Q&A: Young Jean Lee

Gender and identity are the latest target for the playwright-provocateur.

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Writer-director Young Jean Lee.

Writer-director Young Jean Lee. Photograph: Blaine Davis

Anyone who has followed Young Jean Lee's career knows that she starts each project by asking, "What's the last thing in the world I would ever want to write?" She's taken on identity politics in Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and The Shipment, religion in Church, and in her metacabaret show, We're Gonna Die, the self-proclaimed nonperformer told stories and sang songs about loneliness, illness and death. Such delicate topics would leave most artists sounding preachy or didactic. Lee's trick is to execute the "worst idea possible" with a rigorous, fresh and often mind-bending approach. Her new work, Untitled Feminist Show, features performers dancing nude and sounds appropriately cringe-inducing. But the show, opening this week at the Baryshnikov Arts Center as part of the Coil Festival, may subvert the cynical expectations of Lee's longtime fans.

An early version of Untitled Feminist Show at the New Museum featured a lecture format with dances. How has the piece evolved?
It has no words. I don't think it ever wanted to have words. When we were making the show for the New Museum, we kept making dances. But in the final days before we presented, I threw in the lecture framework. We had spent the month talking about feminism, so it all ended up in there. But then, after the workshops, all we got were argumentative responses to the text. I realized I wasn't interested in that. I just wanted to make a show that was feminist. Not a show about feminism. I didn't have any feminist message that I wanted to convey.

So you took out all the words?
Yes. In all the conversations the performers and I had about feminism, the thing we kept coming back to was this idea of gender fluidity and how we all want that. How it would be so great if you lived in a world where at any given moment, you could just be the way you wanted to be without being limited by gender categories. The desire wasn't to erase gender entirely, but to have a more changeable and fluid relationship to gender. And Untitled Feminist Show is basically our attempt to show what a world like that might look like. I felt that the language I had available to me was not the language of that world.

This sounds like a big departure from your other work. Almost like a hopeful proposition of an alterna-universe.
I don't think hopeful is the word for it—maybe inspiring. You have more freedom than you think. Maybe you can't be in the reality that the performers are in, but you can be more expansive in your identity than you currently are. My audiences are sophisticated enough to know that sexism exists. But I think people aren't aware to the extent to which they are actually limited by gender expectations. Women get it the worst, but men also. Men are oppressed by this masculine ideal. It's not good for anyone. For example, if men felt they could cry when they were upset, the world might be a better place.

What's your dance background?
I don't have any formal dance training, but all of my shows have incorporated a lot of dance. Dean Moss, a choreographer I work with, told me the way I make shows is the way choreographers make shows: Build as you go. The benefit to having your own company is that you can make the show you want to make and not get locked in to something that doesn't work. Everyone I work with always wants to kill me because I'm constantly changing things, but it pays off in the end.

So how do you make the dances?
The process was very Frankensteiny. Sometimes I would ask the performers to generate movement through improv, and then [choreographer] Faye Driscoll would come in and make something out of that, and then my associate director, Morgan Gould, and I would go in and mess around with it. Sometimes Faye would choreograph, sometimes Morgan, sometimes me. It was kind of insane. Dance shows take years, and we had months. Plus, there are a lot of logistics that go into the performers being nude that were kind of a nightmare. I don't think I'll ever do a show without words or clothes again.

You've done religion, identity politics, a feminist show not about feminism.... What "worst ideas possible" are left?
[Laughs] My next show is called Straight White Men, and it's a naturalistic three-act play.

Untitled Feminist Show is playing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center through Feb 4. Buy tickets here.

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