Young Jean Lee on Her Lear

01/20/2010 5:45 AM |

The L: Given that desire you mentioned a minute ago about to step beyond your own achievements, what have been some of the biggest challenges with this production? Did you cut out the character of Lear and Shakespeare's text out right away?
YJL: I experimented with that and I tried stuff out, but at a certain point I was just like, well, the things that are great about King Lear I'm never going to be able to compete with or replicate and it would be stupid to try. And I have tried and failed. So what could I do to save my skin? I think the reason that I cut the Lear and Gloucester characters from the play is that I failed. I couldn't do it. I couldn't write those characters in a way that felt honest to me.

The L: But in some sense that seems to be the challenge that you often present yourself with—writing an "other" that's not comfortable or that's not familiar.
YJL: Yes.

The L: And so much of it seems to be about identity—though this show is less about identity that some of the others of yours that I know. So, it's interesting to hear you say that you felt you couldn't write those.
YJL: Well, the reason why it was hard to write for the old men was that it was too easy, because they're so detached from the experience. I could really let it rip—it wasn't painful for me. Whereas writing for the kids was really painful and that was actually harder. So I guess that's why I couldn't write for the old men, because it was too easy and it wasn't honest.

The L: A lot of people have never read King Lear and never will read it, but it's in some ways irrelevant to the work you've created. Were you ever concerned about what the audience was bringing or not bringing to the table in terms of knowledge of Shakespeare's work?
YJL: It was more of a problem. The play doesn't have anything to do with the actual King Lear if you look at the text. I borrowed a theme, this idea, this image of adult children with their parents out in the storm and it's not even accurate at that level. Its relationship to [Shakespeare's] Lear is so thin. I worried about people sitting there thinking, "Am I not understanding this because I don't know Lear?" That's why I have the pre-show announcement and the little synopsis that people can read. I don't feel like it's a show where knowledge of Lear contributes that richly to the experience. I think it would be really annoying, more than anything else, if you were really trying to look for what this play is trying to say about [Shakespeare's work].

The L: Another thing that interested me about your show is that the first half of the show then flips into quite something different in the second half. Which also seems to be something you enjoy doing in your work—setting up an expectation and then defying it. Where do you think that tendency comes from?
YJL: My enemy is complacency. I hate it in myself and I hate it in general. I think it leads to really bad things happening, where everything in your world just validates your beliefs, so you're constantly being stroked and told that you're right and you never have to question any of your beliefs or ideas. I think that's so dangerous. I feel like if you go to see a work of theater and it just reinforces all of your pre-existing beliefs and you get exactly what you're expecting—I don't think that's good for people. I've never stated it in such a moralistic way, but I guess I do feel moralistic about it because, on principle, I think it's good to ask questions, to have things split apart and become fragmented and contradictory.