Young Jean Lee's idiosyncratic plays are acclaimed as much for making audiences think and laugh as making them squirm. Her previous experiments in discomfort included The Shipment, which featured an extremely talented all-black ensemble in a genre-defying show that explored how African Americans are perceived and portrayed in mass media. Last year's alternately funny and elusive Lear
cut Shakespeare's title character completely out of the picture to probe the pain of watching parents move closer to death. Lee loves turning on a dime and catching the audience mid-laugh to hold up to the light what's motivating the laughter.
But she doesn't spare herself from this uncomfortable examination, as her latest show demonstrates. Called We're Gonna Die, Lee set out to "create a show about ordinary human failings that an ordinary person could perform, experimenting with and subverting a genre that traditionally depends most heavily on star-power and charisma: the one-person cabaret show." To make things more difficult, she cast herself in the starring role. As Lee explains in this interview, she is decidedly not a performer, and We're Gonna Die has forced her to leave her comfort zone further behind than ever before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lou Reed LOVED it. The show continues at Joe's Pub through April 30th.
How did the actual experience of performing match up or not match up with what you expected? I really had no idea what to expect because I've never done anything like that before. I was even more terrified than I thought I was going to be. Right before both shows I was, like, hyperventilating and pacing the halls. Then the weird part is I'm hyperventilating right until the moment that I'm on stage, and when I'm on stage, I seem like I'm totally fine according to everybody who had seen me. Everybody says that I seem calm and that I'm not freaking out, but I'm still freaking out. It's a very strange experience. I feel like it can't possibly be the normal performer experience cause then nobody would do it!
Maybe everybody has it in different degrees and they learn how to master it. It's true, it's a very kind of surreal feeling once you're up there because it's almost like there's a disconnect, you know, I'm sort of going through the show, it's kind of acting in a way because the show sort of doesn't work if I seem scared, so I can't seem scared. It's this process of trying not to seem scared.
So you've never performed or had a desire to perform? I've done a little bit of performing in my life, there's a theater company called The National Theater of the United States of America, and I was in a show of theirs. I pretty much just played myself, the part was sort of written for me to do bad in. I performed a couple of nights in another collaboration I did with a European company, but again, I was just being myself. I have zero acting ability, I'm a little bit extreme in that sense where I just really cannot act at all.
I'm interested in seeing this show, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, but what about somebody who is not familiar with your work? How do you persuade someone to part with their hard-earned money to see a show starring someone who has the abilities that you just described? [Laughs] Well, that was the problem! Tickets are like $30 at Joe's Pub so it's really kind of expensive. I was really freaking out about that, that was a major concern. Basically, the entire show is constructed so that it can only be performed by somebody who's performing it the way that I do it. It wouldn't work at all if somebody got on stage and started being really fabulous. It's a show that was specifically built for an ordinary person to come on stage and perform.
The thing that's crazy about it is that I do experimental theater, so it's experimental; it's not linear, it's not super clear. It's experimental theater but this show is as accessible and entertaining as any show could possibly be. There's not a hint of weirdness or anything alienating about it at all, it's as simple as you can get. Actually, people who know nothing about me or my work, they've actually been hit hardest by the show. This show is really weird! None of us can figure out why it works. But, ever since we started doing invited rehearsals there's been this crazy response to the show, in particular from people who don't know anything about me or my work. We haven't quite been able to put our fingers on why it's been getting this response from people. But people have said it's such an usual experience to just see a person who doesn't have a persona just telling stories and being really honest with them and singing songs.
It was built to be super universal. The show isn't actually specifically about me and usually a one person show is like, "I'm very interesting". Even if I get on stage and I'm not a great performer, at least I have an interesting life. But that's not what this show is about at all. The stories are all stories that could have happened to anybody. They were written specifically for that, so that anybody could perform this show. They would have to change certain details, you know, to change like gender and sexual orientation and stuff like that, but once you've done that... really anybody could perform it.
So what is it about? It's about this really simple thing. It is kind of about the fact that we're all gonna die. It's about this idea of human vulnerability and how all of us somewhere deep down believe that we're special. Therefore, we should be immune from all of these horrible things that happen to people and the shock that comes when something terrible happens and you realize that you're not special and that you're just like all these other people in the world who are susceptible to these terrible things. One of those things is aging and death, right? So even if you've managed to be really lucky all your life and nothing bad has ever happened to you, eventually you have to face aging and death. There's just no escape from that no matter who you are or how fortunate you've been. This show is kind of an attempt to help audiences come to terms with this fact in a very personal and direct way.
Do you think it falls into the category of comedy? Are people laughing? They are laughing, but I don't think you can call it comedy. People laugh through the show but it's usually at things they shouldn't be laughing at because I have a lot of awful stories.
Like what? Well, not knowing what's in the stories is actually pretty important to it, but I'll describe something really, really horrible happening to somebody and then something even more horrible will happen to them and the entire audience just cracks up for a really long time. It's a pitch of tension, it goes over the top and everybody needs some relief so there's a lot of laughter in the show that comes from identification. They're never laughing because I just told a funny joke. They're always laughing because they relate to it or something is absurd.
