How Theater is a Form of Therapy for Clare Barron

Clare Barron

Clare Barron has been dating during quarantine, or at least trying to. “For a long time, it was all virtual,” she said. “It started with the fantasy, like, ‘Tell me what your fantasies are.'”

Dating is what inspired her newest play, What This Will Be Like When It’s Over. “Do you want to tell me what you’re thinking about?” is the first line of a new short play she just wrote, and it’s available now as part of issue one of The Flashpaper, a new theater journal that features theater artists writing original essays and plays. And for every issue of The Flashpaper sold, a portion goes to the contributors, including Barron.

Dating and writing has kept Barron occupied since quarantine started. Her adaptation of Three Sisters starring Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac was supposed to play at New York Theatre Workshop in the spring and it’s been postponed until further notice. Barron is also the playwright of the Pulitzer Prize finalist play Dance Nation and You Got Older.

Below Barron talks about how she’s able to get super personal in her plays, that time she was at the Javits Center during the 2016 election, and why she’ll never write nudity into her plays ever again. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

OK, Clare, I have to tell you, you’re responsible for the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt in a theater, which was during I’ll Never Love Again at the Bushwick Starr. You were in that play and you get eaten out during the play and it’s a very uncomfortable experience for your character.

One of my best friends who is a playwright was like so mad at me. She saw the play and was just like, “I really did not want to like see you do that.” I feel like people have such different reactions to that scene. This is how early sex and sometimes late sex felt to me, and so they appreciate it. And then other people are like, I really did not want to watch that on stage.

When you work with the Bushwick Starr, at least when we did in 2016, you’re still self-producing. That’s why I cast myself in that role. I was just like, I hate fake sex on stage. And so I’m just going to cast myself with someone that I feel comfortable doing this for real. And he actually fisted me and he actually ate me out. And we did it every night and no one stopped us. That actually happened.

I have had sex in public before. So I have a high comfort level with that kind of thing. But it was very surreal. And in some ways, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had acting because I had such a clear physical task in front of me that I really wasn’t stressed. So in some ways it was like very liberating.

Intercourse itself is so performative, right? I feel like most human beings are always like trying to put on a show. I wonder if knowing how intercourse would play out because you wrote the scene made it empowering even more because you remove that whole performative aspect of intercourse.

Because the character is so young, she’s 15. I’m 34, I just had sex last night and you learn how to make those sounds and dirty talk. When I was 15, oh my gosh, I don’t think I could have made a sex noise to save my life. I wrote that whole play; it was made up of my actual 15-year-old diary.

I grew up like really Christian and wanted to save my virginity for my husband. I grew up with a lot of sexual shame and I ended up in this sexually abusive relationship with another playwright. And so I wrote that play because I was like, how did I go from this extremely virginal person—the story of the relationship in the play, the only thing they ever do is kiss. So the scene that we’re talking about, is what she does with her second boyfriend, which I feel like is so classic, where you keep your virginity safe for someone and then they break your heart, and you’re like, fucking anyone who comes in the door. Even though the scene was traumatic, it was therapeutic for me to go through it in a weird way.

I find men and male characters so boring and so stupid and predictable and I have always loved seeing empowered female characters on stage, on screen and reading about it. I felt so empowered by the pussy monologues in Dance Nation. And I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about that, because I feel that because your writing is so urgent, but also so funny and so human, and real.

I’m going to say something like about that pussy monologue at the end.

I feel like if you are a person who has a vagina, and you are penetrated by a penis or by an object or whatever it is, it’s extremely vulnerable. And I also think for a lot of women, it’s painful. In addition to losing my virginity late, I have something called vaginismus, which is essentially just painful sex. So when I waited like all these years to have that penis in my vagina, and then it fucking hurt so bad, it hurt for years, like excruciating pain. So for me, sex and pain have always been one, which I think is a very foreign concept for a lot of cis men, where it’s just like a pleasure experience.

Something that I would love for cis men is like, the emotional, spiritual experience of like being penetrated of like, knowing what it feels like to be penetrated. And this is where I start to sound a little crazy, but I love ass play on man. That’s something that whenever I have sex with cis men, I’m really into. Even if it’s just with a finger, having that vulnerable relationship with a cis man and being inside him and penetrating him—I think that maybe all of us, no matter our gender, and no matter our anatomy, if we all were penetrated in some way that it would actually make us all more empathetic or better sexual partners.

I don’t know if I sound crazy, but that’s my sexual dream for the world, is that everyone can experience being penetrated. And through that experience of being vulnerable, be more generous, giving and careful sexual partners. So yeah, I want men to celebrate their pussies is what I’m saying.

Clare Barron

When I was reading, What This Will Be Like When It’s Over, and your very first line, “Do you want to tell me what you’re thinking about?” How do you get in people’s heads like that, Clare? Do you have like a formula?

Something that’s been really interesting about, dating during COVID is that I’m now seeing people in person, but for a long time, it was all virtual. So you started with the head. It started with the fantasy, you know, like, “tell me what your fantasies are,” like back and forth, like over and over again.

The inspiration for this piece was this 42 year old playwright I met who, I just felt like he was so selfish. He expected me to just sort of give him pictures of my tits and my pussy and my ass but like, nothing came back. And he had initiated every single aspect of our encounter. He had looked me up, he had asked me out, he had initiated the texts, he initiated the calls.

