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A tremendously talented and fearless playwright
A tremendously talented and fearless playwright
Interviewer : Renata Petroni_ Director of Int’l Programs at the NPN 2013.02.19 Asia > Korea

A tremendously talented and fearless playwright
[People] A Conversation with YOUNG JEAN LEE


Young Jean Lee, a tremendously talented and fearless writer/director, became a playwright in 2002 when she moved to New York City, and took the theater community by storm. In just over ten years, she has changed the face of American theater with works that are provocative, humorous, personal, controversial and powerful. Young Jean Lee is not afraid to take risks or choose themes that challenge herself and her audience to go out of their comfort zones. She is "hands down, the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation" (Charles Isherwood – New York Times) and "one of the best experimental playwrights in America." (David Cote, Time Out New York).

We’’re Gonna Die, ⓒBlaine Davis


Young Jean Lee’’s first fully produced work, The Appeal, an experimental comedy about the lives of the English Romantic poets, was commissioned by Soho Rep in 2004. By 2007 she had received an Obie award for emerging playwrights, one of the highest recognitions for theater artists in the US. Since then, the buzz has been uninterrupted. She has continued to produce ground-breaking works that deal with identity issues, ethnic stereotypes, religion, race, gender issues, and even death. She has been reviewed and interviewed by major newspapers, magazines and various colleagues in the theatrical community, her plays have been published by Theatre Communications Group (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays, The Shipment, and Lear) and by Samuel French (Three Plays by Young Jean Lee), and she has received international and national awards. With her company, Young Jean Lee’’s Theater Company, she has toured internationally to over 30 cities. She has been commissioned by Plan B/Paramount Pictures, Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizons, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Is she heading for an Oscar? Time will tell, but we can be certain that her work will always surprise us and keep us unsettled.

Here is what Young Jean Lee says about how she became a playwright, how she develops her work, and how she deals with her success.

 

We’’re Gonna Die, ⓒBlaine Davis, ⓒBlaine Davis

RP: In other interviews you said that you studied Shakespeare in college but hated it. What had you planned to do with your degree and what made you become a playwright and a director?

YJL: After graduating from college, I immediately entered UC Berkeley’’s PhD program, where I specialized in Shakespeare for five years. I was training to become a Shakespeare professor. By the end of my fifth year, I was miserable to the point of being suicidal because I hated academia so much.

I went to a therapist, who asked me what I wanted to do with my life and told me to answer without thinking. I said, "I want to be a playwright," which came as a total shock because the idea had never before crossed my mind and I had never even written a play. I still can’’t explain why or how I did this, but in spring of 2002 I left graduate school and moved to New York to become a playwright. I had no connections, no theater experience, and no money, and everyone I knew thought I had gone crazy.

RP: I have read that you think of the worst idea for a play that you could write, and then you force yourself to write it. Why this challenge for yourself?

YJL: When starting a play, I ask myself, "What’’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?" Then I force myself to make it. I do this because going out of my comfort zone compels me to challenge my assumptions and find value in unexpected places.

RP: How do you develop your work? Do you start with a script or do you develop one during rehearsals in collaboration with the actors?

YJL: I cast the show first, and then write it in collaboration with the performers, my artistic team, and workshop audiences. I’’ll write a scene, bring it into rehearsal, cut it or rewrite it, and then write another scene. Eventually I’’ve generated a ton of text and start organizing it to see how it fits together. I get a ton of feedback from many different sources, trying to figure out how to build the best trap for the audience.

RP: Your work deals with social and political topics such as identity, religion, race, feminism. Often this kind of work results in being didactic or worse simplistic. How do you avoid these pitfalls?

YJL: My goal is to find ways to get past my audiences’’ defenses against uncomfortable subjects and open people up to confronting difficult questions by keeping them disoriented and laughing.