It reminds me of that old saying, "Tragedy is when I get a paper cut, comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and break your legs." [Laughs] That's exactly what it is! That's exactly what it is!
Where did the idea for this concept come from? This show is a co-production with 13P, which was basically set up so that once all of the 13 playwrights have produced a play then the company implodes. So really, we can take as many crazy risks as we want. I would never have done this show with my own theater company because the risk was just too high. If I want to keep my company going I can't risk disaster, there are limits to how many risks I can take. With 13P, they told me, "You should really take this chance to do the craziest thing you can think of." When I thought about I was like, "Okay, well, what crutch have I had in all of my shows that I've been relying on?" and I realized it was having really fantastic performers. I feel like, with all of my shows I've always had these really great performers and that no matter what the level of risk, in the end, the audience gets to come and see really amazing performers being amazing. So they can hate the show but at least they get their $30 worth of that.
I thought, if I took that away, then what am I gonna do? And that became the challenge. I start all my plays with the idea "what's the last thing in the world I would want to do?" So, that seemed like the biggest risk and as a director I would have a really hard time casting somebody with as little talent as I have. I almost wouldn't be able to control myself. I would have to get somebody who was interesting for me to watch, who probably had some natural acting ability. I ended up using myself as a guinea pig and getting another director, Paul Lazar, to direct me. He was unbelievable. It's a crazy situation to come into because I usually direct and my process is so collaborative and there's always a million people in the room and everybody's yelling stuff out. Paul was totally patient and cool. And also, he was dealing with somebody who just literally couldn't do anything. He would ask me something and I would try but everything I did badly.
Like what? He would say, "Can you make this gesture at this point?" Say I was singing and I made a gesture and he liked it. He would say, "Can you please do that gesture again? I really liked it." And then every time I did it after that it would just be awful, it would look totally fake. I was just totally incapable...even the most basic things. He really couldn't tell me to do anything. Also, my default performance mode when I started out was just to stand stock-still like a statue without any facial expression or vocal expression whatsoever. That was what he started out with. It was just about him coaxing out whatever trace of internal charisma I had and getting me to express it without telling me specifically, "Do this or that." It was a very painstaking process. He's such a lovely person and I really trusted him. Now I'm just on stage and I'm emoting and singing and playing with the audience and doing all these things but none of it is put on or performed—since I can't do that!
It's just you and the band? Is this a group that you've worked with before? Actually, the band was put together specifically for this show. It's really my boyfriend and I, Tim Simmonds; he's the guitarist and the musical director of the show. In December he and I decided to release a Christmas song for publicity for the show. We released the song and people liked it. Then we got this email from John Zorn saying that Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson wanted to curate us at his club The Stone in a month and did we want to do it.
I wrote back and I sent him the Christmas song and I told him that we didn't have a band and we only have this one song and he wrote back and he was like, "That's fine!" So in a month we basically put together an evening's worth of songs and we put together a band. We did the gig at The Stone and that was sort of how we started out. The band is hilarious; Tim plays guitar, then we've got another guitarist/keyboardist, we've got a drummer and a bass player. All of them are, sort of, front men in their own bands. The drummer isn't even a drummer, he plays the vibraphone, but he can play the drums. The bass player is actually a drummer but he's playing bass for us. And they're all way overqualified for what they're doing but it was awesome because it wasn't like dealing with hired musicians, they were all really equal collaborators.
It's kind of funny because you've gone from not acting pretty much at all and having a band to having a month at Joe's Pub and playing at Lou Reed's club! Yeah, you know, this is the thing. God, who was I talking to? I think I was talking to Tim and he was saying that one thing he's found interesting about this process is learning the ways in which I don't recognize natural, human obstacles. But there's definitely a price to pay for that. It's been a very harrowing experience. When you decide to do these impossible things, first of all, you have to work night and day to make it happen. Second of all, you're constantly risking total, public humiliation. That part was really horrible, actually.
This has definitely been the most painful, one of the most frightening processes I've ever been through. If we hadn't managed to make something that worked it would just have been a month of me publicly humiliating myself. On stage. At Joe's Pub. In front of people who paid $30. This was actually a very real possibility, so that was horrible. But! With these songs...I'm not a songwriter. I would come up with these really crude melodies and lyrics and Tim would help me turn them into real songs. The lyrics have less poetry than a Britney Spears lyric. They're so straight forward it's crazy. Tim was a little bit worried because the songs are really simple and they're not sophisticated songs. After a performance on Saturday, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson came backstage and Lou Reed freaked out over the songs. That was totally...all of us went into shock.
I'm trying to imagine Lou Reed freaking out... Oh my god! No, no, no, John, you don't understand! I've met him in the past and he totally has never acted remotely like this. He was like, holding onto my hand with both of his hands and he just kept saying, "I love the songs, I'm such a big fan!" And he was smiling...it was really surreal. Everybody who saw it went into shock. He said that the thing that he liked about it was that it wasn't "bullshit."
Wow. Coming from him that's pretty good, because he has a very sensitive bullshit detector Yeah, yeah. So that was kind of one of the high points of all of our lives!