August 14th, 2018
About a month ago, The New York Times published a profile of playwright and sometimes director Young Jean Lee in The New York Times Magazine, the paper’s Sunday supplement that is home to some of their most prestigious profile pieces. The profile, by Parul Sehgal, was the first feature on a female theatre writer or director to appear in the magazine in recent memory. The occasion was for Young Jean’s play, Straight White Men, which marks her Broadway debut, as well as the first time a play by an Asian woman has been produced on Broadway. Young Jean has been a staple of the downtown theatre community for years, with her own theatre company where she writes and directs. She has also, for whatever reason, been a slightly enigmatic figure—everyone in theatre seems to know her or know someone who knows her or knows in general what her process and outlook is, but then seems to falter when asked for specifics. Now, her play is on a large stage with a starry cast. Straight White Men is about three brothers and their father, and how they react when the eldest brother, the star of their pack, moves back home and takes a menial job. I recently spoke with Young Jean about her process for writing Straight White Men, how she views the audience, ambition, and more.
You wrote Straight White Men a while ago, and there was the production at The Public in 2014. How did you decide how much you wanted to think about or incorporate what’s been happening in the world since then? Did you want to leave it with your initial impulses for why you decided to write it, or did you want to try to see what ways things could be brought out a little differently given what’s been happening culturally and politically?
When the play was first produced at The Public in 2014, almost nobody really understood what it was about or comprehended the themes in the play. People tended to focus a lot on the family dynamics, and a lot of audience members had actually not heard the word privilege used in relation to identity. They had heard it used in relation to wealth, but not other things. So there was just a lot of sort of mystified, “I don’t know what they’re talking about” [reactions].
When we did it at Steppenwolf last year, things had gotten a little bit better, but there were still a lot of people not really understanding what anybody was talking about in the show. There’s been a huge leap since that production in Chicago. The vocabulary around identity politics has really expanded, so more people are familiar with certain terms and ideas. The play is pretty similar thematically to what it was back then, but it’s just that way more people understand what’s happening between the characters.
Does that really affect your development process? In the sense that you had one production where a lot the audience reactions might not be so relevant anymore?
Actually, not really. The play was also very, very hard to follow when we did it at The Public. So, it was the one-two punch of the audience not really being equipped to understand what was going on, and then even to follow what was going on. The play itself was just very hard to follow in terms of the arguments and what people were discussing. I would say that the progression over the past four years has been from obscurity combined with lack of information to the script being much, much clearer, and the audience being much, much more included.
What did you find were the greatest challenges in balancing the intellectual aims of the play with the theatrical, bodies in space part of it?
You’ve just hit on the crux of the challenge of this play. The physical family dynamics came very much out of the research that I did. And whenever I do a show that deals with an identity, I try to be as true as possible to the stories that I hear from the people whom I interview about the identity. So, that became a very important part of the show. And that part came much more easily because I heard such similar stories from so many different people about what they’re like with their brothers and what they’re like with their siblings. That part came together pretty quickly.
All of the content, the stuff that they talk about and the progression of that narrative with Matt [the eldest brother], that just took forever. It was so slow. Making that stuff legible, having it come from character as opposed to just being shoved in because I needed the audience to have that piece of information, it was just a real challenge. And most of the rewriting that happened was around that.
I felt at The Public that this isn’t working. It was really very painful for me, because there was an entire run of a show where I felt like I hadn’t figured it out yet. And so then, when I took it to Steppenwolf, I just rewrote continually over the course of those rehearsals and really rewrote the script from top to bottom. It was just a daily thing of, “Okay, let’s make this moment better, let’s make this moment clearer.” And I feel like we got to a place at Steppenwolf where the show worked much better.
A lot has been said in other interviews about your process of doing a lot of talking to people, a lot of talking to the actors, and even using social media. I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit more about that and how that works in a practical way?
I like working with identities and stories outside of my own experience, so it’s kind of just a necessity. For Straight White Men, I knew that I wanted a banker, a novelist, somebody who was living at home, and an older retired engineer. So, I just posted on Facebook, “Hey, does anybody know straight white men who fit this description?” And people were like, oh my uncle, my cousin, I went to college with this guy. So all my Facebook friends hooked me up with these guys. I interviewed a bunch of novelists, a bunch of bankers, a bunch of retired engineers. I even interviewed a bunch of women who I modeled the mom character after, who’s not in the play. I would just talk to them and get their personal histories [and ask], “And what do you like to do? What would you do in this situation? What would you do if this happened? What would be your reaction?” And just asked them tons and tons of questions. In interviewing a wide range of people, a character begins to emerge in my mind and I learn how they speak, and I learn what the person’s background is and where they’re coming from.
