“The thing that is so amazing about music,” exclaims the excited voice over the phone, “is I feel that it is so much more immediate. … It's just like … I don't know, it's just like, I mean I've never done heroin, but that's the way I think about music — it's like you're mainlining heroin.”
The voice is that of Young Jean Lee, the 38-year-old Korean-American and boundary-breaking stage writer recently acclaimed by the New York Times as “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation.”
Lee is speaking from her apartment in Brooklyn, though not about the joys of becoming a junkie, but rather about her double life as a singer-songwriter and her upcoming evening of storytelling and neo-folk rock called We're Gonna Die, which runs at the Actors Gang Ivy Substation in Culver City, presented by CAP UCLA, from Nov. 20-24.
Lee's trajectory to touring pop sensation has been an unlikely one. In the early aughts she was six years into a UC Berkeley PhD English Literature program and so unhappily mired in her dissertation on King Lear that she sought the help of a therapist.
“And, you know,” Lee recalls, “the therapist said, 'I'm going to ask you a question. Answer it off the top of your head — don't think about the answer.' And she said, 'What do you want to do with your life?' And I said, 'I want to be a playwright.' And the idea had never really occurred to me before, so it was a huge shock. And I didn't take it seriously, but she was like, 'Let's explore it.'”
Lee did more than explore. She wholeheartedly plunged in. Abruptly pulling the plug on Berkeley, she packed up her things and flew to New York, where she enrolled in Mac Wellman's MFA playwriting program at Brooklyn College. By 2003, she had her first play up at Richard Foreman's famed Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, a cannily comic pastiche of racist 1930s Hollywood programmers of the Fu Manchu stripe.
Over the next decade, Lee wrote from strength to strength, constantly confounding the expectations of critics and fans alike with provocative experimentation that has directly challenged the conventional notion of what even constitutes a “play.”
Most recently, those efforts have included 2009's The Shipment, which employed a variety show format to examine black identity and race stereotypes; 2010's Lear, Lee's stripped-down and colloquialized revenge against the Bard; and last year's Untitled Feminist Show, a nonverbal theater-movement piece celebrating the female body that was performed in the nude by its five-woman ensemble.
In between came We're Gonna Die, the show coming to L.A., first performed by Lee and her band Future Wife (Mike Hanf, Andrew Hoepfner, Nick Jenkins, Ben Kupstas & Booker Stardrum) in 2011.
A deeply ironic, very personal and darkly comic evening of autobiographical monologues and songs about loneliness and the secret pain of existence, We're Gonna Die is easily Lee's most accessible work to date while also perhaps her most extreme break with the assumptions underlying the well-made play.
The evening had its genesis in 13P, the purposefully short-lived theater company formed in 2003 with the idea of producing a new work by each of its 13 playwrights and then self-imploding. “They were like really egging me on to do something really crazy,” Lee recalls. “And it was kind of a challenge, because I tend to take big risks.”
At first she toyed with the idea of writing something for “really terrible” actors but quickly rejected it for its poisonously unethical collaborative implications.
“And so then,” she recalls, “I was like, 'Okay, it would be pretty crazy if I performed a show, because I hate performing and I'm terrible.' And then I was like, 'What is the most extreme form of performance I could make myself do?' And then I thought, 'A one-person show with singing and dancing — pretty much the worst nightmare for a non-performer.”
Before she had the chance to commit the first lyric to paper, however, Lee happened to mention the idea of forming a band to the musician-performance artist Laurie Anderson, who prematurely let the cat out of the bag. A week later, Lee received an email from John Zorn offering her a booking at the Stone, his East Village music space, in a month's time.
She quickly huddled with songwriting partner Tim Simmonds, with Lee penning lyrics and inventing melodies and singing them into an iPhone, and Simmonds taking the recordings and shaping them into finished songs. “We just frantically wrote songs for a month,” she says. “And we put together a band — like he had a friend, and I then had a friend of a friend who had another friend, and so we sort of put together this band and in a month we did the gig.”
Those songs became the basis for We're Gonna Die, whose title is taken from the evening's mordantly funny finale number while it also underlines the show's main insight — that to be human is to suffer the isolation and loneliness of pain that comes from tragedy, aging, sickness and death. Lee conceived the show in part as an act of self-therapy.
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“My father had just died,” she remembers. “I tell the story in the show — he died in such a horrible way that I was so traumatized and felt completely isolated from everybody. And then I was thinking, when you're in that place, where you're in so much pain that nobody can reach you, I was like, 'What can be of comfort then?'”
The answer turned out to be We're Gonna Die's smart, Edward Gorey-esque collection of what might be described as personal stories and feel-good songs about feeling bad. From haunting lullabies to spirited ballads and rousing rockers, Lee's surprisingly accomplished songbook canvasses childhood cruelty, romantic abandonment, sexual betrayal and life's other senseless but inevitable emotional traumas with a wry wit and ingratiating detachment calculated to wring laughter rather than tears.
“It was really nice to be able to write these unbelievably and most idiotically simple lyrics and have them communicate,” she reflects. “Because I could never write down those words and just say them to people and have that do anything. But somehow like when it's sung, it has this impact. So I really love that. I love how you can have an emotional impact by just [singing] the simplest things.”
Or, as she sings in “Horrible Things,” the show's penultimate number that deals with the anger stemming from her father's death:
That's when I sing a little song
That makes me feel better,
Just a little, not a lot.
We're Gonna Die runs at Ivy Substation Nov. 20-24.
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