Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
The Select Equity Group Series on Theater BOMBLive! Co-produced by P.S. 122 Mabou Mines Theatre, New York City November 5, 2008
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Richard Maxwell I thought maybe we could start with how you got into, how you found your way into theatre.
Young Jean Lee When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, I was an English major studying Shakespeare, and I somehow ended up in Berkeley’s Shakespeare PhD program, in Berkeley’s English PhD program. And I was studying Shakespeare there and immediately after I graduated. So it was basically like this group of Shakespeare professors who were kind of grooming me to become an academic. I really hated grad school so much. Like I hated it so much I have a hard time even fathoming now hating your life as much as I hated my life when I was in academia. I was there for six years. And I—every single day was just agonizing, and I was working on a dissertation on King Lear. And that was horrible. Finally I went to see a therapist. The therapist was like, Oh man, you know you’re not doing so well. She said, Okay, I’m just going to ask you a question and I want you to answer it. At this point I think I was 20—oh man—I was like 26 or something. And she said, I’m going to ask you a question and just answer it off the top of your head; don’t even thing about it, even if it’s just nonsense words that are coming out, just say the nonsense words. She said, What do you want to do with your life? And I said, I want to be a playwright. And it was just like saying that I wanted to be a clown or a skunk—
RM An astronaut.
YJL Yeah, or an astronaut! Like it just made no sense, whatsoever, and I was just so embarrassed, you know. I was like, Oh my god, I don’t know, let’s try it again! And she was like, Well, you know, let’s talk about this! And she was like, well you’re studying Shakespeare. And I’m like, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m just interested in Shakespeare as a reader; I have no interest in Shakespeare whatsoever. I was just so embarrassed, and she started asking me about, Well were you ever involved in theatre. I was like, No, no, no! She said, What about as a little kid, did you ever see any theatre? And all of a sudden, I remembered that in this tiny little town in eastern Washington where I grew up we had this horrible summer stock theatre (laughter) where they did musicals like The Sound of Music and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, like these really, really terrible new plays. I remember being a little kid and going to see these plays and just having that be like the best, most magical experience of my entire life …
And then I had a memory of being in junior high or something, and they were doing a production of Oklahoma. But the drama teacher sort of mentioned something about maybe auditioning or something. He said, Oh well, there aren’t any Asians in Oklahoma And I (laughter)—
RM There’s a Persian.
YJL Is there?
YJL Well, I could have done that part!
RM What was your feeling about Shakespeare itself during that time?
YJL Oh I always was just crazy about Shakespeare. You know, Shakespeare was—Shakespeare, Milton, Spencer, John Donne, like all the sort of early-modern poets and playwrights—Ben Johnson—I was just crazy about them, and I was super crazy about all the modernists, like Eliot and Pound.
RM But that wasn’t good enough to float you through this grad program.
YJL No, no, because the approach to it was completely the opposite to—you know when you’re an undergrad, you’re able to just sort of like talk about whatever you want and write about whatever you want. But then once you become an academic your attitude towards the work—like if I wanted to talk about beauty or if I wanted to talk about something I liked in a Shakespeare play I would have to defend it with all of this theory. After this whole playwright thing came up, I was living in New Haven at the time and I knew that there was a school of drama at Yale. So I basically looked up their faculty and read a play by every playwright who was on their faculty. There was this one playwright named Jeff Jones who had written this really weird play. His was the weirdest play, and for some reason I liked it the best. And I contacted him.
RM Jeffrey Jones?
YJL Jeffrey Jones, yeah. And I emailed him, and he agreed to meet with me. And we met and he basically gave me a list of names—PS 122 and Richard Maxwell were two of the first names he gave me actually (laughter) on the list. It was like Radiohole, NTUSA (National Theatre of the United States of America), Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group. It was just this list—
RM Where was I on that list?
YJL You were—You and PS 122 were together, because I think you were doing—he thought you were doing Drummer Wanted at the time and I think he thought you were doing it at PS 122. He mentioned PS 122 first. First he mentioned them, but then he said—
RM I can live with that.
YJL —And there’s a playwright who does work there named Richard Maxwell, who’s very interesting. Yeah.
Drummer Wanted was the first play that I saw in New York. Yeah, and I think I emailed you immediately also and never got a response.
RM I’m glad that came up here.