Untitled Feminist Show(from Young Jean Lee’’s Theater Company’’s homepage)


RP: You have received two OBIE awards and other important awards like the Festival Prize of the Zuercher Theater Spektakel, a 2010 Prize in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2012 Doris Duke Artist Award. You are invited by festivals all over the world and are reviewed and interviewed by major magazines. How are you dealing with your growing success? Do you find you have to live up to it and do you think it will affect the kind of risks you will be willing to take?

YJL: The biggest issue for me now is time. Every day I get a lot of requests for my time that have nothing to do with my creative work, and if I said yes to everything, I would never make another show again. It’’s painful for me to say no, because it makes some people angry, but I’’m trying to get better about it. I’’ve stopped having in-person meetings with almost everyone, which is a big step.

As far as my artistic work goes, I always want to do something different, and right now I’’m in a phase where I’’m interested in experimenting with more traditional forms. But I don’’t take a salary from my theater company, so I don’’t think I’’ll ever be in a position where I feel pressured to do more conventional work for financial reasons.

 

We’’re Gonna Die, ⓒBlaine Davis

 

RP: I understand you have been invited by the Doosan Art Center in Seoul to perform "We are going to die" in which you perform with a band. Can you tell us how this piece is different from your other work and why?

YJL: The biggest difference is that I’’m performing, which is quite a challenge since I’’m not a performer and am a pretty physically awkward person. When coming up with the idea for the show, I asked myself, "What would be the most extreme form of performance I could inflict on myself?" And the answer was: "A one-person cabaret show with singing and dancing."

The concept behind the show is that it’’s something that any ordinary person should be able to perform, because it’’s about all the terrible but ordinary things that happen to everyone. All the songs and stories are about heartbreak, loneliness, aging, sickness, and death, but the stories are funny and the songs are upbeat. I would hope that the themes stick with audience members, but in a comforting rather than traumatizing way.

RP: You were born in Korea but raised in in the US. Does this raise questions of identity?

YJL: Yes. You grow up feeling like you don’’t fit in anywhere.

RP: Have you been to Korea in the past? Are you looking forward to performing in Korea next Spring? Why?

YJL: Yes, but not since I was in college. I am looking forward to performing in Korea, but I’’m nervous about the language barrier and how the show will translate through the subtitles. The show has to be funny in a subtle way to work, and subtle humor is hard to translate!

YOUNG JEAN LEE, ⓒBlaine Davis


YOUNG JEAN LEE

YOUNG JEAN LEE is an OBIE award-winning playwright and director who has been called "the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation" by the New York Times and "one of the best experimental playwrights in America" by Time Out New York. She has written and directed nine shows in New York with Young Jean Lee’’s Theater Company and toured her work to over twenty cities around the world. Her plays have been published by Theatre Communications Group (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays, The Shipment and Lear) and by Samuel French (Three Plays by Young Jean Lee). She is currently under commission from Plan B/Paramount Pictures, Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizons, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She is a member of New Dramatists and 13P and has an MFA from Mac Wellman’’s playwriting program at Brooklyn College. She has received grants from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Creative Capital, NYFA, NEA, NYSCA, the Jerome Foundation, the Greenwall Foundation, and the Rockefeller MAP Foundation. She is also the recipient of two OBIE awards, the Festival Prize of the Zuercher Theater Spektakel, a 2010 Prize in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2012 Doris Duke Artist Award.

YOUNG JEAN LEE’’S THEATER COMPANY
 

Renata Petroni_ Director of Int’l Programs at the NPN
Renata Petroni has developed cultural exchange programs and international partnerships since 1980, first as Director of the National Performance Network and The Suitcase Fund, two programs of Dance Theater Workshop in New York City and later as Director of Projects and Partnerships at Arts International.    Following her engagement at the Universal EXPO 92 in Seville, Spain, she founded Two Moon, an international production company which produced and toured new works by contemporary U.S. and European artists.  Ms. Petroni is currently the Director of International Programs at the National Performance Network, designed to increase artistic exchange and knowledge building between the United States, Latin America and Asia.
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