With the actors, I would do the same thing, but we would take it a step further. I would have them do improvs. I don’t know what guys act like when a woman isn’t around, so I would have them just improvise situations. One situation was, “Okay, you are walking down the street, and this guy is coming towards you that you were in a play with ten years ago and you were really, really close during the run of the play, but then you haven’t spoken in ten years. And you see him walking down the street, and you guys see each other. And then what do you do? And what happens to you?” Then they would improvise a little moment, and they would tell me what had happened to them inside of themselves in that moment. They described this feeling that they called the clench. And what the clench is, is it’s this moment where you’re walking towards the guy and he’s walking towards you, and you have this clench moment of, how am I going to physically interact with this person in this moment in a way that is going to be considered acceptable for me as a straight guy? Do we hug? Do we shake hands? How do I interact? And that moment of having to decide is the clench of decision. I found that really interesting. I would ask them about scenarios like, “Your best friend’s wife has just left him and he’s devastated and you go over to his house. What does that conversation look like?” And it was just hilarious, because they would come in and be like, “Hey man how’s it going?” The other guy is like, “Yeah, oh man, this sucks.” The other guy’s like, “Yeah, want to play some basketball?” And then they would play basketball for a while, and they would just keep playing basketball in this improvisation and never go back to the conversation about the fact that this guy is devastated. They did lots of scenarios like that and I got a sense of the rhythms of speech and all of that.
When you’re working that way, how do you deal with people being unreliable narrators of their own experiences? Especially with social media, where there can be such a difference in how people portray themselves and what’s true. Is that something you take into account?
That’s why I interview so many people. I interviewed maybe six novelists, and there were these points of overlap in everyone’s stories that then became parts of Drew. All the stuff with the siblings, I didn’t believe that adult siblings could behave that childishly around each other, because I’m an only child. And I was like, “I don’t buy this.” But then I kept hearing story after story after story after story. And I was like, “Okay, too many people are saying this for it to be a lie.” As an experiment, I just put it in the way people were telling me, and then we showed it at the Wexner Center in Ohio. This 80-year-old man came up to me afterwards and he was like, “You know what, I’m in my 80s, my brothers are all in their 80s, we still act exactly like that when we get home and we’re alone together.”
Another thing that came up a lot in interviews with you was your company motto, “destroy the audience.” How do you conceive of the audience when you’re writing, and at what point does the audience really enter into the process?
I like to have audience as soon as possible in the process. I tend to not bring outsiders in until we have enough to run something from beginning to end, but I will have lots of assistant directors in the room. I love having people to watch and give feedback. And as soon as we can run anything, I will bring strangers in and get their responses. For me, so much of the play is the relationship with the audience and how they react, so, I like to bring them in as quickly as possible.
Do you actively think about audience when you’re writing?
No, it’s more like I write the thing and then I immediately am testing it. So, I guess I think about audience when I am interacting with audience members to sort of collaborate on the show.
Audience is such a generic word, and can be as specific or general as you want it to be, and can be different in different places, parts of town, venues. How do you wrap your head around that?
That’s actually how the pre-show music came about at The Public, because I knew that that audience was a certain type of audience. I knew that my downtown audience was a certain type of audience, and when they came into the theatre, I wanted them to feel like, “Oh, this is Young Jean Lee’s show. This is a space that I feel comfortable in and that was designed for me,” and it was meant to be this kind of welcoming thing in that space.
Do you consider your plays to exist mostly in relationship to other plays, or do you see them more as existing in relationship to life? Or a mixture of both, or none of the above?
I see them as being all of them. I would say that every single one of them are in this kind of contentious relationship with audience complacency. What I mean by that is, audience members, among whom I include myself, we tend to want to be able to dismiss things quickly. Maybe it’s just a jaded New Yorker type of thing [of], “But I’ve seen that before. I know what that is.” You categorized something and you’re like, “Forget that.” People do it all day long, and we’re just kind of on automatic. “This is this type of person. This is that type of person. This is this type of show. This is this type of art.” Maybe part of it is because we have so much here, so, this is how we sort of filter things out.
When I’m making work, I’m very much thinking about how there’s a relationship between whatever the play is doing and whatever sort of automatic dismissive mechanisms people have for not wanting to deal with a particular issue. I think all of my plays have some sort of issue that they’re wrestling with that the audience normally doesn’t want to wrestle with. They want to be like, “I know what that is,” and not have to wrestle, because it’s a human instinct not to want to have to be challenged. We automatically just want things to be easier. So trying to figure out these sneaky ways around that is the main relationship for me between the play and the audience.
Do you feel like there are stories or other parts of culture that have influenced your thinking or your worldview around that?
