Katy Gray speaks with Young Jean Lee, writer, director, and now, performer, about her latest work We’re Gonna Die, playing through the 30th at Joe’s Pub.
Young Jean Lee is a glutton for punishment, a trouble-seeker, a pot-stirrer—an artist. She sets out to make the opposite of what she would like to see and then somehow turns it into something we all want to watch. This time the writer/director takes the stage alongside her newly formed band, Future Wife, as a “non-performer” that “ordinary” people can connect with and relate to. Co-produced with 13P, We’re Gonna Die centers on the idea that none of us are special. Its aims are humble, its impact surprisingly profound. I called her up to talk about human failure, self-defeating masochism, and the ever-present threat of banality.
Katy Gray Your upcoming show, We’re Gonna Die, centers on human weakness and failure. In light of that fact, is the title meant to be a comforting one? Like, no matter how badly you muck things up, one day you will be gone and no one will remember, or even if they do, you won’t be around anyway…Is it weird that I find that idea comforting? Do you?
Young Jean Lee I guess the fact that we’re going to die is not supposed to be the comfort. It’s more like the…. we experience so much anxiety over failure and loneliness and the possible bad things that can happen to us, and we also have a huge amount of anxiety over aging and death. I think a lot of that anxiety comes from the fact that we have this secret belief that we’re special. And that, since we are special, all of this bad stuff shouldn’t happen to us. And I guess the comfort is that if we can somehow let go of the idea that we are special and realize that we’re just people and that, as people, these are the kinds of bad things that happen to us, there is a relief in that.
KG The comfort is that we’re like everybody else.
YJL Right, and I think we all know that intellectually, but deep down we don’t really believe it. And I think part of that is not wanting to identify as a person, because really awful things happen to people.
KG You will be performing in the show with your band Future Wife. Could you talk a little bit about how music came into your life and what role the band played in the creation of the show?
YJL Well, I’m not really a musician. I did some singing when I was younger. I sang briefly in a band when I was in college but it’s never really been my thing and I don’t have a lot of skill in that area. I found out recently that I have a little bit of a knack for songwriting. My chorus melodies are usually pretty catchy and then the verse melodies are really boring. My boyfriend Tim Simmonds, who is the musical director for the show—he is actually a really good singer and musician. So I would basically sing my crude lyrics and melodies into a tape recorder and then he would sort of transform them into a real song and, since he’s a singer, he would give them this phrasing that I would memorize. It’s this really cheating type of thing that I did.
KG It’s collaboration! How long has the band been together? Is this a new project?
YJL Yeah, it’s a new project. I think it started in December and Tim and I recorded this little Christmas song, just for pre-publicity for the show. Tim played all the instruments except for the horns, which were arranged and performed by this amazing saxophonist Colin Stetson. And people really liked it. It even got played on WFMU. And then there was this really weird thing where I got an email from John Zorn in January saying, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are curating the month of February his venue The Stone and would I want to come play a gig? I wrote back and was like, We only have one song, here it is, and was he like, Yeah, that’s fine. So, January was a crazy, we basically wrote an evening’s worth of songs and put together a band in a month. We did the gig at the beginning of February and it went really well and ever since then we’ve been working with the band.
The band is great. Everyone in the band is the frontman of their own band. The drummer Mike Hanf has like a degree in playing the vibraphone and is a singer-songwriter and the bass player Nick Jenkins is actually a drummer and is also a really terrific singer-songwriter/producer and then our genius friend Ben Kupstas plays a ton of instruments and is also a frontman. So I was collaborating with people that are usually the primary creators and they were incredibly supportive—
KG: Sounds like a supergroup—
YJL Yeah, and also just a group of really smart and un-egotistical people.
KG I know that in the past you have set out to make the play that you are most afraid to make. Is that’s what’s going on here? Why make art about failure?
YJL It originated from this idea of the “last play I wanted to do,” I really hate performing, I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of person and the idea of performing was really horrifying to me. Also I knew that I would be incredibly limited as a performer, because I can’t act at all. That’s what a non-actor is—someone who can’t ever pretend anything. All I would really be able to do was just get on stage and be myself. So then the challenge became, not to turn me into an actor (which would be impossible in that length of time and which I wouldn’t have any interest in doing anyway) but rather, to create a show that could be performed by an ordinary person that would be compelling to watch.
I’ve been obsessing over this theme of just being a person, of not being special, and of just being this ordinary person who’s like everybody else and who’s going to get old and die. I was thinking about my desire to be special and how the reason why I don’t like performing is because I don’t have any special ability in that area. If I get on stage I don’t look incredibly special and talented. It became this experiment to see, can you just present a person being themselves on stage, communicating directly to an audience, and have that be compelling? Normally I have these larger-than-life performers doing this experimental, controversial work that’s kind of unpredictable and, you know, a little crazy. With this show I wanted to go in the totally opposite direction. Where it’s just about telling these truthful, simple stories and singing these songs in a way that makes people watching feel like they could imagine themselves up there doing what I am doing.