YJL Well this has all been my master plan. For this moment of sweet revenge!
RM I’d like to figure how you decided to start directing the shows that you wrote. Was that a decision that you made? How did that come about?
YJL Oh yeah, it was just because I … after I ran the board for NTUSA they introduced me to a company called Radiohole. In Radiohole, everyone was sort of writing and directing and designing and acting and doing everything. So I interned with them for like two years—actually for a year I interned with them—I was just at every single rehearsal. So I watched them make a show from start to finish. In the process of watching them over the course of the year I basically learned how to direct and how to design and how to do all of that stuff. It was incredibly good training.
RM It’s a good introduction, like fundraising and all that practical stuff.
YJL And I was helping them with … I learned all the admin stuff from them, which I also learned from Soho Rep. I saw more shows of yours. I saw how you were working and how Richard Foreman was working. Pretty much as soon as I saw your website and Foreman’s website, and sort of had seen a few shows. I was just like, That’s what I want to do. I just knew immediately, you know. I want exactly—
RM I want to direct my own plays.
YJL I want my own theatre company. I want to tour. I want have total control. Total artistic control.
RM And so did you … you have kind of a maxim for lack of a better word for how you make your plays, for how you start them. Can you talk about that a little? Can you tell us what that is?
YJL The maxim is basically I try to think of the worst idea for a show I could possibly think of, like that last show in the world I would ever want to make. And then I force myself to make it. And the way that that started was, my first year in New York when I was trying to write my first show I was surrounded by all these downtown artists who I was so in awe of. All I wanted to do was imitate you. Like I had, somehow, I had a few scripts of yours that I would pore over. I would pore over Foreman’s scripts, published scripts. I would pore over Radiohole’s scripts. I wanted to do something that I thought was cool so badly, that was my definition of cool. So I was just trying so hard to imitate or to something that was in this … And you know, it was weird because all these companies were doing such different work. It was like I was trying to write something that would fit my idea of what a really cool downtown theatre artist would make. As opposed to just making something that I wanted to make. So I was going totally crazy, couldn’t do anything. I was in Mac Wellman’s MFA program; I called him and was like, You know, I don’t know if I can meet my deadline. He makes us write a play every semester. I was just like, I can’t do this. I described my problem, and he said, Well, just write the worst play you can possibly think of and turn that in. So I thought about it and the worst idea, the least cool idea that I could possibly think of a historical play about the English Romantic poets all sitting around talking about art and life. I brought it into class. I was like, Oh man, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It was basically my shame. It never occurred to me that anybody would like it or that I would be anything other than humiliated for writing it. So I just brought in my shame, because I just needed to meet the deadline. And people were really into it. I ended up doing the show at Soho Rep with all of the coolest downtown—like there was Pete Simpson, who was in Drummer Wanted, there was James Stanley from National Theatre of the United States of America, there was Maggie Hoffman from Radiohole, and there was Michael Portnoy who’s Soy Bomb.
RM I was wondering if you could talk about how failure figures in to what you do. It seems like something … well I’m learning now was there from the get go. I was under the impression that that evolved through the making of your plays. But it seems like something that was there from the beginning.
YJL Failure is basically my whole MO in everything, not just theatre. Definitely in the process of making a show, all it is about for me is failing over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. I’ve been working on this show The Shipment, and we did two workshops on it last spring. We’re just clearly total failures in my opinion, in my respect.
RM Even though the audience has seemed to enjoy it.
YJL Yes, and the way in which the audience was enjoying those shows was part of what made them problematic. We just did a show at the Wexner that was really well received that I don’t consider to be a failure in the same way that the workshops were failures. Now looking ahead to January it’s like I just look at that entire show as a series of failures. Everything sort of becomes a failure immediately after the fact. I don’t know if there’s actually success beyond those moments where—I feel like [artistic] success if a really fleeting thing. In the rehearsal room, something will happen. You’ll just fall so in love. You show up the next day, or even try to do it an hour later, and that thing you loved so much is not right at all. I feel like that happens with shows as well. You do a show that you’re so in love with. Then afterwards I sort of let it go, and I feel like the next thing can be better. It’s just a series of things that don’t work.
