Young Jean Lee

Young Jean Lee talks about death and comedy

Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, We’re Gonna Die, 2011. Performance View. Future Wife.

Young Jean Lee’s latest work, We’re Gonna Die, is being performed at Joe’s Pub in New York through April 30. Lee is a New York–based playwright and director who began the Obie-winning Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company in 2003. She was recently awarded a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship.

THIS IS ACTUALLY A SHOW ABOUT PAIN, and one major source of pain that we address is the fact that we’re all going to age and die. No matter how lucky you are in the world, that’s something everyone eventually faces.

You could definitely see We’re Gonna Die as part two of Lear [2010]—but in some ways it’s also the total opposite. It’s the crowd-pleasing version. I feel like there are definitely crowd-pleasing elements in all of my shows, but there are also form-related things that upset certain people. Normally my work is more experimental or nonlinear, and because of that some people get upset that there is no coherent plot. For example, half the people who saw Lear were totally outraged that it turned into an episode of Sesame Street in the second half. We’re Gonna Die is my first show where it has all the crowd-pleasing elements but none of the formal frustration. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a more straightforward show. There is no subtext in this work. With that said, the content is as difficult and alienating as in any of my other shows, if not more so. It’s definitely life-affirming, but not unambiguously so. I basically say at the beginning that my intent is to offer the audience comfort, and then I proceed to make them feel worse and worse until finally I end up giving them the comfort that I promised to them.

The music was very central to the show, and the songs came before the text. I wrote the songs with the musical director, Tim Simmonds. I would sing crude lyrics and melodies into a recorder and he would help me refine them and turn them into real songs. Then our band, Future Wife––Mike Hanf, Nick Jenkins, and Ben Kupstas––helped us make them musically interesting. The members are all songwriters and front men of their own bands, so they contributed a huge amount musically. Then I created the script through improvisation in collaboration with Paul and also Morgan Gould, the show’s associate director. I don’t recite the script word for word, since it has to sound conversational, almost like a self-help seminar or something.

It’s definitely not charisma in the way we normally think of it, in the sense of a larger-than-life personality, but what we did find was that everybody has the potential for their own kind of charisma onstage if you can just tap into it. It’s an unselfconscious communicativeness that I definitely didn’t have when I started out. When I began, I had this default position of standing stock still without any expression on my face at all. That was just my default mode when I was onstage, but the director Paul Lazar managed to coax out this other quality, which is what I’m like when I’m animated and telling stories to my friends in my living room. I feel like everybody has that inside of them, when they have a really good story or when they have something interesting to say, this sort of human charisma that is not a performer charisma but a storytelling one. That’s what propels the show forward.

The show is definitely not stand-up or comedy, although people are laughing through the whole thing. It’s more like the kind of laughter of where you have pent-up tension and you need relief. So in this show people are laughing at all kinds of awful and weird things. They’re like, “Phew, she gave me this moment where I get to laugh.” And then I start tightening the screws again.

I am looking forward to the end of this run like I have never looked forward to anything before. I just can’t imagine how an actor getting to the end of a run would possibly want to audition for a new show. Performing is just stressful; it’s incredibly difficult. It makes you crazy. My respect and admiration for performers, and in particular for solo performers, has increased a thousandfold. I watched a lot of brilliant solo and cabaret performers as research for this show, and I still have no idea how they do it.