Photo by Lars Jan

Mia Barron has acted in film and TV, she’s recorded many audiobooks, and she performs onstage – she recently won an Obie for her performance as the sole adult in Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves. We spoke about her upcoming project, The White Album, created by her partner Lars Jan and featuring her as the sole performer of Joan Didion’s famous essay. The White Album appears in the New Wave Festival at BAM this week.

Audrey Moyce: Tell me a little bit about the process of making The White Album.

Mia Barron: It’s been unlike anything I’ve ever done—beautiful, stressful, complex, all-consuming. Lars—who’s also my partner—he always loved the Didion essay, and this projects seemed like a rare, great intersection of our gifts and interests. The language is so rich, and in some ways so character-driven and theatrical. As an actor, I loved the idea of trying to inhabit it in a way that made it come alive. It’s a vast visual landscape Didion has created and Lars had envisioned her as a lone speaker in juxtaposition to a swirl of events. And it was a really thrilling idea that we could both work side by side and feel fully challenged and engaged.

It’s been a long process, with working tiny sections, then doing a ton of research, plugging along, finding money, finding space, with waiting in between. Throughout that I’ve tried to give myself some private process learning the text and thinking about it much more on my own [than in a regular play]. And only recently have these parts merged. We were not even totally sure we would be able to make everything come together, so it’s a happy miracle that we’ve actually arrived at doing the piece. Lars really has a great vision, finding original ideas that work theatrically, but also making sure to bring the language forward and not obscure it.

AM: I’m curious about your experience of working with your partner.  

MB: It’s really been a very gentle and lovely pairing because I really believe in [Lars’] artistry and his mind. And if I were to read this essay aloud as a one-person show it would be difficult. The writing is beyond brilliant, but because there’s no inherent narrative and it’s very dense, it’s a lot to take in purely through the language. What he’s done—I trust that it is complete and evocative, a frame that brings forward some of the many ideas of the essay, not just in an intellectual way.

I think it’s been great—not that we don’t ever have a moment where it’s hard! You know you’re together, raising a child, and then maybe there’s a moment when we enflame for a second, but it’s very respectful and loving and helpful. And I feel that because I completely trust his artistry and his vision, it allowed me to let go and not worry about whether this idea would work as a whole. He’s a rigorous artist and he would make sure it’s going to work so that was great.

AM: Lars seems to come more from visual and performance art, as opposed to theater. Because of this, did you have autonomy of your performance more than you would in other acting projects? How did this process compare to working in more traditional plays?

MB: It was both challenging and liberating. Everything about this project has been completely singular, because yes, my deepest interest as an actor is how language illuminates the most private inner workings of what it is to be human and how it engages us to the larger world around us. But I’m not primarily a physical performer or visual person—I definitely kick in as an actor with the language and that’s what ignites my sense of deep curiosity and exploration.

And it’s just different because it’s more solitary. I’m adjusting to that—and there are other performers, but they create this other world unto themselves, I don’t interact with them much. So it’s sort of a one-person show for me, which is hard and lonely in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I called all my friends who’ve done one-person shows asking them for tips—and it’s a really different animal to be up there on your own and sort of have the stamina and focus and confidence to believe that you can carry it on your own. So it’s been deeply challenging—it’s not a “fun” pleasure like it is to be in a play with a group. I’ve found it terrifying at times, and surprised about how different it has felt for me. But it’s brought a deeper sort of pleasure, not least of which is that I am so proud of what we’re doing.

AM: You’ve done a lot of audiobook recording, which bears a certain resemblance to performing the full text of an essay. How did you approach this differently than you would recording an audiobook?

MB: You know it’s interesting—recording audiobooks is a different, somewhat more formal skill, and it’s the first time as an actor that I feel all the years of experience with that has really helped me in an acting project. I feel like I have the muscle memory of dealing with large, dense swaths of text and how to break it down. And once I’ve done the technical work, the thing that has to happen for the show to work is that it has to sound like I’m thinking [the piece] and not just reciting it. Which is what you have to do with all acting, but this is dense and heightened language, clearly not the way people speak.

AM: What have you discovered about the essay while embodying it, as opposed to just reading it silently?

MB: When you read it as a piece of literature, her mind is dazzling—her surgical precision of observation and the difference between the vulnerability of what she’s confessing. But what I didn’t realize until working on it is that it seems so masterful that you forget how much she’s confessing and how deeply destabilized she was and how willing she is to revisit those incidents.

As an actor, I tried to impose a narrative arc, but the essay is so much about the lack of narrative arc. She wrote the piece over many years—it was published in ’78, but the piece is about ‘66 to ’71, and she wrote from ‘68-’78. So the voice in the essay is sometimes of retrospection, and sometimes she finds herself as she talks about it, reliving and going back inside her memory.

What I’ve come to track and find theatrical is this sense of what it’s like to be at a distance from it and she’s survived it. That what she’s expressing is survival and then what it’s like when she’s lost in it and that feeling engulfs her again. I feel like the essay is a beautiful contradiction in that she’s saying words can’t fix the senselessness but the fact that she lived to write and express it is a survival, a victory against that despair.

AM: Speaking of Didion’s essay, what about it is interesting to you, or feels particularly resonant about it 40 years later?

MB: It’s such a multilayered and rich piece of writing. The political parallels are endless; the deeply frightening chaos of our divided country. Like now, there was a lot of grass roots political movement trying to upend horrific societal norms.

But more than that as a citizen we feel a lot of fear as to what’s happening to us, whether everything that’s happening is as unprecedented as it might feel. How do we recover, build, treat each other well, survive as a planet…? What she’s expressing amid the decay of social norms and behaviorism is a profound sense of isolation and I feel like that is very resonant but I also think she’s brilliant and flawed and allows herself to be flawed as a narrator which makes her a complex narrator, sometimes empathetic sometimes it feels challenging. Whether you’ve lived through the sixties or not, this very rich engagement feels necessary.

The essay is like a Rorschach test—people feel very differently with what they’re left with and all those feelings are true. I find it very moving, something that has that much room for melancholy and joy and action and despair.


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