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Naked
Young Jean Lee on Untitled Feminist Show

By Jesse Leaneagh

The six performers onstage in Young Jean Lee‘s Untitled Feminist Show could scarcely be more exposed. Presenting a working utopia of gender expression where everyone can find a place and even failure is accepted, Lee aims to “de-objectify the performers” by having them appear without clothing or makeup. But beyond that, they work without a script, without dialogue. In advance of its world premiere at the Walker during the Out There festival, Lee discussed choices behind the work as well as the way she conceives of each show as “a trap” for its audiences.

Jesse Leaneagh

I watched the video of the open rehearsal of your new work, Untitled Feminist Show, performed at the New Museum in December 2010, and from your intro it sounds like you never really wanted to work with a script for this piece. Is that true?

Young Jean Lee

Well, it’s weird. I was thinking, “I’m a playwright, so of course there will be words eventually.” But when I went through that first rehearsal process, I only wanted to work on dance and didn’t feel the need for any text. Then we did a run-through for our producers, and they said, “You need some sort of framework for this; it doesn’t make any sense.” So I went home and wrote a bunch of text and just threw it up there. But I felt like it was bad, that the movement conveyed so much more than the words did. Throughout the process it’s been this really agonizing thing, me thinking, “We have to have a framework, we have to have some sort of context,” so we had title cards with words on them. We had questionnaires. We’ve gone through so many iterations of incorporating text into the show, and none of them have worked. Finally I just said, “Screw it; let’s throw it out.” That’s when the show really came into its own. It never wanted it to be a show with words, and I tried to force words on it, but it never wanted them.

Leaneagh

I was wondering if the choice to leave text out and focus on movement had anything to do with the subject matter, that maybe there’s some aspect of feminism that can better be represented through movement, or even that gender expression has the potential to be sublimated into this place beyond language?

Lee

I wouldn’t be able to answer that question. People ask me, in my show Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, why did the Korean women mime gruesome suicides to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”? Why did I choose that song? I don’t have a logical reason for it. That’s just what it wanted it to be.

Leaneagh

Now we’re talking about artistic choices.

Lee

Right, it was the song that was right for that moment. And that’s how I feel about not having text in this show. If there was a logical reason for it, text would’ve gone out the window a long time ago. There was no logic. It’s just that the show didn’t want text.

Leaneagh

In the rehearsal of Untitled Feminist Show, one of the performers talked about how naked bodies are titillating, but they also confront us with their raw humanity. Can you talk about the choice to have all the performers be nude?

Lee

Nudity was the only way for us to de-objectify the performers. They’re an attractive group. No matter what we had them wear—say, if we had them wearing really frumpy clothes—that could be hot, too. We had them wearing these astronaut uniforms, and that was hot. Everything we put them in was hot, and I wanted them to be people and not these hot women. The only way to have that was to have them be nude, without any makeup or hairstyling or anything. Then it becomes this National Geographic thing, that these are just people.

Leaneagh

I know you worked with Faye Driscoll for the choreography in Untitled Feminist Show. What is your background with movement?

Lee

Zero. This show was kind of a nightmare in that respect. So I’m a director, but not only am I not a choreographer, but also it’s sort of my weakest skill: moving bodies in space. Usually someone else does my blocking for me. Basically the way that we worked, I would do improv with the actors and work with them as best as I could, and sometimes we would just show it to Faye like that, and she would start choreographing more specific stuff. Or sometimes my associate director, Morgan Gould, would put together a draft, and then Faye would do the polishing at the end. And sometimes Faye would put together a draft, and Morgan would do some polishing, and I would finish the choreography. We put it together like a Frankenstein … quilt.

It was almost like I was choreographing from a wheelchair: I was somebody trying to choreograph, but I don’t have that skill. Every day, Morgan and I would meet for hours, like four, five, sometimes six hours, and I would be talking through everything I wanted to happen, and she would execute that the next day. Or Faye would come in. So it was a crazy process. Faye was the director of choreography, so she oversaw it to make sure everything looked good. Also the performers contributed a lot to the choreography as well.

