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TBA Online: News & Features: February 2014

“The Most Amazing Feeling": An Interview with Young Jean Lee

Wednesday, January 29, 2014  
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By Lily Janiak



New York-based playwright, director and occasional performer Young Jean Lee is widely regarded as one of the most important experimental American theatre artists of our time, and tomorrow, an important production of hers comes to the Bay Area for the first time (though Crowded Fire Theater produced the West Coast premiere of her Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven in 2011).



The original cast of Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show. Photo: Blaine Davis



Untitled Feminist Show, which will be performed at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is a wordless piece of dance-theatre exploring and then dismantling notions of gender. It stars six "female-coded” performers (one is transgender), all of very different shapes and sizes, who are in the nude for the entire show. Lee developed the piece with the original cast (five out of six of whom are coming to the Bay Area) as well as an associate director, Morgan Gould, and a choreographer, Faye Driscoll. It premiered in Minneapolis and then New York in 2012 and has since toured the country and the world. In honor of its Bay Area premiere, listings editor Lily Janiak interviews Lee about her developmental process for the piece, its impact on audiences and her coming projects.

LJ: I saw Untitled Feminist Show shortly after it premiered in New York, and read in the show program that part of the goal of the show is to create a "feminist utopia,” to broaden the spectrum of how one is allowed to be in terms of gender. How do you go about that in the rehearsal room, particularly in a show that requires such trust among performers who, coming from fields as varied as dance, theatre, stand-up comedy, burlesque and cabaret, didn’t know each other at first?

YJL: We spent the first month basically just talking, nonstop. All of us were telling our stories and talking about our experiences—what we’ve been through, what we thought of feminism, our experience of our bodies. We all just got really close to each other. And I think that’s really how the process was built.

How did the rehearsal process evolve from there?

While we were having all these conversations, [we were] simultaneously doing a lot of improvisation—some of it clothed, some of it unclothed. I knew I wanted movement in the show, so we were trying to figure out what that would be. The first act had a lot of text that was based on conversations we had in the room, and gradually we just cut more and more words.

What was the logic behind that?

When we did the first workshop, everyone had such a great time [talking] about feminism—I mean people loved that first workshop. [But] none of the arguments were anything that any of us had not heard before. It just felt like being in college again—the same arguments, but no solutions. I realized that, as long as there were any words, people would just latch onto that and start going into their undergrad "Intro to Feminism” mode. The only way to avoid that was just to cut out words entirely.

One of the (very few) criticisms I’ve read of the show is that, as part of a broader feminist artistic movement, it doesn’t chart new ground but rather retreads old ideas. Where do you locate your show in a tradition of feminist politics in the arts?

I would sort of half-agree with that statement. Part of the reason why it doesn’t chart new ground is because I don’t think that feminism is charting new ground. I think it’s moving backwards to a really frightening extent. So when I was making the show, I didn’t feel like, "Oh yeah, collectively, as a culture, we’re in this completely exciting new place with feminism that I want to delve into.” I felt like we didn’t have the basics yet.

It’s shocking, the number of women I talk to today who don’t identify as feminists. You know, every woman I know has body issues, eating issues. There haven’t [always] been all of the rights that previous generations of women fought for; it wasn’t that long ago that women couldn’t have credit cards, you know? And as women we just take all of that for granted now—to the point where a woman would actually say, "I’m not feminist.”

The biggest critics of the show have been not sexist people or ordinary people. The biggest critics of the show are twofold: one, people in the modern dance community, who are like, "This isn’t cutting-edge modern dance”—which it’s not supposed to be. The hardcore academic feminists have been very supportive of the show because I think they understand where it’s coming from. But the second group of people, who are—not all of them, but certain small groups—artists doing feminist art, got mad because the show wasn’t more critical, more confrontational of sexism, that it’s not more of a hard-hitting critique and a cry of outrage. I feel like, in this show, I’m just trying to achieve a very basic thing, which is to celebrate the possibility of people with female-coded bodies being free to have fun and enjoy their bodies and play and slip into different roles. It’s meant to be a celebration. And to that extent I feel like it’s sort of unique.

When I saw the show, one of the things that most fascinated me about my reaction was how my perception of the performers’ bodies changed over the course of the show.

Yeah, that’s major. I would say that’s the point of the show, to disassociate those shapes not only from whatever associations we have but just from gender, period. Men in particular have said that they identified very strongly with the show because they felt that, because the bodies became ungendered for them, they started to identify with [the performers], and feel an absence of a divide between them and the bodies onstage. An old man came up to me after the show with his wife one night, and he was practically in tears. He was like, "That was a show about being a human being,” which I felt was what we were going for.

You’ve said that during previous productions, with The Shipment, in particular, you would sit in the audience, and that the way people reacted was deeply disturbing to you. Have you done the same with Untitled Feminist Show?

No. I did watch it every night. But it’s not as painful of a show to watch because it’s not meant to be confrontational with the audience. It’s meant to be fun; it’s meant to be a good time and it’s meant to make people laugh.

The piece as I saw it New York seemed to come so directly from what those specific performers wanted to communicate about their lives and their experiences of gender. You’ve added different cast members since then; has the piece evolved as a result?

It’s exactly the same but still completely different. With every new cast member the show definitely changes. But most of the show is not about individuals but the energy between everybody, so to that extent, the show feels very similar.

I understand that you aren’t planning to create a textual version of the show. But if the production can live beyond its original cast members, do you see there being a life to it beyond this specific tour?

Oh, that’s a really good question. Hm! I wonder. I might look into that and see what the possibilities are.

Throughout your work, there are things that don’t seem like they should go together: in Untitled Feminist Show, Mozart and a carnivorous ballet scene; or, in Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, a series of gruesome suicides with Mariah Carey’s "All I Want for Christmas Is You” playing. What’s that like for you, getting ideas to mash such disparate things together?

Oh my god, it’s the most amazing feeling. When something clicks into place like that, that’s probably the best part of art-making—when you figure something out and it comes together. So much of directing and writing is just instinct; you can sense when something works. It’s the best feeling in the world. It’s like falling in love or something. And you can be wrong—you can fall in love with someone who’s a total sociopath. But in that moment, you just feel that rush.

You have a career-long philosophy of embarking on projects that seem like they would be bad on purpose, which in recent years has come to mean projects that scare you. What scares you about your next two projects, Straight White Men and Here Come the Girls?

Here Come the Girls is done; it’s a short film that’s already been made. I think my filmmaking operates by a different principle from my theatre-making, and I’m still figuring that out because that was my first film. But for Straight White Men, the thing that’s terrified me the most is the fact that it’s just a straight play. Right now we’re working on the set design, and I have so much anxiety around it—it’s like I can’t listen to my impulses, because all of my impulses scream away from naturalism. So it’s been a really tricky process, trying to make something that feels right to me in a genre that I just don’t relate to at all.

Untitled Feminist Show runs Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2014 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Lily Janiak is listings editor of Theatre Bay Area.