Young Jean Lee

Young Jean LeeIf you've been spotting the Melbourne Festival posters round town, you've probably seen the one with a hip looking band accompanied by the somewhat ominous title We're Gonna Die. It's not a poster for an indie rock gig but in fact for a cabaret show by New York playwright Young Jean Lee

Lee has made a name for herself as a theatrical experimentalist with shows such as Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, a subversive parody on concepts of Asian American identity, and Untitled Feminist Show, a naked dance piece. We're Gonna Die is a cabaret about death, featuring personal stories and songs performed by Lee herself, with accompaniment from Future Wife, a band assembled expressly for the show. It first played at Joe's Pub - a seriously cool New York venue, despite its understated name - in 2011 as part of an innovative theatre development project called 13P. Australian Stage caught up with Lee to find out what to expect when it comes to Melbourne next week.

Australian Stage: Hi, Young Jean Lee! Thanks for speaking to Australian Stage. First up, tell us a bit about We're Gonna Die. The title sounds dark but I don't get the impression it's intended as a dark show. How would you describe it?

Young Jean Lee: The concept behind the show is that it's something that any ordinary person should be able to perform, because it's about all the terrible but ordinary things that happen to everyone. All the songs and stories are about heartbreak, loneliness, aging, sickness, and death, but the stories are funny and the songs are upbeat. I would hope that the themes stick with audience members, but in a comforting rather than traumatizing way.

AS: So what motivated you to write a show about death? 

YJL: When my father died a few years ago, I felt very isolated in my pain, and I wanted to make a show that would comfort other people when they were feeling that way.

AS: You've spoken before about how you like to push beyond your comfort zone when creating new works. What have you found most challenging about working on We're Gonna Die?

YJL: The most challenging part for me was performing, since I'm not a performer and am a pretty physically awkward person. When coming up with the idea for the show, I asked myself, "What would be the most extreme form of performance I could inflict on myself?" And the answer was: "A one-person cabaret show with singing and dancing."

AS: Why did you choose to use song as such a key element of the show?

YJL: Because I think music is the ultimate comforting thing.

AS: Tell us about how you assembled your band Future Wife

YJL: The original musical director and lead guitarist, Tim Simmonds, and I were dating at the time, and he introduced me to his friend Ben Kupstas, who became our guitarist/keyboardist. Then we auditioned Mike Hanf, who was our drummer initially, and he brought on board his friend Nick to play bass, even though Nick is actually a drummer. When Tim and I broke up and he was no longer in the band, Mike switched to lead guitar, Nick switched to drums, and we auditioned bassists and found the wonderful Andrew Hoepfner.

AS: We'd also like to know more about 13P. How was creating We're Gonna Die for 13P different to the normal development process for a new script?

YJL: We're Gonna Die was a co-production between my company and 13P. 13P was a company of thirteen playwrights who each got to produce whatever play of theirs they wanted, serving as the artistic director for that production, and when all thirteen plays were produced the company imploded. It was an opportunity for playwrights to do something much riskier than they would ordinarily get to do. In my case, I have my own theater company so presumably I could be as risky as I wanted with every show I do. But actually that's not the case. I can be a lot riskier than playwrights who aren't self-producing, but I can't be so risky that the company loses all of its funding and collapses. 13P didn't have to worry so much about that since collapsing is the plan, so they encouraged me to do something really super crazy.

AS: Finally, as we've been talking about death, what do you think would be the best way to die?

YJL: It's a boring answer, but like most people I'd like to die surrounded by people who love me, peacefully, in my sleep.

WE'RE GONNA DIE by Young Jean Lee's Theater Company runs 24 - 27 Oct, 2012 as part of the 2012 Melbourne Festival. Further details»

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