Jul 5, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 205: J. C. Lee
J. C. Lee
Hometown: New York City, NY
Current Town: Berkeley, California
Q: Tell me about your trilogy that Sleepwalkers is producing this year.
A: The trilogy is called This World and After and consists of 3 plays, all of which will be opening in San Francisco in 2010-11. The first is This World Is Good, followed by Into the Clear Blue Sky and The Nature Line.It all started sometime in 2006 when I was writing a new play for the Williamstown Theatre Festival's leapFROG program and found myself amazingly frustrated and exhausted and devoid of all hope in myself (hella emo, kids) - it was a sort of emotional apocalypse and wound up opening up my writing to the imaginative potential of the end times. There's something incredibly "death cultish" in Western culture; our constant obsession with being punished for the guilt of our existence pervades much of our social fabric largely thanks to religious philosophy. It became a focal point in my work for many years and helped churn out these plays. Plus you can write whatever the hell you want if the world is coming to an end.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: There's this insane ridiculous thing I wrote called Pookie Goes Grenading which will be featured as part of the Bay Area Playwright's Festival this coming July - it's a play about a troupe of dorky high school kids who embark on a sort of epic quest to produce the world's greatest film and wind up becoming terrorists along the way. I'm also working on a commission from the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts to write a play that allows high school kids to, you know, actually play high school kids in real time. That play's tentatively titled The Inexplicable Disappearance of Hector Villaraigosa and is slated for production in February 2011. Other than that there's a film project on my plate and my unending blogging.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I spent my summers on the Jersey shore (fistpump) and my older cousins one time convinced me to cover my entire bike with ornaments in the hope of coming one step closer to be the super hero I'd always longed to be. I did it and took the bike to the top of a concrete ramp in the street. Proudly I launched myself downward only to have the ribbons and cards taped to the bike jam up the chain and freeze the wheels. I flipped over the handlebars and tore open my arm. Seeing a bone jutting through the open skin, I screamed like a mad man and my cousins fled. That serves as a pretty apt metaphor for everything I do.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Our penchant to condescend. We take ourselves and our art way too seriously and fail to realize that there are plenty of people quite content to never step foot in a theatre and they're totally normal and intelligent. It's our job to give them a reason to come, and that reason can't be pretentious academic bullshit. We must rediscover the joy of telling stories again and be eager to share that joy with others. Our complaints about funding cuts and lackluster attendance only reflect our inability to communicate the excitement of our craft.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Shakespeare - he's the ultimate working class bad-ass. Tony Kushner for helping me realize that one could be a citizen apart from an artist. Jose Rivera and Caryl Churchill for constantly blowing my mind. Tony Taccone for running a theatre that never fails to do relevant, incredible work. And David Mamet for being himself no matter what the other kids say.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I really love Shakespeare when done well. Watching the RSC tackle King Lear with Ian McKellan at its helm changed my life. Beyond that, I'm always excited by well structured but imaginative work that doesn't try too hard - why people always think imagination and structure are in conflict is sort of beyond me. I loved Lisa Kron's In the Wake and Naomi Iizuka's Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West (both at Berkeley Rep).
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: You'd better be doing it only because there's nothing else in the world you can do, because if there is something else, you should probably do that. It's likely to be easier and have greater social benefit and pay more than being a playwright. If it's the only thing you can do, then do it with intelligence, grace and honesty. Don't try to be original. Don't try to be clever. Don't be afraid to still shit you think rocks and make it your own.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Definitely check out the Brother/Sister Plays in the Bay Area next year. Not to mention Scapin at ACT and, if you can manage it, get to NYC to check out Signature's revival of Angels in America. That's enough theatre to merit loin-girding, no?