Young Jean Lee on Why You Need to Let Yourself Write Badly Sometimes

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Photo Source: Blaine Davis

Young Jean Lee’s “We’re Gonna Die” is not about dying, though you’d be forgiven for thinking as much. Written in the aftermath of her father’s passing, the piece is rather a collection of true stories and is Lee’s attempt at comforting those in its path, an objective in stark contrast to much of her work prior to this point (including her Broadway debut from last season, “Straight White Men”). Ahead of the Raja Feather Kelley–directed production’s opening on Feb. 25 at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, Lee spoke with Backstage about finding your voice as a writer and the equal parts depressing-yet-empowering notion of producing your own work. 

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“We’re Gonna Die” is described as a “non-musical/non-play/non-concert that is not about dying”—so what is it about? 
I wrote the show right after my father had passed away. It was my first experience losing somebody close to me, and things were just terrible in general. I remember walking around and looking at everybody going about their days normally and thinking, “Oh my god, I’m so alone. There is nobody that feels as bad as I do and everyone else is fine.” I wanted to make a show where somebody who is feeling or has felt the way I felt then, can watch it and feel comforted. That was basically the impetus. It wasn’t “I want to make a play.” It was just like, “What is going to be comforting?”

At the same time, I have this really masochistic way of making shows, which is, “What’s the last thing in the world you would ever want to do?” And then I force myself to do that thing. I just started asking everyone I knew about the most terrible things that had happened to them, memories of feeling horrible and alone. People started telling me their stories and I started weaving all of them together into a narrative for one person. The story about my dad in the play, that is my story. But everything else just comes from people. Even though there are autobiographical elements driving it, the whole thing was made to be as universal as possible. So I think in some ways, it’s my most successful show in that it’s set out to do a very specific thing and I feel like it does do that thing.

When writing a new show, do you usually start out with a specific intent? 
Actually, yes. I think there is always something I want to do to an audience, and then the mission, the process becomes about shutting off all the escape hatches. In general, people don’t want to sit with anything uncomfortable. When you go to see a work of art and anything in it makes you uncomfortable, you want to be able to dismiss it, so I just try to figure out all the ways people will try to dismiss the show. We would call it building a trap and then we would seal off all the escape hatches so we can leave people trapped in there as much as possible. 

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Was the kind of storytelling you explore with this show a new experience?
Oh, yeah! Before “We’re Gonna Die,” I don’t think I ever had to do a linear story. All my plays were, like, these crazy nonlinear wild things. So to actually have to tell coherent stories one after the other that sort of build, that was definitely a new experience for me. It was also a new experience trying to comfort, because the motto of my theater company is “Destroy the Audience,” so we’re also going for maximum discomfort and this show was the opposite. We were going for maximum comfort and it was the opposite of everything I was used to doing. 

Do you find you learn new things about your work once actors begin to interpret it? 
Oh yes. For all the shows I direct, the actors are very very involved in the creation of their roles and the roles were written for them, usually. I don’t think I’ve ever done a show where the actors were cast to type and then they just did the role. They have veto power over everything, and they get to change lines. I’ll change lines a lot of times based on what they do in rehearsal or they’ll come up with line suggestions themselves. It’s super collaborative. And “We’re Gonna Die,” it’s in the script that tweaks should be made to fit the identity of the performer. So right now, there’s a lot of back and forth between Raja and me where Raja is saying, “Janelle [McDermoth, who stars in the show] doesn’t think these objects would be in her house” and I say, “OK, what would?” And she’ll give me a list and we’ll play back and forth. 

What is the advice you offer burgeoning writers to figure out what their voice even is?
I teach playwriting at Stanford and the thing that I battle against the most is when a young writer is reading a play and thinking, “Oh, this is what a play is supposed to be like,” or, “My monologues are too short because the monologues in this play are longer.” They’ll have these ideas about what a play is and is not just based on what they read. My biggest advice for young writers is to give yourself room to play around and change your mind and write badly and just experiment with stuff, as opposed to sitting down and trying to write a really good first draft. I think that all of the wild vision and creativity come from just having freedom to do whatever you want and not have something in your mind like, “This is what it’s supposed to be like.”

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Mainstream theater is still, unfortunately, very male-dominated; what’s your advice for aspiring female playwrights to forge ahead? 
I have to be honest: for me, the only route to production was self-production, which is a very depressing thing to say. I did so much work and was so prolific—I started playwriting in 2002 and got my first play produced in 2003 and then I got a play produced almost every year after that and it was all self-produced, co-productions. I don’t really know how it works outside of that. Producers don’t like anything that’s too different or seems hard. Honestly, I believe that none of my work would have been produced if I hadn’t self-produced, with the exception of “The Appeal” at Soho Rep. which was my only show that wasn’t a co-production. Other than that, I don’t know that I would have been able to get any of my work produced anywhere. I’m hoping and I think things are different now, that they’re changing. But self-producing is just so empowering and I experienced so little of that disempowered feeling as an artist, because I’ve always had power to make things happen. I never had to wait for anyone.

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