Young Jean Lee on Her Lear

01/20/2010 5:45 AM |

The L: It seems like you're also creating your own opportunities. If you want to put on a show, you put on a show, which does seem to have allowed you to skip past some of those issues. Which is tied up in the reality that within experimental theater you have to self-produce your work to get a career started, if not to continue it.
YJL: It's weird because self-production in experimental theater is just what you do, or at least in the circles that I was in that's what you did. The thing that people have to understand is that I don't have any training in theater-making, so my standards for what constitutes the norm all have to do with these avant-garde downtown [New York] companies. I really have no idea what's going on Off-Broadway or on Broadway. Everyone I know, they go to see theater and I'm almost completely detached from all of that. I have no idea who the Tony Award winners are for a given year. So when I think about self-production, there was just never really another option.

The L: And what about with the first show you had produced—your first show here at the Soho Rep?
YJL: They did produce it. That was my only show that wasn't at least in part a self-production. But it's also Soho Rep, so there wasn't in the end that much difference. They were like, "This is your budget, this is what you've got."

The L: To stay on the point about your theater training for a second, aside from your MFA in playwriting, I'm curious about where you learned to direct. Because it's so clear in your work that every piece has a such strong directorial vision, in addition o the strength of to your writing. Were you self-taught? Is directing even something that a person can teach themselves?
YJL: I wouldn't say I'm a self-taught director, well, kind of—I'm not a trained director. I learned from watching Radiohole, basically. I watched them direct and that's how I learned.

The L: Where do you think the precision of your directing comes from?
YJL: If writing is torture for me, directing is the one thing in my life that comes naturally. It's almost pure instinct. So directing is almost pure pleasure, because it's something I can do instinctively.

The L: That's interesting because most of my experience with directors is that it's so much about trying to find a way to explain what's happening so that an actor can discover something on their own.
YJL: Yeah, no, I don't do any of that. I give line readings and I drive them crazy and I micromanage them and I'm terrible. I have a really strong theory about directors and my theory is that you can only judge a director by the results. If a director consistently gets good results, they can be the worst director in the world. I know a lot of different directors and they all have wildly different styles and there's just certain people where they’re able to be that catalyst. And I seriously believe that you could be the worst director in the world, but if you have that quality of being a catalyst, you can consistently bring together amazing people and get good results. And for this show, everybody that worked on it was phenomenal, so if you're going to refer to my directing, it's just all about those people that I was able to bring together. But in terms of getting actors to make discoveries, I do every single thing that a director is absolutely not supposed to do. Some actors can't take it, but this cast has been angelic about it, absolutely angelic. I write them speeches and then I change them right before they go on stage. I'll take someone's line and give it to someone else. I'll stitch together a speech for somebody out of all the lines I've taken away from everybody else and make them memorize it right before they go onstage. It's horrible, absolutely horrible. But I'm able to create an environment where people are able to survive all of that, and I think that's what's important.

The L: Do you think that tension creates a freshness onstage?
YJL: They're very prepared. They know the terms, nothing is ever a surprise. From day one it's clear that I have no idea what I'm doing and that I'm completely lost and that they're going to be really exposed and confused and vulnerable and they know that pretty early on, so they get pretty tough really fast. I put the actors through things that I would never be able to survive myself and they're just… they come up roses every time.

The L: What's next for you?
YJL: A feminist technology show. It's going to be all female tech people. So I'm looking for someone who can do lasers and holographic projections and videos and it's going to be the most tech heavy show. And I don't know anything about tech. When I say lasers, I don't even know what lasers are, I just know they sound technological.

The L: And where is that going to be? Is that for one of the commissions?
YJL: I think that's going to be the Lincoln Center piece.

The L: Anything you wish I had asked or want to add?
YJL: Just about it being a collaboration. That it's not all about them forming my perfect vision. Basically I'm like a vampire and I suck out everybody's genius and mush it together. That's my job.

(photo credit: Blaine Davis)