Interview: Young Jean Lee on Experimentation, Failure, and Getting Out of Her Comfort Zone

In this interview, theater writer/director Young Jean Lee reflects on her approach to making new plays and building the best trap for her audience.

As part of this month's topic, we asked Young Jean Lee about her own artistic practice and what organizations might learn from it. Image: .
We asked Young Jean Lee about her own artistic practice and what organizations might learn from it. Image: Blaine Davis.

This post is part of this month’s in-depth exploration of what organizations might learn from the artistic process.

To explore April’s theme, I wanted to learn more about how artists approach the creative process, so I reached out to a favorite artist of mine – theater writer/director Young Jean Lee.

Known for creating “fierce, challenging, brazenly theatrical, and then transcendentally lyrical” work with her theater company, Lee is also outspoken about her process, which often involves leaning in to a topic that makes her uncomfortable.

I reached out to Lee because I think there are some exciting connections between her approach to experimentation and failure, and the process of innovation within organizations. Both involve embracing discomfort, knowing your audience, and constantly testing out new ideas.

In this interview, Lee reflects on her creative practices and how she navigates the challenges of making daring new work.

Karina Mangu-Ward: Right now, you’re working on a play called STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. Where do your ideas for new work come from? How do you recognize an idea worth pursuing and one that should be let go?

Young Jean Lee: Every project I do is an attempt to do something I’ve never done before, that I have no idea how to do. My last piece was a feminist movement piece with no words, and my show before that was a one-person show about death with singing and dancing that I (a non-performer) performed. I tend to pick things that would be my worst nightmare to try, because they take me out of my comfort zone. I usually let go of ideas once I’ve tried them and they’ve failed, and I don’t see any hope for them in the future.

KMW: On Facebook, you recently posted, “If your dad were to write a ten-minute play, what would it be about?” and received 171 responses. This seems to be a common practice of yours – publicly posting challenging, funny, and revealing questions to your network. Why do you do this? How do the answers affect your work? 

YJL: All of my plays are experiments involving the audience, which means I have to know my audience really well. Facebook is perfect because my Facebook friends are pretty representative of my audience, so I can learn about them and what they think through the questions I post.

KMW: As a part of your creative practice, you solicit input from a wide variety of sources, work with collaborators, and perform for audiences across the world. How do you stay open to what others think without losing confidence in your own vision?

YJL: My goal is never to realize my “singular artistic vision.” Instead, I’m trying to find ways to get past my audiences’ defenses against uncomfortable subjects and open people up to difficult questions by keeping them disoriented and laughing. I get a ton of feedback from many different sources because I’m trying to figure out how to build the best trap for the audience. So, it never comes down to a conflict between what I want and what other people want—it’s all about what’s most effective in achieving the ultimate end that I want.

KMW: For you, what is the most difficult part of creating new work? How do you work through (or around) that difficulty?

YJL: The most difficult part for me is the early stages when I don’t know what I’m doing and everything sucks. For STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, I got through that period by writing down things like, “You are not an idiot. You are a good writer,” before I started trying to write.

KMW: Is there a creative practice you wish you had or that you’re trying to cultivate right now?

To have a daily practice of any kind is what I’m working on now.

KMW: Can you recall a moment when you felt you had failed as an artist? What do you make of feelings of incompetence and not-knowing when they come up?

YJL: I feel that way almost every time I do a workshop production of a play. They are usually disastrously bad. I’ve had producers break their commitments to my projects after seeing one of my workshops. When that happens, I just tell myself that the whole point of doing workshops is that I can fix things later.

KMW: You run your own company, Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company. What have you learned from your practice as an artist that helps you run your own organization?

YJL: Hire good people.

KMW: What do you think that other folks running arts organizations might learn from your practices as an artist?

YJL: Do a lot of questioning and testing of new ideas. Think of your work as a constant experiment.

This interview has been condensed and edited. To learn more about Young Jean Lee and her work, visit her company’s website.

What can you imagine arts organizations learning from artists and their processes, behaviors, and practices? We encourage you to reflect on this month’s three research questions and share your responses with us here.

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.