ON BEING THIRTEEN: A Conversation with Annika Prager, Director of “Dance Nation” at Hunter College

Hailing from Oakland, California, Annika Prager came to New York City in 2017 to study Theatre and Gender Studies under the Muse Scholar program. They are the president of the Hunter Theater Company, a student-run club at Hunter College. Now in their senior year, Prager directed the company’s production of “Dance Nation,” a radical play about a dance troupe of thirteen year old girls, encompassing themes of sexuality, adolescence, and being “passionate and obsessed with things.” The play premiered at the Lowe Theater on October 17th to three nights of sold-out shows. Before opening night, I sat down with Prager to talk about magical realism, transcending gender on stage, and being thirteen.

Prager drew this portrait of themself for Dance Nation.

R –“Dance Nation” is about a bunch of thirteen year olds. What were you like at that age?

A – I was really into musical theatre. I wanted to be an actor, a singer and a performer. 

R – What was your first theatre experience?

A – The first play I was ever in was “The Wizard of Oz,” when I was eight. I was a munchkin and an Emerald citizen. That did not stand out to me as like, this is theatre, this is what I want to do. It was just fun to crawl around backstage and play with all the props. When I was in middle school, I started to have an interest in theatre for what it was, but it wasn’t ‘til high school that I had access to a theatre program. That’s when I started acting regularly and taking theatre classes. The first play-play I was in was called “The Living.” It took place during the Plague, and it was an allegory for AIDS. Kind of a weird, dark play that probably wasn’t age-appropriate.

R – Why did you choose “Dance Nation”?

A – So many things. I knew I wanted to direct something this semester, so I was frantically reading plays for like a month. I was emailing every playwright I could think of and being like “I’ve read some of your work, and I like it. What are you working on? I’d love to read more.” I was getting as many PDFs and physical copies of plays as possible, and nothing felt right. I was finding plays that had interesting characters, or would contain a theme I cared about, but nothing seemed like it was going to hold up if I worked on it for the next four months. I would have lost interest. “Dance Nation” had come up as a possibility of something that the Theatre Department would do, but they dismissed it because it had too many women. They were like, “We can’t do a play that’s all women, we have male students too,” which I disagreed with. So I read it. The second I picked it up, I didn’t put it down for an hour. Then by the end, I was like, this is it.

R – Have you seen it performed?

A – No. I’m very lucky that I didn’t go see it when it was at Playwrights, because I don’t think I would be able to direct it if I had already seen it.

R – What was the casting process like? Is it a gender-blind cast?

A – Yes. From the beginning, I was only willing to do it if I could do gender-blind casting.

R – How do you negotiate that aspect with the play’s focus on the female body? Are there any points at which you kind of play with that?

A – Kind of. The play is about growing up a girl, and being raised a girl. That’s an experience I have, and yet I don’t identify as a woman or a girl. So having that experience opened me up to the possibility that if I can identify with this, then probably anyone can, in some way. We have actors in the production that identify on all ends of the gender spectrum and who have these experiences on the stage that you might think, oh that’s not possible if you don’t have a certain kind of anatomy. But the cool thing about theatre is, you don’t have to have a vagina to get your period! It’s theatre! We make it happen! I think that’s what’s really great about it. It’s so important for anyone to be able to live out different experiences and different gender identities, if they want to. And I want to give people the space to do that.

R – In the casting notes, Clare Barron writes, “Cuteness is death. Pagan feral-ness and ferocity are key.” Can we talk about how witchy this play is?

A – It is very witchy, especially towards the end where it gets very cult-y. It’s those tiny moments of magical realism that kind of break the idea of realism you might expect a piece to have. I think those are the best parts of the play. And for me as a director, I’m not that interested in realism. I didn’t really want to direct a play that was like, we have this house in the sixties and that’s just the period we’re in. I really wanted something that broke that model, and so all those fun, magical moments are the best.

R – There’s one towards the end, where the girls come together around a cup of coffee like witches around a cauldron.

A – They totally form a cult in that moment, and they have this whole spell. Through it, they’re able to talk about depression, which is such a thirteen year old thing to start to think about. It’s also so hard to talk about at that age, and that’s their way into it.

R – You’re a fan of Diana Oh. One word that comes up a lot with her work is “punk.” How punk is “Dance Nation”?

A – That was definitely part of my original vision. When I was fourteen and fifteen, a little older than the characters, I was very much into the punk scene. I used to go out every weekend to punk shows in Berkeley and that was my group of friends. That was how I was introduced to queer culture. It was such an important part of who I was. So that informs some of it. I think Ashley’s character is kind of punk. It comes through in subtle ways. She’s the darkest, edgiest character in the play.

R – Is she the one that starts the Pussy! chant?

A – Yeah, she does. She’s also the one with the insane five-page monologue in the middle. She’s pretty intense.

R – What makes this play important to you?

A – It’s important for me to be able to tackle this play, which seems very gendered, from a perspective of gender queerness. That’s something I want to keep doing in the work I do going forward. There’s also something so celebratory about this piece. It’s such a way of honoring what it’s like to be thirteen —  all the gross, weird and embarrassing parts of going through puberty, being in middle school, and all the crazy fun parts of being so passionate and obsessed with things. I love that. You look at pictures of yourself from when you were thirteen, and you’re like, wow, that’s not even me, that doesn’t even look like me. Everyone was thirteen once, so no matter who you are or where you’re from, you have that weird experience. I hope that anyone who comes to see this production can find a bit of themselves in these characters.

R – If you could say one thing to your thirteen year old self, what would you say?

A – That it’s okay to express yourself the way you want to. Thirteen is the age where I started getting interested in fashion. I started playing around more with the way I would dress, and wearing makeup. I remember people thinking it was weird, and I felt self-conscious about it, but I’m really glad I went through it. I learned a lot, and it’s still who I am now.

Edited for clarity and length.

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