Beginner's Guide to Young Jean Lee's Theater Company -- Untitled Feminist Show Mar 27, 2013

by Heidi

1. Young Jean Lee is . . . a total badass.  She has been named one of the 25 people who will shape American theater in the next 25 years by American Theater magazine and "one of the best experimental playwrights in America" by David Cote in Time Out New York. Lee has also been awarded a place amongst the inaugural class of Dorris Duke Performing Artists (amongst the likes of Richard Maxwell, Ralph Lemon, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Liz LeCompte (The Wooster Group)) and was the recipient of the 2011 Spaulding Gray Award. She is really good at her job.  


2. It’s a known fact that the first question Young Jean Lee asks herself when starting a new play is, “What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?” And then she forces herself to write it. This approach frequently leads Young Jean into controversial territory—if there was a list of squeamish subjects one could write plays about, Young Jean would be systematically checking items off of it.  She has written plays about being Korean (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven), being African American (The Shipment,which showed at On the Boards in 2009), religion (Church), death (We’re Gunna Die), and now feminism (Untitled Feminist Show). One reason why she is considered one of the best experimental playwrights in America is because she approaches these subjects with the intelligence, honesty and humor capable of avoiding polemic or reductive work. 

3. Why does Young Jean start thinking about all of her plays by challenging herself to write the last play she would ever want to make?  It has to do with how she began playwriting in the first place.  Young Jean was actually a PhD candidate studying Shakespeare at Berkley (read: a very smart lady).  While working on her dissertation, with the help of a therapist, Young Jean discovered she sincerely hated academia and was studying Shakespeare because she, unknown to herself until then, wanted to be a playwright. In the bravest and most terrifying decision she had ever made in her previously ‘risk adverse’ life, Lee quit grad school, enrolled in a playwriting MFA program and moved to New York to become a playwright.  This rift, she claims, rewired her brain: the best thing she’d ever done was also the scariest thing. Ever since, she has challenged herself to be a creative risk taker.  

4. Part of the experimental nature of Young Jean Lee’s work is its collaborative process.  She never has a script in hand when she casts for her plays so she never has specific characters to cast for.  Instead, she simply chooses people who are charismatic and intelligent, claiming it’s immediately obvious who will be cast.  She then works with the cast and the crew to develop a script.  Commenting on her process in an interview with Sara Benson, the artistic director of the SoHo Rep, Young Jean Lee discloses that her, “strategy for making theater is just to pick really impossible things that I can’t do by myself and surround myself with geniuses and then just have us all sort of beat our brains out.” This includes directors, dramaturges, choreographers, and performers.  

5. Untitled Feminist Show deals with feminism—a sort of neon word: it is divisive, it holds a lot of weight, it is frequently avoided, and it is constantly being redefined.   Interestingly to me, Lee talks about how in the first month or so of rehearsals, the cast and crew would just sit in a circle and have long discussions about feminism . . .  talking about it until, I guess, no words were left—seeing as this is a show without dialogue.  She worked extremely closely with New York choreographer Faye Driscoll on this movement-heavy piece, but still calls it theater because, Lee explains, it is in dialogue with peers as a piece of theater, but wouldn’t be as a piece of dance.  It will be interesting to see what can be said about feminism without any words and how this piece could speak to the feminist movement that currently, feels at once necessary and hard to talk about.