RM Right.I think I’ve seen everything that you’ve done. But I’ve noticed in the last two shows Songs of the Flying Dragon and The Shipment that—I feel like this has to do with the maxim that you have, so I don’t know if this is deliberate or just happenstance so maybe you can talk about it—but it’s like these last two shows have taken on a kind of political aspect. I think that’s … one of the unique things about your work is that. I guess I sort of have this attitude that political theatre doesn’t work by and large. It’s just something about the live medium and putting across a message that you’re advocating some sort of message in the work or by the play that does not seem well suited to theatre. But you’ve managed to find a way to have these shows. Maybe we should talk about—well, I’d like to know about The Shipment because that’s the freshest thing in my mind …
YJL I do kind of have a bee in my bonnet about race, and nobody wants to hear a person of color ranting about race and how unfair the world is to them. You know you don’t want to hear people whine and accuse white people. All of these things are very unpopular. So to find a way to talk about the things that bother me in a way that’s not going to make everybody roll their eyes and dismiss it, so that’s the hardest thing for me in making theatre that is political is trying to trap the audience so they can’t escape through ways of their dismissive loopholes. It’s like as soon as you’re in a room where there’s anything political going on—and I’m the same way—I’m just instantly looking for a way out. I don’t want to be preached at.
RM The Shipment is structured as a minstrel show, right?
YJL The first half.
RM The first half, right. So in the opening, the second part with the Chris Rock part, the monologue done in stand-up kind of style, you have a character doing exactly that. He is ranting that white people, white people are stupid. Then he goes on to talk about how black people are stupid. So how do you—is it important to reconcile the idea that someone can say that within the context of the story of the play and having this feeling that you abhor, as an element, this feeling that you abhor in general what is represented by this character. Do you know what I’m saying? There seems to be some kind of conflict there. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around exactly what the essence of that conflict is, but do you feel any need to reconcile since you are putting something about there that is provocative, that is designed, I think, to change people’s minds, how they look at race. Is there a conflict there in that approach that you have characters betraying that, essentially?
YJL In that I have a character actually ranting about race on stage?
YJL That was a huge challenge, was to figure out: Is there a way to have a character ranting about race on stage without having the audience shut down. The technique that I used—and maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t—was to have him be such a foul-mouthed, perverted, disgusting weirdo in all these other aspects that the audience is sort of focused on being turned off by him in all these others ways so that once he starts ranting about race, it’s just one of many different things that are weird and unsettling about him. So that was sort how I tried to deal with that issue. But that was the experiment: Can you have a black man ranting about race on stage and have it be disorienting and not have it be familiar? And that’s why we had all he profanity and the dirtiness and the baby killing and stuff that the older black audience members really objected to.
RM It’s hard to navigate because what you’re doing is you’re treating the audience as if they’re in a block in a sense. You’re looking at the audience in as this is what the audience is expecting to get or to hear from a race identity play. But we’re going to do something different. I can imagine how tricky it would be to try to navigate that given that situation. Watching that talk back and hearing people’s reaction to it, it must be really tempting to—I remember you said something about how audiences are getting more and more sophisticated and so it’s hard to … . I just noticed when I’m directing something or I’m watching something I’ve directed, it’s really hard to treat and audience as one thing. There are truths to that; there’s saying that, Yes, there is something we can feel, and it’s a general thing. But it’s absolutely subjective at the same time.
YJL It’s true.
RM One of the things about theatre that I think keeps me interested in theatre is that there’s always going to be people’s sense of individuality that betrays that.
YJL Yeah, I think that part of that block-like quality that you’re noticing in my attitude towards the audience is the fact that my demographic tends to be so consistent in the audience.
RM How would you describe it?
YJL College-educated, city-dwelling, liberal, probably not evangelical Christian.
YJL Usually white. And that was why the audiences in Ohio were such a shock. Because there were so many people who were … I’m guessing were pretty liberal and college-educated. There were a whole lot more—it was the most racially diverse audience we’ve ever had. And having those really elderly black people who were like, We really liked the show but why’d you have to have all the cursing? That was a response that I wouldn’t get from my typical demographic.
RM I felt that way.
RM No, I’m kidding.
RM Out of these racially charged plays you have this story emerge where suddenly I feel like Young Jean is talking to me and baring herself, baring her deepest personal feelings, really personal feelings. To be in the context of these, for lack of a better word, political plays and you have this revealing happening—very personal revealing happening. I’m really intrigued by that. I feel like it almost trumps, in a way, the political aspect of it. I’m so grateful for it. I wonder if you were telling your stories in a more traditional or naturalistic way if we would have that, if I would have that, same reaction.
