their entire lives.”
Watching Dance Nation felt like being flooded with half-suppressed memories – like going back to a time where you feel both terrified, and invested with a potential that’s huge and dangerous, a potential that comes out in monologues and scenes where the girls shrug off the modesty they’ve been programmed to show and express all the power their brains and bodies hold. It feels universal, but it’s also anchored in Barron’s own upbringing: especially the spirituality and moments of prayer that pattern through it. Despite being raised in a not-especially-devout family, she explains that “my friends at middle school were very religious. My therapist told me that that’s why it penetrated me so deeply, because it came through my peers, and was sort of like rebelling against my parents who were more liberal-minded”.
A peek at the playtext’s rendering of one of the play’s pivotal moments shows how this play mixes the language of prayer with formal experimentation with motivational pep rallies with sheer teenage howls of fury. The word ‘pussy’ is contested, seen as the territory of porn or back-of-the-bus conversations. Dance Nation uses it so often, so intently, that it becomes something different: something almost sacred.
This primal pussy yell is typical of Barron’s plays, which also rebel against taboos and ideas of what you’re ‘allowed’ to talk about, exploring the messiest, sweatiest, bloodiest sides of female experience in ways that have been controversial with audiences on both said of the Atlantic. Barron explains that “I remember when I was in college, a teacher told me about an artist who used her own period blood in her work, and they were just like ‘Why would anyone do that? It’s such fake art!’. Or whatever. And after that, I decided to use period blood in all my plays. It’s just this double standard where people are more comfortable with male bodily functions – if you think about male masturbation versus female masturbation, if you think about comedies, the kind of jokes that get made. It still makes people very uncomfortable, and I’m interested in understanding why that is.”
There’s been a small outcrop of American female writers making bodily, fiercely naturalistic work set in teenage girls’ sports teams (and even more work exploring teen female experience in general, as explored in Exeunt NYC’s dialogue piece). Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, set in a girls’ soccer team, comes to Theatre Royal Stratford East next month. Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land is a brutally intense work set in a school’s swim team – it was staged at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2015, and is overdue a return. Barron explains that all three plays were conceived independently: “I’m not surprised that a lot of women playwrights turn to that stage because it’s full of complicated ideas about what it means to be a women – there’s something about that age being a crucible of identity. It’s like there’s something in the atmosphere, we all work as an organism.”
I’m fascinated to see what topic these writers swarm to next. But for now, what comes across from talking to Barron is the supportiveness of the New York scene that’s nurtured her work: “What I feel is that the playwrights really like each other, and care for each other, and they really show up to support each other. I think it’s what makes the scene really special right now. The writing is better, because we’re working together.”
Dance Nation is given extra bite by its arrival into a theatre scene that’s buzzing with questions around how many, and which, female playwrights are staged. It appears on the same stage as Ella Hickson’s The Writer, which explored gendered power dynamics within theatre buildings in a way that seemed to draw closely on Hickson’s own experiences at the Almeida. Victoria Sadler’s most recent audit of gender inequality in new writing theatres including the Almeida points to a trend of staging American female playwrights, rather than British ones. But it feels impossible to begrudge the existence of some the brilliant US work that’s getting an airing: including John, Fun Home, The Convert this year alone. It’s a breath of fresh air, blowing in some bracingly different, experimental approaches (and with it, some refreshingly unstereotypical roles for female actors). The answer feels clear: we need these playwrights as well as, not instead of, those that make up the UK’s own scene.
Dance Nation is on until 7 October 2018 at the Almeida. Click here for more details.