by Jenna Tonsor
To say playwright Young Jean Lee is “a big deal” is an understatement. She’s been called “One of the best experimental playwrights in America,” by Time Out New York and “The most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation,” by The New York Times. She is the first female Asian American playwright to ever have a play produced on Broadway. She’s a two-time Obie Award-winner and a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient.
So, just how does she do it?
Believe it or not, one of the first things Lee does when writing a new play is ask herself, “What’s the last play in the world I would ever want to write? What is really hard to do?” Answering these cringe-worthy questions provides a trajectory and theme for the challenging new play she is about to wrestle to the ground.
The next step, after picking a theme from a list of some of her least favorite things, is to cast the show. Yes, you read that right. Young Jean Lee casts her plays before ever having written the script.
Once the show is cast, then Lee begins sketching a rough preliminary outline of the script.
A Young Jean Lee play cannot be written by Young Jean Lee alone. After drafting an outline, Lee engages her dramaturg and actors who contribute their own ideas about plot, structure, design, and everything else via improvisation and conversation.
But when it came to the development of Straight White Men, this experimental playwright had to think outside the box of even her own unconventional approach.
So, what was different about Straight White Men? What disrupted Young Jean Lee’s process more than anything else while putting together this show were, oddly enough, her actors.
The straight white male actors she cast as Drew, Jake, Matt, and Ed – her script writing collaborators – found it extremely difficult to talk about their own identities and experiences as straight white males. Up until that moment, the actors had never actually thought of themselves as being straight, white, or male, but simply, the status quo. This differed greatly from Lee’s past experiences with more diverse actors who spoke freely about their personal narratives.
Unable to jump straight into improvised workshops, Lee ended up trying a new approach to developing her character profiles. She conducted interviews – real interviews with real people, not actors. She even asked for help from her friends on Facebook to connect her with men who fit the rough-hewn descriptions of the characters she was creating.
Lee didn’t stop there either, she held group discussions with people of diverse backgrounds, and asked the hard question, ‘Why in today’s world are there so many people who feel as though being a straight white male has fallen out of style?
Young Jean Lee responded to this new, gathered information with the creation of character Matt, who she developed to be the “perfect” straight white male. Matt was the walking antithesis of all the characteristics her discussion group said they disliked about straight white men. Instead of forceful, Matt was timid. Instead of a leader, Matt was a follower. Instead of using his privilege as an asset, Matt saw it as a liability.
But interestingly enough, when this new character, Matt, was brought back to be reviewed by the same discussion group that had set the perimeters for his character, Lee and everyone else found that they liked Matt the least of all! Because Matt ended up being even more controversial than a straight white male in today’s world. Matt’s character was a complacent, soft-spoken, loser.
This anomaly lead to one of the major driving points of Straight White Men. The proactive decision to conduct interviews and group discussions with the community, rather than relying solely on actors and improvisation, helped Young Jean Lee ultimately develop a play from the outside in.
Unbridled by what theatre “should” look like, Young Jean Lee continually pushes the boundaries to challenge what theatre “could” look like. It’s this avante garde spirit that has made her one of the most celebrated contemporary playwrights alive today.