YJL I actually do want to write a naturalistic three-act play at some point.
RM Because it’s something you fear most.
YJL Yeah, yeah.
RM It would be the most horrible thing.
YJL Yeah, it would be really a horrible thing.
YJL I’m starting to write musicals actually. I’m starting to write musicals for the Childrens’ Theatre Company in Minneapolis. It’s going to be a 50-person cast, full orchestra children’s play.
RM Oh, nice. At the Walker?
YJL No, at Children’s Theatre Company. An actual theatre company. Yeah, so musicals are the next thing.
RM So if you keep doing shows you really don’t want to do, when is the show you really want to do going to be the show you don’t want to do?
YJL That’s a really good question. King Lear is kind of that show; I’m doing an adaptation of King Lear at Soho Rep next winter. It’s the last play I want to do because it’s King Lear, and King Lear was my dissertation topic. But at the same time it’s a play I really love. So I think that doesn’t really fit the mold in the same way. And also—
RM It’s coming though. You know that’s coming. The play that I just described is coming.
YJL The play that I really want to make. Oh my god, that idea is so horrifying.
RM What would that be? It’d be the cool show.
YJL It’d be the cool show. It’d look like a Wooster Group show and the acting style would all look like one of your shows … . That’s a really good—You’re blowing my mind right now.
YJL Yeah, really trippy.
Q & A Session
Audience Member 1 When was it that you felt confident sort of going into a … in the way that you would go into a creative space to generate work? When was the first time you really felt confident going into an office and saying, Okay this is the agenda, this is what we have to do.
RM I just have this on my piece of paper, “Control?” because it’s something that I think about in making work. I find there’s a difference between preparation and control. I think those have to be very separate. I think control is very dangerous. I think it’s something that happens as you gain experience, as you do something, as you gain confidence, because you start to see people writing about you. You start to see people liking what you’re doing. I wanted you to talk about how that affects what you’re doing how you’re making something. I was thinking about it during your talk back in Columbus. Some of the comments were, We didn’t know what this show was until … and then we finally figured out she knows what she’s doing. And so it’s okay. So you mean, In order for us to deal with race or to deal with anything that’s sensitive, we have to know what we’re doing.
YJL In terms of control, I know what you’re saying. For me control means being able to make whatever I want without having to answer to a higher authority. So when I have my own company I don’t have to—and I’m doing co-productions—I don’t have to … like if the artistic director doesn’t like what I’m doing, I don’t have to change it. I mean that’s what I mean by control. But in terms of the way that I actually exercise control like in the rehearsal room in the company with the people that I work with, it’s like I have no control basically. It’s not true that I have no control. But the way that I work is I basically bring pieces of texts into a room and then everybody in the room tells me what they think of it. And everybody in the room has been very carefully selected to be smart and articulate and people I trust. They tell me, they react, they do stuff. I listen to everybody, so it’s really not the case for me that I’m not an auteur in the sense that I have this great sort of vision in my head of how I want things to be. And then everybody helps me achieve that vision. It’s like my vision is much more sort of nebulous. Just so much of my work comes from the performers and comes from whoever happens to be in the room at the time. It’s really not the case that I’m the puppet master just sitting and having people do what I want. I think you have to be a certain kind of genius for things to work that way.
Young Jean Lee, a New York City–based playwright with her own internationally-touring company—Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company—won the 2007 OBIE Award for an emerging playwright. Her shows include The Shipment, Church, and Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. Known for her provocative, disorienting spin on familiar subjects, she has taken on topics ranging from Asian-American identity politics to Evangelical Christianity. Describing her process, Lee has written, “When starting a play, I ask myself, ‘What’s the last play in the world I would ever want to write?’ Then I force myself to write it.” Lee has recently won grants from the Jerome Foundation, the Rockefeller MAP Foundation, the Greenwall Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts.
Lee is interviewed by Richard Maxwell, one of New York City’s most active and discussed playwrights. His “postdramatic” plays have been considered by the New York Times to be “hilarious and trenchant looks at American passivity.” The author and/or director of some 15 plays, his most recent work is Ode to the Man Who Kneels. Maxwell was interviewed in BOMB’s Fall 105 issue.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.