Leaneagh

You’ve said before that in each work you set out to make the piece you’d least like to make, or you set a challenge for yourself. Was that movement aspect one of the challenges of this piece?

Lee

It nearly killed me. So, We’re Gonna Die was hard, because I wasn’t a singer and I wasn’t a performer and I can’t act at all.

Leaneagh

You pulled it off really well!

Lee

Thank you! But it was hell. It’s hell to figure out a way to do something you’re not naturally good at. And for this dance piece, it was even worse in a way. What I went through to do We’re Gonna Die was pretty hellish, but now it’s not me in that position anymore. It’s other people. And with dance you need a special floor, and the hours are different that you can work. It’s a different process.

Leaneagh

Can you talk about the cast? Who are they? Have you worked with them before?

Lee

I’d worked with Katy Pyle before. She was in Church. She was actually in the Church [performance] that we brought to the Walker, as well as the remount at the Public Theater. But this was my first time working with all of them as creators. They’re all artists in their own right; none of them is just a performer. They’re all kind of stars in their scenes. World Famous *BOB* is a burlesque star, Lady Rizo is a cabaret star, Becca Blackwell is a writer and actor of the downtown scene, and Regina Rocke, Katy Pyle, and Hilary Clark are all dancers/choreographers who are all kind of stars in the dance scene. It’s a really fierce group.

Leaneagh

In an interview you did with Philip Bither in 2009, the Walker’s senior curator for Performing Arts, you talked about how you consider audiences to some extent as you create a piece, which seems generous. Not every artist does that. Can you talk about how you consider your audience?

Lee

We did a bunch of public events and talkbacks. I did two talks at the New Museum, where I was talking to people about the issues in the show. After the New Museum we had a Word document of comments about the show that was 100 pages long. We do a lot of workshops and invited rehearsals. We ask people what they think and how they’re responding to things, so that’s a huge part of the show. But it’s funny because it’s the part of my process that makes everybody insane.

Other people who watch the talkbacks go insane, because they’re like, “You’re an artist, who cares what all these other people think? You just do what you want.” They feel like it’s an insecurity thing on my part, like, “Oh I want to please you, tell me what I should do, I don’t know what to do.” They misunderstand that, because I get feedback not in order to cater to it, but sometimes in order to defeat it. So if somebody says, “I had this response,” I’m like, “I don’t want people to have that response” and I put something in the show that blocks it. And that’s pretty much how I make all of my shows. Sometimes people get mad about that, too, because why can’t people have whatever response they want? They can, and they do, but I can make that easier or harder for them.

Leaneagh

Very strategic.

Lee

Super strategic. I think of every show like building a trap.

Leaneagh

So when you think about your audience, you don’t see them in these sort of block demographics, like what are the people at this New Museum rehearsal going to think, but it’s more of a constant process of change that’s responding to individuals?

Lee

Yeah. The absolute number one thing that makes my shows the way they are is that I’m changing things through opening night. I don’t stop changing stuff; through tours I am always changing. Most people don’t do that because it’s hard on everybody. It’s hard on the performers, it’s hard on me, it’s hard on the designers. Just imagine trying to work on something and it keeps changing, and you don’t know what it is until the very end. It’s frustrating. I pay the price for that method of working because a lot of times everyone is just miserable.

Leaneagh

Can you talk about how that’s played out for a specific work? When do you say, “We can’t have any more changes.”

Lee

Never. I mean the one rule is that once the play has been published, generally there aren’t line changes, but directorially things can change indefinitely. And the scripts can change until it’s published. That’s basically the rule. So for this show, I don’t think it will ever be completely finished.

Leaneagh

Because there won’t be a script…

Lee

Right.


Read more of Leaneagh’s conversation with Young Jean Lee on the Performing Arts blog.

Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, Untitled Feminist Show, Out There 24 (2012)

Photo by Blaine Davis

Young Jean Lee

Photo: Gene Pittman

Young Jean Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven

Photo: Frank Hentschker

Young Jean Lee, Church

Photo: Ryan Jensen