I think that that comes from having grown up in a very small town, and in a very small town there tends to be this narrower way of thinking, where you’re just like, “This is our community. This is what we believe. These are the types of people we are,” and is not super open to something outside of that. Then I went to Berkeley, which was very, very liberal, and I started to feel at Berkeley a similar vibe to my small town that I grew up in. Where it’s just like, “We know everything, we’re right about everything. Anybody who doesn’t agree with us is stupid and wrong.” A sort of a lack of openness. I think that because I really was unhappy with the lack of openness when I was growing up, I just have a natural aversion to it. I think that trying to overcome complacency comes from that place of actually being at the wrong end of that narrow-mindedness when I was growing up, and I just don’t trust it.
I was reading in another interview where you said that you thought because you didn’t go to grad school for playwriting until you were 29, that made a big impact.
I was wondering if you would talk a little bit more about that? Do you think that was from age and experience and when you’re a little older you’re not necessarily so vulnerable? Do you feel like that still has an ongoing impact on your work?
Definitely. I think that was weirdly a huge advantage for me starting so late. I think there’s a weird thing in theatre, and I think that it’s especially for women, where young women are just not taken seriously. I’ve known a lot of brilliant theatre directors in their 20s who are female and nobody’s ever going to hire them for anything because they are just too young. I think I sort of bypassed all of that. I never really had to go through the young woman not to be taken seriously thing.
Also, I spent ten years studying Shakespeare [prior to starting an MFA in playwriting]. I feel that Shakespeare is a very culturally misunderstood writer in our time. People think of him as very canonical, traditional. The way actors do Shakespeare is so pretentious and self-important. I think that Shakespeare was writing for the people and he was a crazy writer. His writing is crazy. I don’t like this reverent way it’s dealt with now, and I think it ruins productions. But studying his work for ten years, and reading so much, was good training for becoming a writer.
When you started your own company, did you feel like you hit up against any of the gendered stuff of not being taken as seriously as maybe you would have been if you were a white guy?
It’s interesting, because I think that I stumbled upon a gold mine when I first came to New York. The fact that I was attracted to experimental theatre, downtown theatre, as opposed to traditional theatre, I think that saved me. Because in the world where I was operating, diversity was valued. People were looking for that. Presenters actively wanted a woman of color. Diversity was actually something that people were into. So, I feel like I was in this tiny bubble where my identity actually worked in my favor.
But theatre is so dominated by men that no matter what kind of sheltered bubble you’re in, you’re going to encounter sexist bullshit. That’s just always going to be an issue. It’s so incredible to me that people are starting to speak up about that stuff in a pretty brave way. Because we’re still in a time where people who are speaking up are still afraid, but they’re doing it. That has been completely huge for me.
On the race side of things, professionally I feel like because of where I started out it was actually an asset because people were looking for new voices. But I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been at a party and I’ve been introduced to people who have absolutely no interest in talking to me or they’re not friendly to me at all, and then they come running back over to me later once they have found out who I am. And then they’re apologetic, like, “Oh sorry, we didn’t realize who you were, we’re such big fans.” That happens to me kind of a lot. I was thinking about it and posted on Facebook about it. The theories seem to be that because there aren’t a ton of Asian women in great positions of power and fame and wealth, and whatever else is valued in New York, a lot of people, unconsciously, when they meet an Asian-American woman, they just assume that she’s going to be somebody they would have no interest in. I feel like that happens to me a lot, where they meet me and they just assume that I’m not going to have anything to offer as a person because of my identity.
What is your personal relationship with ambition?
It’s a weird thing. I remember the first gig that I ever was offered in New York, I actually turned down because I didn’t want to do it and I didn’t think that it was going to be good. That’s always been what’s guided me throughout my career. I’ve taken so many steps away from so many opportunities to advance in a way that would be considered sort of conventionally [correct].
There are so many playwrights who are younger than I am who have their own TV shows and they’re blowing up and they’re writing movies for Hollywood. I feel like I have engaged in that some, but I haven’t really aggressively pursued that stuff. Sometimes I do feel a little bit of this feeling of, “I don’t want to be left behind.” There’s a part of me that feels like I don’t want to be less successful than my peers.
But I think that that is an impulse that I really have to fight against, because what has led me so far has always been doing something that challenges me, doing something that I’ve never done before. I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience of comfortably settling into an old mode that I’m familiar with, where I’m like, “Oh yeah, I know how to do this, I can rock this.” I can’t think of a single artistic project I’ve ever done in my entire life where I started out feeling like I’ve got this. That’s just never happened. And I think that as long as I keep doing that, I will be on the right track. But I will say that sometimes I do feel a little bit afraid of being left behind. Because there are other people out there, and they’re just full steam ahead, “I’m going to get as rich and famous as possible.” When you see people who are younger than you becoming rich, there is a part of you that’s like, “Oh, maybe I should be doing that. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken this path.” But it’s just not me. I don’t think that stuff makes me happy. I think what makes me happy is being challenged.
