The Scariest Play
The American theatre has no shortage of excellent working playwrights (I’m desperately trying to become one myself). But right now, I think a very strong case could be made that our most interesting writer is Young Jean Lee. I’ve been a fan of her plays for a while, but some research into her creative process revealed some lessons from which we can all benefit.
Young Jean Lee is the founder and artistic director of the very appropriately named “Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company.” Based in New York, the company exists to produce whatever incredibly creative, provocative visions enter Lee’s imagination. She founded it after dropping out of a Shakespeare Ph.D. program, and has built it into a fixture of Off-Off-Broadway. But after years of great work, she rose to national prominence in 2018. While she had long been known as an experimental playwright, she switched things up and wrote the realist drama Straight White Men, which served as her Broadway debut when it was released last year. The play’s title suggests satire, but it’s ultimately a compassionate, nuanced look into the lives of three men, desperately trying to be good people in a rapidly changing world. In perhaps Lee’s boldest move yet, the play has more in common with mid-century American realism than Lee’s avant-garde works.
How did someone who spent her career pushing boundaries end up writing something so traditional? And how did it end up being so good? The answer lies in Lee’s writing rituals.
Young Jean Lee has gone on the record saying that when she sits down to write a new script, she tries to think of the play she’s the most afraid of. Something that violates her beliefs and pushes her out of her comfort zone.
For example, she grew up in a Catholic household and objected strongly to her parents’ religion. So in 2007, she wrote a play called Church, which attempted to recreate three church sermons with beauty and sincerity. Rather than using writing to tear down the things she finds uncomfortable, she pushes herself to find the beauty that other people see in them. Another time, she determined that the play she was most afraid to write would be a musical with herself as the lead role. So she did just that, writing and starring in 2011’s We’re Gonna Die.
As a writer who wants to break in, during an era when every Tom, Dick, and Stanley fancies himself an artist, I think her approach is a brilliant one. When you write what you love, it’s easy to subconsciously recreate your favorite plays, or recycle themes that we’ve seen in a million places. But when you write what scares you, the stories that are buried inside you but difficult to release, you can create something truly unique.