It was a really tricky thing to pull off because it was so close to becoming banal. And the one thing about experimental theater is that even if it’s terrible at least it’s not banal. We’ve been doing all of these test-runs with audiences—bringing in people who are just coming in cold—and have been getting this crazily positive response. I have fans of my work come in and say this is their favorite thing that I’ve ever done. And none of us totally understand it, because there is nothing dazzling or impressive about it. When you are inside it there is nothing for your ego to latch on to. You can’t latch on to any one part of it and say, that’s really fantastic. But I think what people are responding to is the lack of pretension and the lack of performative distance and the kind of intimacy of the experience. The thing that makes me crazy is that I can’t watch it! Actually we did have one performance that didn’t go very well. One of my experimental theater friends was in the room and I started to get self-conscious and I was like, Oh, this play isn’t cool. I’m not doing anything experimental. And I just kind of checked out because I was judging myself and I distanced myself from the material as a performer. It ended up being really terrible and the director gave me a scolding afterward. He said, the reason you were bad tonight is because you felt you were too good for this show and the show works when you feel like it is good enough for you.
KG: Just as it is—as something that’s not special.
YJL Yes! And I think that makes it special, but it’s special because it’s not special.
KG I can imagine that it would also be challenging to maintain a level of authenticity. I mean, I’m not an actor, but I feel like I would get up there and start acting like…an actor. I think it would be difficult to maintain normalcy. How do you stay a “normal person” when you are up there?
YJL I think it helps that I am such a bad actor. I think if I had acting tools in my toolbox then I would probably try to use them. But I am so unskilled and I am so terrible that the only tools I have to work with are the tools of a human being. It really is like watching somebody throw a little kid who can’t swim into a pool – eventually they can do it because they have to.
KG Have you ever set so impossible or uncomfortable a goal for yourself that you had to step back and say, I actually, truly don’t want to do this, I don’t think I can, and I don’t have to, so I’m not going to? Do you ever let yourself back down?
YJL We did this one presentation at the Bushwick Star of a few things from the show and it was just the wrong venue. It was this variety show type of thing, and I was completely publicly humiliated. After that I was like, this is a huge mistake. It’s just going to be a month of me being publicly humiliated and that’s not interesting art and I won’t do it. But fortunately we figured it out and it became something else that wasn’t that at all.
KG I can imagine in theory it’d be really easy to say, I’m going to do the hardest thing I can possibly do. But repeated public humiliation sounds exhausting.
YJL I mean, it just seems to be what I do. But this time was really harrowing. And the biggest problem is that the way that I make shows is just brutal. It’s brutal as a writer and a director. But as a writer and a director, you can be that brutal to yourself. You can have no sleep and live on potato chips and be a total wreck and keep functioning. But as a performer you actually can’t. If you get up there half dead you’re just not going to be able to do it. That’s been one of the hardest things so far. It’s the closest I’ve come to really biting off more than I can chew. But it’s good that we came around to this kind of humble endeavor. And that seems to be working.
KG Yeah, I would think that the intent, because it’s a good and humble one, would help pull the show through. Has it gotten to a point where performing the show is fun? I’m guessing it’s not torture the whole time you are up there or else the audience wouldn’t be getting any enjoyment out of it.
YJL Well, I don’t know. When everyone is hanging on your every word and they are so connected with you and you can see people crying and you can see them laughing—that’s definitely very rewarding. But I still wouldn’t use the word fun. The director, Paul Lazar, has been watching me to see if he sees a moment where I’m having fun. And he found a moment in a song where he said, “You’re definitely having fun in that moment.” And it’s actually the moment in the show where I’m impersonating a sadistic grandmother! And the sadistic grandmother is the one having fun.
KG But that’s acting! That’s just showing that you actually are an actor!
YJL Yeah, that’s like my one acting moment in the show and apparently I’m pulling it off. So I guess I built one skill in these past months.
KG Sadistic grandmother—a good tool to have in your toolbox. Is this seemingly self-defeating masochism reserved for the theater? Or is this something that you do in your real life? Do you always go about choosing the path of most resistance?
YJL For a long time I did, in kind of a self-destructive way, unintentionally. Now I would say that my life is sort of like the opposite. The older I get the more I try to go away from that in my personal life. And I think the only reason I survived this particular show, which was so masochistic, was because right now things in my life are unbelievably stable. The past two shows— Lear was actually also really, really difficult—I would not have been able to make had I not had a pretty sane life.
KG What’s next?
YJL Well this is actually not just my show; it’s a co-production with 13P. My company’s next show is called Untitled Feminist Multi-media Technology Show, that’s its actual title. It’s my first time dealing with feminism. And technology, really. This has definitely been my most controversial show so far. We did a workshop at the New Museum in December which was so controversial that we ended up getting so many emails that we have a Word document that’s almost 100 pages long. And there’s a critical journal that’s going to do a series of essays just on that one workshop. I feel like right now feminism is this hot topic—and it’s weird because I’ve been at parties where I start talking about the show and suddenly everyone in the room is talking about feminism. I feel like it’s something that people are wanting to talk about, which really has not been the case. I feel like this moment has come where feminism is something that people are ready to engage with. The final show is going to be nothing like the workshop. But the fact that the workshop has caused such a stir is, I think, promising.
KG Feminism and technology—the next two big challenges.
YJ: Yep. But it’s going to be so wonderful to be able to watch and not have to perform.
Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die plays at Joe’s Pub April 1-30.