Do you have a spiritual life, and does it affect your work?
Yes. And I wish it affected my work more. I definitely I have as much of a spiritual life as is possible to have without meditating. For some reason, even though I know meditating is the best, I kind of refuse to do it out of some perverseness. At some point, I will begin a regular meditation practice. I think that’s probably a necessary thing for me to do.
I honestly do believe—and I haven’t found a non-cheesy way to say this—that we are all, basically, made out of the same stuff, or energy, or whatever you want to call it. Whenever my ego gets tempted to flare up and be like, “You’re this kind of bad person and I’m this kind of great person and fuck you,” I really try my best to remember that we’re made out of the same stuff. And if I had been born into the same family that you were born into, if I had grown up the way that you’d grown up and had your experiences, then I probably would have a lot of the same views and ways of behaving that you did. I think that has been super helpful to me. When you’re in the arts, there’s so much potential for ego and conflict, and I think that having a spiritual practice is so useful for reminding you of the fact that you’re not this completely isolated, special, different person, who’s better than other people. Which is something that all of us have a tendency to want to believe.
There’s been a lot of media attention around the fact that you’re the first Asian woman to have a play on Broadway. On a personal level, does that feel like pressure? Does that feel distant from you and about everyone else’s stuff? And professionally, does it ever feel like that conversation risks upstaging the work?
No. I don’t feel that way at all. I think the conversation’s great. I think it’s sad that it is the case. I don’t think it’s good that I’m the first Asian-American woman on Broadway. I think that is depressing. But the part that I think is great is that people are talking about it, and that it is seen as something that is important, that that door is open. I feel like Hamilton has had a huge impact on my career because Hamilton proved that a show made by a person of color for people of color to perform could be a huge hit. I think that had a huge impact on artists of color. I really do. I think that if this door opens and if the show does well, then that’s going to be helpful for other artists, the way that Hamilton was helpful for me.
In the recent New York Times profile, the writer, Parul Sehgal, was talking about how she kept bumping up against this idea of you as a fully formed artist who was just able to write a play and who was just able to direct and that kind of thing. I thought that was interesting, because on one hand that’s something that’s usually attributed to men, the idea of the boy genius. But on the other hand, I’ve heard a lot of female writers particularly talk about how something that they get frustrated by is the idea that their plays are written by magic, not skill. Lynn Nottage has talked about that a lot as something that irks her. How do you feel between those two poles in the discussion about you and your work?
The thing that bothers me a little bit is that the collaborative aspect of theatre is such a huge thing. I learned the theatre from watching so many people. I learned from Mac Wellman’s program. I learned from my peers. And all of my shows were made very, very collaboratively with the people. Because I started out sort of not knowing what I was doing, I relied on the people around me to provide information and guidance. I’m constantly in a position of learning. That idea of me as sort of springing into existence out of nowhere, I think a lot of that was what we were talking about with the fact that I came [to playwriting] so late in age, and I had these ten years of Shakespeare training. I think what made it feel like that was because I didn’t have the decade before where people saw me kicking around the scene. I already came in a package that people were willing to accept. They were willing to accept me as an artist.
What are your hopes and dreams professionally for the next few years?
I have a commission from Second Stage for another play at the Hayes. It’s a play about class, and it is kicking my ass. Culturally, we have such a problem in that we don’t have a vocabulary for talking about class. People don’t even know what class they are, they don’t know what class other people are. They don’t know how much money the rich have in this country, they don’t know how little the poor are living on. A lack of class awareness in this country is such a huge problem. And it makes it really, really difficult to write a play about class. It’s driving me absolutely bonkers right now. I did a workshop at NYU, and it kind of reminded me of Straight White Men in 2014. Nobody can even recognize class issues when they see them because they can only see race, because that’s what they have the vocabulary for, race and gender—which we’ve developed, fortunately, a vocabulary for that has become more culturally widespread. But I really need that to happen with class, because it’s very difficult to write about and represent. You can do “rich people bad, poor people good,” but to actually get into the nuances of class and what that means and what the issues are is just impossible. There was a part of me that was like, “I should just write a play about taxes.” But that’s impossible, because every little thing having to do with taxes is insanely complicated and would make for the most boring play in the world. So, I figured something out, which I can’t talk about yet, but I think it might work. It seems like a promising direction.