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Keep Yours “Lears” Open Playwright and director Young Jean Lee puts her process on display

By MARK BLANKENSHIP


It opened last week at Soho Rep, but that doesn’t mean Young Jean Lee has finished Lear. She’s just finished... for now.

Lee’s play, which riffs on Shakespeare’s King Lear to explore how adults cope with the death of their parents, is currently at the in-between stage that Off-Off Broadway is designed to support. Lee, who’s also directing, has workshopped the piece several times, and now she needs to see it in a full production in front of an audience. However, she also needs the freedom to make major changes, and Off-Off Broadway, with its smaller budgets and adventurous audiences, thrives on that experimentation.

For patrons experiencing Lear means not only seeing a show, but also glimpsing how Lee works. Each preview performance was different from the last, with new scenes being crafted almost every day.

“She’s writing about things that are hard,” says Sarah Benson, Soho Rep’s artistic director. “The way she articulates herself is through her work, and I think one of the amazing things about her is how much faith she puts in her process.”

Of course, theatres and ticket buyers must have faith if they’re going to support an ambitious piece like Lear at the beginning of its life. (Among other things, it mashes Shakespeare with scenes from Sesame Street and bits of Lee’s own poetic dialogue.) But Lee has earned that faith with hits like The Shipment, a subversive look at black-white racial dynamics, and Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven, a lampoon of Asian-American culture.

Success has encouraged her to keep pushing herself with Lear. “It’s been a crazily difficult process--much more so than usual,” she says. “I still haven’t figured everything out.”

Part of her challenge has been mastering Lear’s structure. Actors might portray King Lear’s children, storming about in period costumes, only to transform into characters from the famous Sesame Street scene where Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper has died.

“The whole show is reflecting an emotional state,” Lee says. “It’s almost like the characters are allegorical representations of states of mind. But when you’re directing, that’s so intangible. How do you ask actors to capture an emotional state? For me, it’s been a lot of groping in the dark. It’s been a lot of pure intuition.”

But that’s not to say the production is haphazard. After workshops, Lee realized she had to eliminate older figures like King Lear and just focus on younger characters. And during previews at Soho Rep, she learned valuable things about how actors should play certain moments and which scenes connected most with an audience. “Overall, I feel like the basic story of the show is being told,” she says, “And in a lot of ways, the show as it stands is stronger than other shows I’ve done because every step has been harder and I’ve been more challenged.”

Lee accepts that she’ll leave this production with more to learn about the show. “I think it’s going to be a few years before I understand what’s going on because in some ways, I’m beyond what I can do as an artist,” she says.

Not everyone would admit those limitations, but Lee says they’re an important part of her work. “The reason I seek out projects that exceed my abilities is because I have this ultimate faith that I can figure it out, this steel core in me that says, ‘Succeed or die,’” she explains. “I flirt with failure, but if I know I’m going to fail, I adjust the goal. I have faith in my ability to adapt and adjust and make things work.”

 

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor