In Steppenwolf's Dance Nation, preteen girls—played by adults—learn to claim their space | Theater Preview | Chicago Reader

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In Steppenwolf's Dance Nation, preteen girls—played by adults—learn to claim their space

Clare Barron's play explores the shame of success and the strength of female friendships.

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Why did Clare Barron's success bring her so much shame? The performer-turned-playwright received widespread acclaim after the 2015 debut of her play You Got Older, but this didn't lift her spirits and she needed to know why.

This is the inner conflict at the core of Dance Nation, Barron's drama following a competitive dance team primarily composed of adolescent girls. "I got my first little bit of success and I really struggled with it," says Barron. "I felt bad for taking up too much space. I was very uncomfortable, so this play was an investigation into why success and ambition made me so uncomfortable and whether or not that was a gendered thing."

"[Dance Nation] grapples with deciding what kind of artist you are going to be," says Caroline Neff, a Steppenwolf ensemble member who appeared in the 2018 Chicago premiere of You Got Older. "Are you going to be the person that is always jealous of the person who gets something? Are you going to be a person who celebrates your own losses as well as everybody else's gains? Can you celebrate your gains and be empathetic to people who are experiencing a loss in that moment? It's really hard to be proud of yourself in an artistic industry because you don't want to be braggadocious. That's something else this play deals with: What if I just said I'm living up to my full potential? I'm good at this and I'm really proud of it as opposed to saying it's who you know or being in the right place at the right time."

Inspired by the reality TV show Dance Moms, Barron started to look back at her own history as a young ballet dancer to explore these questions. "I became obsessed with these little girls," says Barron. "Unbelievably talented and ambitious and fierce, and they were being pitted against each other but still so kind and sweet to one another. I was a terrible dancer, but I remember that camaraderie between the other girls I danced with and how much I loved them and how they were so much more intense female friendships than I had with the girls at school. They taught me everything I ever needed to know about my body and sex, so I was very interested in this charged space between young women."

The big twist in Dance Nation is that the members of the middle-school dance troupe who are determined to make it to a national competition in Tampa Bay are played by adult actors covering an age range of nearly 50 years—a decision made to illuminate how teenage experiences shape adults. "I was interested in people of all ages who I felt had the soul of a 13-year-old," says Barron. "I was looking for actors with a certain kind of energy and connection to their past and that moment in their lives."

"The idea that Clare had from the beginning to cast this with actors who were not 11, 12, and 13 always felt very emotional rather than conceptual," says Lee Sunday Evans, who returns to Dance Nation after directing the world premiere last year at Playwrights Horizons in New York. (Barron's play was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in drama.) "It's an amazing way to both honor the way that those experiences stay with us through our whole adult lives and honor the intelligence, maturity, complexity, and inner life of what it means to be that age. I encourage the actors to not play 'youth' and not think about pretending to be young. The beauty of watching them do it is the honesty of where they are in their lives."

Steppenwolf's production differs from the premiere in some significant ways, and having audience members on both sides of the stage forces Evans to rethink her design and storytelling decisions. This play about an ensemble is also being staged at a theater defined by its artistic ensemble, and its themes resonate in a new way in the context of Steppenwolf's storied history.

"I don't think there is a person in the room who is not full of encouragement for the person standing next to them," says Neff. "What this play deals with is when do you step out of that mentality? Do you go be a shining star somewhere else or stay with a group? At Steppenwolf, there's such a grace to do either. Go be big shiny Laurie Metcalf, but also come back and be in this ensemble play where we just want the thing to be good and we want the person next to us to do well. It makes everything better if everybody's encouraging in that way."  v

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