Woolly Mammoth’s dark comedy Baby Screams Miracle by Clare Barron blurs the lines between the bizarre and the normal, exploring family, religion, and how we cope with hard times.
Sarah Scafidi sat down with Clare to talk about her inspiration for the play and her hopes for the American theatre:
Sarah Scafidi: Tell me about Baby Screams Miracle.
Clare Barron: Baby Screams Miracle is a play about this strange family during a freak windstorm in eastern Washington State. It’s a play I wrote when I was thinking a lot about spirituality and the amount of darkness in the world and the ways that people cope – coping through religion versus coping through other means.
I grew up with a pretty active religious practice, and have come closer towards that and gone away from it repeatedly throughout my adult life. In some ways, theatre is an extension of that practice. Even when I’ve been at my most irreligious, I’ve needed some sort of spiritual relief. So, in some ways, this play is an investigation into that spiritual relief, and what it feels like to get it.
Also, what is a version of religion or a relationship with God that is very personal, where all of your dark thoughts, all of your perverse thoughts, all of your shame, are really on the table? What does that look like? And then, how does that live in the context of family? How intimate do you really want to be with your family? And what relief is there for a certain kind of mental suffering or spiritual suffering? These were questions that were circulating, when I was writing this sort of Biblical [play] – and I say “Biblical” in the sense that there is lots of fire and brimstone and freak accidents and violence and blood and dead animals. The play almost takes place in a surreal world. It’s about this family in this very violent world, and how they are trying to cope, and how they are trying to find humor and grace in their situation.
Having read the play, I was surprised that the characters seem to ignore or downplay the raging storm around them for much of the play. Was that an intentional choice on your part?
I do think that in a produced version of the play, the storm [will work] as the transitional moments. I think when you see this production, the storm will feel a lot more present than it does in the text. I think there will be four or five big storm moments. And there is actually going to be a new scene. Right now, it’s a tiny stage direction where they barricade the house, but I’m going to write a Moby Dick style scene where the women are working to protect the house and shouting at each other across the storm, and we can’t really hear them. So, I do think that the storm will feel more present in a produced version of the play, and I’m really excited about that. The designers at Woolly are so amazing, and Howard Shalwitz, the director, has some really cool ideas about how to bring that to life.
Our sense of safety is changing.
But I also think that the play kind of takes a turn. And this is why I think it is a little bit surreal or a little bit of a parable in a way, because I think these are people who are very comfortable in nature and very comfortable with storms. So, even though it’s crazy that a tree fell on their house, they are like, “oh, my gosh, it’s a disaster,” and they are going to have to get the insurance company to come, but there is also a little bit of a can-do attitude that’s like, “alright, we’re going to deal with this.” There’s a sense of the storm being a normal storm – until it’s not a normal storm anymore. So, I do think they are caught off guard by it. I feel like the storm starts in a more naturalistic, believable place and as the play progresses, it gets more intense and more surreal.
And also, even though I do think it operates on this surreal, poetic level, there is something really cool about [what’s happening with our] weather right now. I never meant to do a global warming play, but something that I think is happening in a lot of communities all around the world is that our intuitive knowledge of nature is no longer as accurate as it used to be.
I remember the experience of Hurricane Sandy in New York. Irene happened, and everyone boarded up, but it wasn’t as cataclysmic as everyone said. And then Sandy happened, and I remember seeing the videos of the water coming down the New York subway, and it was like, “oh, this city wasn’t built to withstand this kind of storm.” Our weather is changing. Our storms are changing. And so, what used to be [our definition of] a really bad storm, and what used to be buildings that could withstand it and avoid flooding, may be obsolete in the future. Our sense of safety is changing.
I feel like, in this play, this storm is unlike any storm in this area. It is a new kind of storm that they haven’t encountered before. Even though they start the play very comfortable with their ability to tackle it, it’s actually something a little bit alien. That’s a poetic choice in the play, but I actually think it’s a little like what is happening in the world right now. We no longer know what to expect from our weather. It’s crossing thresholds that before it didn’t used to cross. And I think in that way, there’s a little bit of an apocalyptic flavor in the play. The natural world has always been scary, but it’s going from a natural world that is scary and familiar to a natural world that is scary and utterly strange.
Did you have any other inspiration for writing this play now?
What’s weird is I didn’t write this play now. I wrote this play in 2012. It was one of the first plays I wrote. I wrote it for a company called Clubbed Thumb in New York City. I do think that the world in this is quite brutal and quite dark. I think there is a lot of humor in play, and I think that’s part of the play’s soul: finding humor, finding grace, and finding intimacy in what is a pretty brutal and violent world. I just think right now particularly, the world feels pretty brutal and violent. So the play does feel quite different to me returning to it in 2017 than it did in 2012. I do think the world always has been kind of awful, and that violence in the world is a shape-shifter, popping up in different ways, but it does feel, right now in 2017, like a lot of stuff is coming to the surface.
When I wrote this play, I was 25, and I was not particularly happy, and I was missing a certain happiness that I had not gotten out of my religious beliefs and a certain comfort. I was seeing friends of mine who were my age who still had a healthy relationship to their religion who I felt like were genuinely and generously happy. Meaning they were happy but in a generous way. I’m not talking about a materialistic happiness; I’m talking about a generosity of spirit and a deep sense of happiness and fulfillment, where you believe that your life has purpose, and because of that, you’re able to be a generous and giving presence in the world. And I felt, at 25, very unhappy and angry and selfish, and I was wondering, “how do I find this sense of meaning again?”
