Young Jean Lee’s theatrical mantra—”What’s the last thing in the world I would ever want to write?”—has resulted in creative battles against some pretty intimidating opponents: religion (Church), death and mortality (We’re Gonna Die), and black racial stereotypes (The Shipment, which came to Toronto in 2012), to name a few. But the risks have paid off so far: Lee has amassed a loyal and influential following in New York City. Her fans and collaborators have included the late Lou Reed and his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson; the Talking Heads’ David Byrne; former Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna; and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. According to the New York Times, she’s “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation.”
But when she decided to write a play about feminism, one that revolved around celebration rather than conflict, she encountered some unique challenges: textual arguments provided too many opportunities for arguments and disagreements, and costumes offered unwanted suggestions about background, personality, and economic status. So Lee did what didn’t come naturally to her as a playwright, and eliminated all text from the script. She also eliminated all clothing from the six performers (five female and one trans). The result? Possibly her biggest success yet among mainstream audiences. The work has been touring the world since its premiere in 2012, and before Untitled Feminist Show arrives in Toronto on February 12, Torontoist spoke to Young Jean Lee about the surprising reception the show has received.
Torontoist: Where has Untitled Feminist Show traveled since its premiere, and how have reactions differed among cities or countries?
Young Jean Lee: It’s been all over the world, actually. We’ve been to Croatia, Philadelphia, Brussels, Paris, Graz, Berlin, Chicago, and the show is in San Francisco [this month]. It’s really interesting—when we’ve been at venues where the audience is a bit more of a think-y, or more of a modern dance performance type of crowd, that type of audience generally has a lot of trouble with the show. Because it’s not cutting-edge modern dance at all; everything is designed to be just fun and sort of a celebration. It’s not confrontational, it’s not directly critical, it’s not edgy. It was purposely made to be the opposite of edgy. There are always people in the audience that are on board, but everyone was on board in Berlin and San Francisco.
You’re a playwright with a background in Shakespeare studies, but there’s no text in this play, and the story is told through movement. Do you see it as a piece of modern dance, or as a piece of theatre?
It’s sort of its own thing. And it’s designed to provoke a very specific response in our cultural moment. And it is a little bit a-historical. People have asked me, “What is its relationship to ’60s performance art?” And I say, it’s not that different from that. But at the same time, I feel like we’re in a place where we’ve really regressed as far as feminism goes. And when I think about how I grew up, I don’t feel like I grew up with feminism. I grew up with the effects of feminism—I grew up with rights feminism fought for, but in terms of people respecting feminism and calling themselves feminist and learning feminist principles, I feel like in the culture there’s this weird thing going on where we’re benefiting from feminism but we won’t embrace it. So, I felt like I needed to make something sort of more basic. A lot of people say, “Oh, I’ve seen that show before.” But I had never seen that show before.
So, do you see Untitled Feminist Show as a reminder for this generation of the gains made by past generations of feminists?
No, it’s not quite that. Though I think the use of the word “feminist” is in the title because of that, and the cast felt really strongly about that so we could really embrace that word as a reminder that it’s not a passé thing. But in terms of the show, I was just really focused on the present moment. I was like, “If I were 12 now, what would I need to see that I’m not seeing?” So it kind of stemmed from that.
I wanted this show to have a wider appeal. I wanted people to see it who would not ordinarily see contemporary performance and dance. And I think it’s had a huge impact on those people, and I feel like that’s why it’s been so successful. It really appeals to just regular people; it kind of blows their minds. To me, the show is very unique. I can’t think of anything else that’s so purely celebratory and joyous, and political.
It’s almost part of the expectation of going to theatre that deals with a difficult or controversial topic, that there will be a darker, angrier edge to it. Why were you so determined to avoid that and make a strictly celebratory show about feminism?
A big reason for that actually has to do with feminism, because what people are missing in these shows is aggressiveness. And aggressiveness is associated with masculinity in our culture, and joy is associated with femininity. And I think that in that very desire for aggressiveness and anger and violence is our bias towards masculine-coded traits. So that was a very conscious thing in Untitled Feminist Show. And I think some of the response to it is actually sexist. The idea that all art is only valuable if it’s aggressive and angry and confrontational, you know I think that reflects an unconscious bias.
It also plays into that stereotype of an angry, violent feminist—the image that scares so many women off from identifying as feminist. And, at a time when those who do identify as feminist get wrapped up in in-fighting and “Toxic Twitter Wars,” a little celebration could be nice.
Absolutely. And it’s a statement. We’re going to make a show where joy is the motivating factor. The show is so, quote unquote, feminine, in a way. It has a lot of energy that’s good and masculine as well, but the principle of the show is very feminine. And the fact that it’s been so successful is very encouraging. And most of the people who have curated the show have been women or queer people, so yeah, it gave me a lot of hope.