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An Interview with Playwright Young Jean Lee

Young Jean Lee is an Obie Award winning New York theatre maker and playwright.

In her previous works, such as Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven, The Shipment, Lear and Untitled Feminist Show, she explored the politics of identity and adopted a variety of styles of performance.

Having explored issues around sexuality, race and gender in previous works, Young Jean Lee was determined to write about an identity that made her feel uncomfortable, in a style in which she felt equally uncomfortable writing: a naturalistic play about straight white men.

What results is a funny, compassionate and provocative play that asks us big questions about masculinity, privilege, success and sacrifice.

We were fortunate enough to speak with Young Jean Lee to chat about the creative process behind the writing of our upcoming production, Straight White Men.

Can you describe the creative process behind Straight White Men?

With all my shows, I cast the show first, and then write it in collaboration with the performers, my artistic team, and workshop audiences. Normally we talk about stuff in rehearsal, and then, based on what we talk about, I go home and write. I come in with whatever I’ve written, and that’s when everyone pitches in. Straight White Men was a little different, because I didn’t know how to write naturalistic dialogue. The actors were a huge part of writing this piece for me. Particularly important in the early writing stages was the ability to observe the speech and behavior patterns of straight white men while in the presence of other straight white men.

I developed the script with my New York actors and with students at Brown University, where I did the show’s first workshop. I had both casts (the original cast and the Brown student workshop cast) do a lot of improvisation that I built the skeleton around. Then I replaced the bulk of those improvs with my own dialogue. The actors helped me to make sure that the dialogue sounded natural and true to how they would speak. And as the characters evolved, the actors also helped to make sure each moment of dialogue continued to feel appropriate for their emotional trajectory over the course of the show. As always, the cast and I picked over every word of the script along with my dramaturg, Mike Farry, and my associate director, Emilyn Kowaleski. We were constantly asking, “How can we make this line stronger?” and we would all brainstorm. Throughout the entire process, because the actors hadn’t spent a ton of time thinking about straight white male identity, we opened the conversation to other collaborators of diverse identities and backgrounds.

The show premiered at Wexner Center in Ohio. In that version the audience was howling with laughter all the way through. They didn’t hear anything that was being said (people actually told me, “I was having such a good time that I was able to tune out all that political stuff”), and I felt so horrible after that. Then we took it to Europe, and I was like, there’s no way we’re doing this feel-good show in Europe. So we went too far in the opposite direction and people were tuning out of everything. It was only by the time we got it to The Public that we managed to strike the right balance.

I had never really been at a venue like the Public before, where they have a more traditional theater going audience, one that is richer than I’m used to. I didn’t want anyone from my audience to come to the play and feel like they didn’t belong there. I tried to create a pre-show environment with music that would make someone like me feel comfortable and at home (loud hip-hop with raunchy lyrics by female artists). And I think it worked. Wherever we’ve done the show, some audience members—definitely not all, but a lot of them—have gotten very upset, because they didn’t feel comfortable in that environment. They felt that the music was aggressive toward them, and when they tried to make it stop and no one would comply with their requests, they got extremely angry. It really highlighted the privilege of our audiences. And I added a transgender/queer non-straight-white-male character to be the announcer at the beginning of the show and to direct the transitions (which are lit) to show that a non-straight-white-male was running the show.

Can you talk me through the process of crafting the character of Matt?

When the play was in its early stages, I was in a room full of students—women, people of color, and queer people–a very diverse room. And they started talking very harshly about straight white men. I said, “Okay. Now I know all the things you don’t like about straight white men. Why don’t you give me a list of the things you wished straight white men would do that would make you hate them less?” So they told me all these things, and I wrote down the whole list, and then I wrote that character. And they all hated him because he was a loser. For example, everyone at the first workshop was like, “I want a straight white man to sit down and shut up. I want him to take a back seat, to take a supporting role. I don’t want him to be aggressive. I want him to be passive and sit there and take it. I want him to listen. I don’t want him taking the head role or the biggest job or to be going after the biggest stuff. I want him in a supporting role to me.” And nobody wanted to date that guy or be friends with that guy or hire that guy! Do we actually want that? No, not according to our value system. And that’s what made me realize that, in spite of all these social-justice values, in our peer group, being a loser is worse than being an asshole. It kind of revealed our continuing investment in the patriarchy. So that became interesting to me in the play, and this character became a litmus test for the audience.

You are known for writing about topics that make you feel uncomfortable. Are you able to explain this in context to Straight White Men?

When starting a play, I ask myself, “What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?” Then I force myself to make it. I do this because going out of my comfort zone compels me to challenge my assumptions and find value in unexpected places. I feel a lot of resistance towards the idea of identity-politics art, which is why I make so much of it. For Straight White Men, I asked myself, “What’s the last identity I would ever want to make an identity-politics show about?”

I had never written a straight linear play before and had no interest in doing so, but I saw the traditional three-act structure as the “straight white male” of theatrical forms, or the form that has historically been used to present straight white male narratives as universal. And I thought it would be interesting to explore the limits of that form at the same time as its content–to bring the two together into one big nightmare.

Straight White Men plays the Space Theatre from 1 – 23 July.