And again, I don’t mean it in a superficial way, but I do feel like a lot of people are not very happy in that spiritual, profound way right now. I think people are struggling really hard and are feeling worn down to the nub a little bit. And I think it is really hard to be a generous citizen, and a generous family member, and a contributor, when you yourself are worn down to the nub. And when I was revisiting this play, I was like “wow” – particularly the characters of Carol and Cynthia, the two women who are both pregnant and the middle two generations of the family, these two women are so unhappy, and they don’t know what to do about it. I do feel like that is also the soul of the play. And something that maybe I didn’t realize when it was fresher to me, and it reveals a little bit of a raw nerve right now in our country.
So the play was done at Clubbed Thumb in 2013. Has it had any other workshops or productions?
No. This is the second production, at Woolly Mammoth.
You mentioned you’ve been in some rehearsals – have you been involved with the process?
Yeah, it’s cool. I love Woolly Mammoth for so many reasons. I love their programming, and the way they build audiences. I also love the way that they work with playwrights. So, I actually started having a relationship with them in 2013 after I wrote this play. I was transitioning from being an actor to being a playwright. I do both, but before, I was primarily pursuing acting, and I was just getting my baby feet as a writer. And they were so generous, and they invited me down to come to the theatre to get to know them and the type of work they make, but also how they make that work, which I find very inspiring. I really loved working there. And we’ve gone back and forth; I’ve gotten to go to down there and see work and have a relationship with them over the years.
And then it was sort of a total surprise that they decided to do this play. It’s pretty cool, because it will be two very different productions of the play. I’m very artistically excited about both. It’s cool to get to do it again, in a very different way with a new set of collaborators.
You mentioned writing a new scene. Have there been a lot of changes?
There haven’t been a ton of changes, but I do feel like the play is a little deeper and a little richer. I think it’s tricky to work on a play when you are a different person and a different writer. You can try to fix it or over explain it and accidentally kill the play. But luckily, I really trust Howard. I really trust these actors and collaborators, and I feel like we are finding a good balance. It’s still the same play – it’s just a little more fleshed out and a little deeper.
Want to go?
Baby Screams Miracle
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Featuring Kate Eastwood Norris, Sarah Marshall, and Cody Nickell
January 30 – February 26, 2017
Details and tickets
I’ve also read your play You Got Older, and I love how you don’t always give all the answers or explain everything. Is that something you try to do or something that is important to you?
It’s not something I do on purpose, but I do think it’s very much reflective, not only of my taste, but also of how I experience the world. I tend to write very impulsively. For example, I don’t even use character headings when I write, and I never know where a play is going when I’m writing it. So, I’m really writing from emotion. That’s where I start. And emotion is such a fickle master, and so, I feel like that’s partly why the plays are very moody and atmospheric [rather] than more plot driven.
But I also think that it’s just my experience of being a human. I never know what I want. You know that traditional approach to acting to where it’s like, “what’s your objective? What are you trying to get?” I feel like, as a person, I never know what I’m trying to get. I’m always talking without thinking. I’m always behaving and acting without knowing why. For me, these are fundamental mysteries of the human spirit. That’s what I think theatre is so good at exploring. It’s good at exploring language. It’s good at exploring behavior. Those are the things I try to dig into in my plays, and as a result, I do feel like they tend to be less plot driven. They also do tend to have more mystery or more ambiguity. Which I hope, if they are doing their job, it leaves room for the audience to have their own reactions and reflections and memories. That’s the balance: making sure there is enough information so that people don’t get lost or frustrated, but making sure that the mystery of the play is still there, so that something in its soul remains. The word “unexplainable” – you can’t quite articulate what it is. The “inexpressible” is what I’m interested in.
We are entering a new time where things are feeling more uncertain: the climate, the political climate, etc. As a young playwright, what is your hope for the American theatre?
Well, two things that I think are unique about theatre as opposed to other art forms: one is that it should be able to move faster. As opposed to film or TV, you can plan a theatre event in a couple of weeks and make it happen. Not always – money is always a limiting factor – but ideally. So, my hope for the American theatre is that theatres embrace the urgency to make work quickly, so that the work can respond to what is happening in our world now. I think there is often a lot of development in theatre, and I don’t want the plays that are written right now to happen in four years. I want them to happen now. Because I think we need them now. So, my hope for the American theatre is that it realizes that it is unique in its ability to create live performance quickly and in response to current events, and that we create opportunities for artists to respond to the world and share that response with an audience in a quicker time frame. That’s one hope.
And the other thing I think theatre does that’s really unique, is that it is still live art and it’s a gathering together. I would love to see a focus on that gathering, both in terms of coming together to see the work, but also the conversation that happens afterwards and the conversation that happens before. That’s something that I think Woolly works really hard to do: facilitate the conversation around the play – before the play in the lobby, and after the play with events surrounding the play.
And I would love to see theatre embrace that thing which is a bunch of different people coming together to share space. That can be a radical act! That is a spiritual act. That is a communal act. And I feel like we need community. We need fulfillment. We need to spend time together. So, those are my two big hopes for the American theatre. And that we allow the work to be messy and radical and wrong and right and angry – that it is a cacophony of voices and perspectives, and that it’s not perfect – it’s vital.
And new. We need new plays that we haven’t seen a million times. We need to try new things.
Yeah, we all need to get out of our comfort zones, and we all need to be looking at things in new ways. So, I think the theatre can facilitate that shifting of perspective, and spend time honoring different peoples’ perspectives: new perspectives and diverse perspectives.