Clare Barron on ‘Shhhh’ and How Playwriting Is Her ‘Kink of Exhibitionism’

In the early months of the pandemic, the playwright Clare Barron published an essay titled “Not Writing,” which she accompanied with photographs of her cats, empty La Croix cans and unwashed laundry. “I haven’t written a play in four years,” she wrote. “I don’t know if I’ll write a play ever again. Who cares.”

On Friday, the Atlantic Theater Company will premiere Barron’s new play, “Shhhh,” which she also directs and stars in. It’s not new new — Barron, 35, wrote it in 2016. But like all of her work — which includes “Baby Screams Miracle,” “Dirty Crusty,” “I’ll Never Love Again,” the Obie-winning “You Got Older” and the Pulitzer-nominated “Dance Nation” — it feels new: vibrating, visceral, almost worryingly alive.

Part drama, part confession, part incantation, “Shhhh” tells the story of Shareen (Barron), a writer with a mysterious illness, and her sister, Sally (Constance Shulman), a postal worker who also makes A.S.M.R. videos and hosts meditation rituals. (The play refers to this character as Witchy Witch.) It returns to the themes and ideas that fascinate Barron: power, pleasure, desire, pain and all of the very weird things that a body can do. “It’s probably why I’m a theater artist,” Barron said, “to get to keep playing with the body in public.”

In a conference room at the Atlantic’s offices in Chelsea, Barron — masked, fleeced, unguarded — discussed writing, not writing and creating such passionately personal work. “It’s not like I love it,” she said. “It makes me sick to my stomach. But then I kind of want to do it anyway.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Why did you want to publish “Not Writing”?

I’ve always had a little bit of impostor syndrome and shame around not being a daily writer. My romantic image of a writer was like, they get up at 5 a.m., they put the coffee on, they work for three hours and take a break for breakfast — that kind of thing. I just have never wanted to write every day. I want to go out and do things and see people and have experiences. I’ve always felt like, “Oh, am I a fake writer? Am I not a real writer?” I have to wait for plays to incubate inside of me. Sometimes that means four come out in two years. Sometimes that means one comes out in seven years.

I started to find success as a playwright in my late 20s, and my mental health was just completely plummeting. I got diagnosed as bipolar right before the 2016 election. And I just haven’t been able to write sometimes because of mental health. It is really freaky when everyone’s expecting you to function at a really high level. And you’re like, “I can’t feed myself right now. I can’t shower myself right now.” I’m not going to always be able to be functional, and I’m not going to always be able to be efficient, and I’m not going to always be able to be productive, and I’m just going to have to make peace with that.

Barron at the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater. She is also directing and starring in her new play.Credit…Tonje Thilesen for The New York Times

Do you think you would have been diagnosed earlier if you weren’t working in theater?

Being a theater artist delayed my diagnosis 100 percent, because it is such a weird lifestyle. You’re allowed to be really emotional. When you’re crying for no reason, theater people are great! And the schedule’s really off and on. So it actually works really well with a manic burst.

Did you worry about what treatment would do to your process? I understand that even while you haven’t written plays, you have kept writing, mostly pilots for television.

Limiting your creative ability or even your creative desire is a really common fear for anyone looking to go on psychiatric medication. I had that fear. And as years went by and I didn’t write new plays, it mounted. I was doing writing as a job. But what I wasn’t able to do was inspiration, personal revelation. I got a little freaked out, like, “Oh, did I lose it?” But being able to be in a TV writers’ room and still produce episodes was really helpful.

How did you take care of yourself during the pandemic?

Everyone had a different trial. I was single and lived alone. So what I was struggling with was no in-person social support, and just being really isolated. It just was incredibly lonely. I took a ton of baths. I drank a ton. I’d started doing craft projects. Everything from painting rocks to felting. I felted these little stuffed animal creatures.

You wrote “Shhhh” in 2016. I remember you describing it in 2019 as a #MeToo play.

I never knew how to talk about this play. So I would try out different tag lines. It’s a little bit of a collage play; it’s a little bit of a spell. It is a play about sexual assault, but very, very buried and strange. It’s a play about rape culture, but slightly more casually.

When did you know that you wanted to direct it? And that you wanted to play Shareen?

You’re talking to me right before we go into tech [rehearsals]. So I’m like, “What am I doing? This was a huge mistake.” I’ve been interested in directing for a while, and I’ve experimented with it a bit. The acting thing came separate. I wrote the play because I was sexually assaulted, but I was not able to say it. It was therapy for me to write this play. And that character, Shareen, is so me, everything that happens to her. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s in my skin and in my bones. We did this reading at my agent’s office where I just read it, and it just felt right and easy. Now it feels hard and scary. But in that moment, it felt like the right choice.

“Shhhh” reminded me of one of your earliest plays, “Dirty Crusty,” and its fascination with the body as a site of both pleasure and disgust.

I can’t quite get over that. Theater is the body; it is the body in front of other bodies. I like the body to be vulnerable onstage, present onstage, seen onstage, animal onstage — those are all things that turn me on. Growing up in a Christian community and feeling like I wanted to save my virginity until I was married, it took me forever to undo that knot and not feel like I was going to go to hell if I had sex. There’s something, like, compulsive in my theater work where I just keep trying to undo that knot and do things onstage that I never thought I would do. And when I finally did have sex, I just remember my utter shock when I realized that, like, sex was flesh and not magic.

Like most of your plays, “Shhhh” has some intimate scenes. Has the pandemic influenced that staging?

There’s also spitting and eating and sharing food. All of that feels really different now. In our rehearsal process, we’ve been doing sex scenes in masks. In some ways, it’s nice. There’s an added layer of care and sensitivity. It might feel a little wild to be doing it in front of an audience.

There’s magic in this play — incantation, ritual. Is magic something you believe in?

I think I believe in magic. I believe in things more than I can understand. Divine coincidence, chanting. Yeah, I do believe in magic. I play with that, too, because theater does feel like a ritual. It’s a little bit like, what can we conjure?

You tend to write from a personal place. Where does autobiography end and art take over?

Every single play that I’ve ever written starts with something that happened in my life that was super painful. Maybe this is my kink of exhibitionism: I get off on writing about these things super baldly. When a play goes well, I think of it almost as a yeast starter. When you work with the materials, it just changes. But I’m kind of shameless about it. “I’ll Never Love Again” is literally my diary. It’s not even hidden, which is why I don’t get upset when people are like, “Oh, I think this is autobiographical.” Because that’s not a bad word to me. I feel like I’m exposing myself over and over again, hoping to have some kind of like clarity.

Is there a fear that you’ll run out of material?

I don’t think I’m afraid of that. I just think I might have to wait for it. Life is just so painful and throws you so many curveballs, there always is another thing to write about. It’ll be a blessed thing if I have nothing to write about.

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