And we get on a Zoom call to have zoom sex and the first thing he says to me is, “Hey, just so you know, just because we’re doing this virtual thing doesn’t mean I ever want to fuck you in real life.” That was like his opening line. And I was just like, “Fuck, you pretentious, presumptuous piece of shit.” It just made me so angry.

And yet there was something really beautiful about us sharing our fantasies over texts and sharing our fantasies over phone calls. Something that I’ve learned from COVID that I’ve forgotten about sex is just how much fun foreplay is—that like delay is actually so delicious and amazing. Those are some of the things I was thinking about when I was writing that piece.

When someone devalues you or someone, like that Zoom jerk, for instance—how do you then go, let me take this experience and see if I can turn it into art?

I think it’s so personal. My first playwriting teacher ever was Deb Margolin and she talks about the theater of desire and really writing from like what you need to say. She always said, “Say today what you need to say if you were to die tomorrow.” Like, anytime you write, really think about, what do I need to get out. That’s why all my plays that have ever existed are essentially about trauma.

But I think for me, it makes me feel better to write about it. It makes me feel like I’m taking back power. I think it’s related to that upbringing of being raised really Christian where I felt like I had to repress my dark thoughts. And I’m also bipolar, so I have a lot of dark thoughts. So there’s something about theater and playwriting, it gives me permission to say the things I’m afraid to say.

But you know, it’s interesting, I haven’t written a new play in four years. And so part of being a writer is that when I’m feeling it, I write, and if I’m not feeling it, I just don’t. I just don’t write, you know? I’ve been very lucky because essentially what happened is, in my late 20s, and when I was 30, I wrote a bunch of plays very quickly. And what’s happening is they’re slowly getting produced as I’m older. So people think that I’m writing but the reality is I wrote four plays within 18 months, and then haven’t written in four years. And I think that’s maybe my process. Like I sort of feel like maybe I’ll be 38 and write four more plays between 38 and 40. Every writer is different and so I never force myself to write or push myself to write. I write when I want to.

I wonder if going back and seeing productions or a play that you wrote four years ago, in any way serves like a time machine. When you’re sitting in the dark, maybe looking at the rehearsal, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s such you know, 29-year-old Clare.”

Yeah, for sure. There’s this play that was supposed to happen next year, and I don’t know if it’s gonna happen. It’s the last play I wrote. I wrote it in 2016. Before the #MeToo movement, and it’s about an experience of sexual assault inside of a dating relationship. It’s only 70 minutes, so it’s a really weird play. So many theaters passed on it because. I just want to make it so badly. Because it is about this really traumatic chapter in my life. And I just want to go through the catharsis of fucking making it. And I’m supposed to direct it too, which is a thing I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.

So I was diagnosed with bipolar when I was 30. It’s actually a funny story. I had a pretty serious mental breakdown a few days before the 2016 election. I was pretty incapacitated, and my friend who worked on the Hillary [Clinton] campaign knew about it. And so she came to my house and picked me up and was like, I have a surprise for you. We’re going to the Javits Center tonight, you’re going to see the first woman elected president.

So I was like barely functioning, like truly incapacitated and she took me to the Javits Center and then it was just like being on the Titanic when it was like the most depressing place in the entire world to be trapped that night! Like at the Javits Center, sitting on the convention floor and then they’d see us all sitting down like crying and they’d be like, “stand up, stand up, stand up, cheer.” Because they didn’t want images of us upset on the TV. I haven’t written a play since that breakdown. Which I think is related. But also this old play, I want to make it. But also as a human, I want to make it to move on, because I don’t feel like I’ll ever fully move on until I get to see it through. So we’ll see what happens.

Well, we both love your work so crossing my fingers even if it’s through Zoom and no one can touch each other, I’ll watch anything that you do. Since 2017, there has been a big conversation around intimacy directors and making sure people feel safe. And so when you’re in the room, what’s part of your process, in terms of just making sure people feel comfortable speaking up if they don’t want to do something?

To be honest with you, I feel like I’ve made some mistakes. There was nudity in Dance Nation, and I still wonder if that was like the right choice. When we did the production in London, I think it’s the biggest mistake of my professional career. I handled it really, really badly and I feel really bad about it.

It was like a breakdown of many things. Nudity is written into the script. So the actor should have been aware of it. But I think there was a breakdown in conversation with the agents, I don’t think the right conversations happened. And then the director in London, he didn’t really feel comfortable having this conversation with the women. So he kept asking me to have it—me asking them is a lot of pressure.

And then there was also a cultural problem where the women in [the New York productin], when we talked about the nudity in New York, they let us know very clearly how they felt about it. They were like, “Yes, no, we’ll do this. We’ll not do this.” But these British women, they didn’t say anything. Their silence was a no, it was an emphatic, “No, we are not doing this.” But I feel like I misread it and like didn’t understand. Or maybe I wasn’t listening. Well, I take full responsibility. I feel like majorly fucked up.

I’ll to be honest with you, I don’t think I will ever write nudity into a play again that I’m not personally performing. I don’t think I’ll ever ask another woman to get naked on stage. Again, even though the nudity in Dance Nation, it’s meant to be like subversive because it’s like multiple people getting naked at the same time as they’re changing [clothes]. It’s not sexualized. I wrote it into the play because I was interested in non-sexualized female nudity. But I don’t know, I just started to feel like it’s not worth it. The thought of making any actor who’s working with me uncomfortable makes me feel like shit. So I feel like I won’t do it again.

Listen to the rest of Clare Barron’s interview on the Token Theatre Friends podcast.

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