Clare Barron is haunted by younger versions of herself. The playwright, who is back Off-Broadway this month with Dance Nation, says her younger selves feel less like reflections and more like ghosts. For one, she was way more confident at age 13. “Where did that person go? I don’t identify with her at all,” she says. The present-day Barron struggles with asserting herself and is uncomfortable being in the spotlight. “I have this huge impulse to negate whatever I’ve achieved. It makes me very uncomfortable to succeed at something.”
But success has continued to find the playwright. Her breakout play You Got Older won the 2015 Obie Award for Playwriting. She is also the recipient of the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award at The Vineyard and the co-winner of the Relentless Award established in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman for Dance Nation.
The play, now in performances at Playwrights Horizons with direction and choreography by Lee Sunday Evans, follows a group of preteen dancers vying for the top prize at the Boogie Down Grand Prix in Tampa Bay. It’s a story of ambition, ferocity, and unabashed preteen girlhood. Except the actors playing them are adults of various ages, from under 30 to middle aged. According to Barron’s note at the beginning of the script, Dance Nation should be thought of as a “ghost play.” “The little girl characters are haunted by the women they will become. And the women actors are haunted by the little girls they once were,” she says. “At different moments in the play, you’re aware of age in different ways.”
Barron is no stranger to drawing inspiration from her own life for her work, and Dance Nation is no exception. Because the play was first written in 2013 and again in 2015, she says the piece itself is “a collage” of her past selves; there are moments when she can identify the younger playwright in her writing. In many ways, the play is also a tribute to Barron’s bygone preteen confidence.
While at times vulnerable, the girls in Dance Nation do not struggle to take up space. They dance and chant and conjure a real power that courses through the play. “It’s a primal energy source that is female in nature that makes them very powerful,” says Barron. “I just remember being so full of feeling at that age, and not knowing where to put it. I didn’t know how to get out the amount of rage and energy that I felt.” In Dance Nation, the 13-year-old Barron is not such a ghost after all.