I’LL NEVER LOVE AGAIN at The Bushwick Starr

Photo by RJ Tolan

Photo by RJ Tolan

Skin rashes, scabs, the SATs, and sex. I noticed all four topics come up in both an early draft of Clare Barron’s I’ll Never Love Again and her OBIE-winning You Got Older. “I’m not surprised by that list” she says when I bring up the observation over the phone, “I feel like those are all things that have played a big role in my life.”

I interviewed Ms. Barron about her new play, I’ll Never Love Again, which premieres at The Bushwick Starr this week.  The show, which is described as “part concert and part archaeological dig about first love, first heartbreak, and how those formative teenage experiences haunt the rest of our lives,” was created using excerpts from Barron’s actual teenage diary, and is performed by a “choir of downtown’s finest.”

Barron, who recently turned thirty, had something of a life-changing year in 2015. First, her play You Got Older, which was produced by Page 73 and had a month-long NYC run at Here in 2014, won her an OBIE award for playwriting and a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Play. Then, in November of last year, Barron was one of two recipients of the American Playwriting Foundation’s “Relentless Award,” an award created in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman for the development of unproduced plays (in Barron’s case, a play called Dance Nation). When I spoke with her, Barron was gearing up for I’ll Never Love Again’s first full run later that day.

Gabe Cohn: How are rehearsals going?

Clare Barron: They’re going great, it’s super fun. We have a big ol’ cast, as well as this incredible choir—Stephanie Johnstone has made some really beautiful music. She’s arranged traditional choral music and made original compositions that underscore and play with the text. We have these crazy big rehearsals where we’re learning music and learning blocking and it’s very intense but also very fun. The play also has all these vastly different sections. It starts in the choral world with the found diary text. Some of it is sung and some of it is spoken, and it’s being shared with the audience. The style is more presentational. Then there’s a section of the play that’s just images, so it gets very quiet. And then some intense stuff happens. And then some banal stuff happens. (I don’t want to give it away!) But we’re moving through these very different modes of performance, from choral and presentational to something more intimate.

Photo by Sue Kessler

Photo by Sue Kessler

GC: Where did the impulse to use the diary come from?

CB: I like to make work that is highly intimate and personal and hopefully a little taboo and uncomfortable, and so I sometimes end up using myself in very graphic ways because I feel like I can be rough with myself. It’s easier for me to locate these very delicate, vulnerable, painful experiences in my own body. And I’m a little bit shy to say how these experiences live in other bodies. Because I don’t want to lie about them. That’s also why I write about sex a lot. I think we’re all liars when it comes to sex, and there’s a lot of shame and secrecy surrounding that topic. It’s crazy to me that this intimate experience gets so candy-coated by our culture that it becomes virtually alien to the thing it actually is…

GC: When did you start keeping a diary?

CB: When I was six. I was a weirdo. I wanted to be a novelist as a small child. Then I wanted to be a wildlife biologist, which persisted through most of my youth. But in the period that I wanted to be a novelist, I kept a journal. And it’s weirdly just about what I ate every day. So my six year old diary is just all food. And then my pre-teen, middle school diary was all about my sisters and my teachers. Very dramatic. Then all of a sudden it just switches to being about boys. It’s just a total tidal wave where that’s the only thing I’m writing about…I used to live in fear that my mom would find it.

GC: Were you ashamed of your diaries?

CB: There was content that I was scared for my mom to see. But like most people, I’ve changed a lot between fifteen and my late twenties. And [more recently] I found myself telling stories about myself like “oh I used to be this type of person” or “oh I used to be that type of person” and I wanted to go back to the diaries to see if I was actually telling the truth or if I was lying…I feel like the way that we talk about our teenaged years or the way that we talk about our lives will be in terms of these big moments when “it all happened.” But I don’t believe in losing your virginity. When I was younger, I didn’t want to have sex before marriage. That was really important to me. That changed. But I don’t know when or how it changed. Like I don’t think things happen as neatly or cleanly as often as we want them to.

GC: Do you find that lack of milestones uncomfortable, or have you embraced it?

CB: Weirdly, both. There’s a scene in the play where [Young Clare] is trying to remember every single kiss she’d had and it makes her really sad that she can’t. As an adult, I’ll find myself thinking “I don’t even know if I’ve been dating this person for one date or ten.” The adult mush can become kind of depressing. But I also think there’s something beautiful in the way that, despite our best efforts, we can’t actually control our own narratives. The narratives of our lives are way messier than we want them to be.

GC: In a way, you’re collaborating with your teenaged self by using these diaries.

CB: Yeah, oh man. I remember being a very different person at that age and I don’t quite know how it got from there to here, so I wanted to sort of revisit that person. I wrote I’ll Never Love Again a month after I finished writing You Got Older, which I had a year to write. I wrote the first draft of I’ll Never Love Again in two weeks…It’s not plot-driven, it’s mood-driven. I tend to like very basic plots.

GC: There’s a connection to be made between an emotional arc with a basic plot and being a teenager.

CB: Yeah.

GC: Are you using the real diary on stage?

CB: I’m having a little battle with myself about it. We’re using the real choir robes from my high school, which they were super sweet to lend us, and one of the actors in the play has been my best friend since I was seven. So there are all these little bits of the play that are real artifacts. I want to use the real journals, but I’ll feel really bad if I take this fifteen-year-old’s journal and by the end of the run there are pages torn out and someone spills coffee on it. But then also part of me is like…We’re all gonna die, just live your life.

GC: You recently won the Relentless Award and an OBIE, and got a nomination for a Drama Desk Award. Do you feel pressured by that?

CB: I think part of the impulse to do this show was to pop that bubble. Things changed in my life very, very fast, as I think they often do in this industry. It’s not unusual for opportunities to just pile on, and I’m still grappling with how to navigate that.

GC: Sounds like you’re knee-deep in processing all of the change.

CB: It’s life-changing, literally. Not in an imaginary way, but in an economic way. In a real way. I am now supporting myself as a writer… And I want to be honest about the impact of that. I’m part of a whole community of artists that has to fight for their economic survival and for the opportunity to make work, and we have to fight for each other. I’m grateful for everything I’ve received, and I also want to give back. Personally, I had a very weird year. A lot of stuff changed, and I was also very sick. I had mono and then chronic strep and then I had an amoebic infection. I was sick from May until the end of October. So through all of this life-changing stuff I have also been operating from a very low place health-wise. When I got better I wanted to get right back on the horse, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to make something so different, to make something at a place like the Starr which I think is super risk-friendly and super artist-friendly and really supports you in making whatever you want. I feel this incredible freedom to make something totally different. I want it to feel different.

GC: What would teenaged Clare think about her diaries ending up as the centerpiece of a play by her award-winning future playwright self?

CB: It’s a weird question, to think about yourself as two people. I’ve been very shy at periods in my life, but I’ve always liked taking risks and doing extreme things. I feel like she would be mortified…but secretly titillated.

Clare Barron’s I’ll Never Love Again (A Chamber Piece) performs at The Bushwick Starr February 24 – March 19, Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets at thebushwickstarr.org
This interview has been edited and condensed.

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