In a relatively short period of time, Young Jean Lee and her theater company have found great success in the world of experimental theater. Ever since her first show, The Appeal, was produced at the Soho Rep in 2004, she has steadily produced one play each year, all of them meeting with interest within the theater community, often receiving critical praise.
This month she returns to the springboard that launched her career, Soho Rep, to open their season with her latest work, Lear (through February 14). I sat down with her in the basement of the theater the day after Lear opened to talk about her career and the new show.
The L: Back in 2002 you were writing your thesis on Shakespeare's King Lear when you decided to leave grad school at UC Berkeley and come to New York to pursue a career as a theater artist rather than a theater academic. What made you decide to leave?
Young Jean Lee: I was so not cut out for academia. I really hated it. I didn't grow up feeling like I had a lot of options in life. When I was in college, my Shakespeare professors really took to me and I really took to them. So I ended up getting groomed for this academic track and pursuing that. And I really loved Shakespeare. But I really hated academia, I hated academic writing, I hated research. When I made the decision to leave and do theater, I was so starved because I had spent my entire life never having pursued something that I actually wanted to do. I think I was 26 or 27, maybe even 28, but you know I was older, and there was a lifetime of frustrated desire behind me. So when I found it, it was like falling in love, when I found the place where I belonged, I just threw myself into it. And I think when you have that kind of total, unambiguous feeling that this is what you want, and there's no ambivalence whatsoever, there's a real energy behind that and I think that's why things happened so quickly. I was kind of relentless.
The L: From what I understand, after arriving in New York you immediately jumped into the Playwriting MFA program at Brooklyn College with Mac Wellman. You also had an internship with Radiohole, and then pretty much immediately started to form your theater company. What did that mean for you? I sense that you founded the company because of the impatience to get started that you just spoke about.
YJL: I think it had more to do with the models I was looking at, because I was only looking at and interested in experimental theater. My dream was not to be on Broadway or even Off-Broadway, my dream was to be doing what Richard Maxwell was doing and Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group and Radiohole. That's what I wanted and all those people have companies and so that's what I went for.
The L: And what did it mean in practice for you to start a theater company, in terms of figuring out how to sort out all the details and finances? Did you understand at that early stage what it meant to start a company?
YJL: Kind of. I was an administrative assistant [at the Soho Rep], so I basically knew how a non-profit was run. And all of my day jobs were with non-profits. I worked for Theatre Communications Group, I worked for an organization called Poets & Writers. And then with Radiohole and National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA) when they were in the early stages of really getting established. I actually helped to set up the administration for NTUSA. I got a lot of experience really quickly, so when I went in I sort of knew what was going on.