Thursday, 13 August 2015

INTERVIEW - Young Jean Lee, appearing at the Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre

MONDAY sees the start of this year's Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre.
It is being curated by pop music legend and Talking Heads frontman, the multi award-winning David Byrne. He follows in the hallowed footsteps of the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Yoko Ono, Ray Davies and James Lavelle who have all directed the annual festival in the past.
Over the years Meltdown has given these guest curators the chance to pick their favourite artists to play or exhibit their work at Southbank Centre resulting in a varied and vibrant programme of events. This year is no exception.
For the 22nd Meltdown, David has chosen an eclectic line up of artists that span a wide range of musical genres as well as stretching beyond the musical realm into dance, theatre and film.
Among those taking part are musicians Bianca Casady and Anna Clavi, Spanish flamenco star, Estrella Morente, singer Petra Haden and post punk band, Young Marble Giants.
It also features Brooklyn-based playwright Young Jean Lee who will take to the stage with her band Future Wife to do her OBIE award-winning show, We're Gonna Die.
It is a performance made up of songs and monologues inspired by the death of her beloved father and was first performed four years ago in New York.
"I was consumed with grief after my father died and ended up writing this show," the 41-year-old tells me.
"I wanted to write something that would comfort people who were grieving, myself included - not just those who had lost someone but about any awful things in life - whether it be ageing, sickness, love or loss.
"All the stories I tell in the show are true but not all of them happened to me - some did but there are others that happened to my close friends which I incorporated into it.
“It's all very personal though and was really hard to write especially as I tell the story about how my father died. It was the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me and it was tough to get through.
"Writing about it was definitely a cathartic experience and has helped me with my own grief.”
Despite the sadness and the pain, Young Jean Lee insists that the piece is full of humour and fun.
“It sounds like it could be a depressing show but it’s definitely not,” she says warmly. “The way I tell the stories is in a lighthearted way.
“I wanted humour in the show, that was very important and so it ended up being quite comic. It’s the same with the songs and although there is a real mix, most of them are quite poppy and upbeat.
"However, it was even harder to perform than it was to write especially singing the songs because I'm not a performer normally and it’s not natural for me – in fact it was almost torture!
“But every time I've done the show, and had an audience there, it's always incredibly cathartic and is a bit of a healing experience. It’s got a bit easier to do, though it’s still very emotional.
“People come up to me afterwards, share their experiences and say how it’s helped them which is really good."
For Meltdown though she won’t be singing the songs – that will be down to her special guest, David Byrne.
“In the original show I sang the songs and did the monologues so that it was part of a continuous story,” she says. “In this version I tell the stories and David sings the songs.
“He came to see the original production in New York and really liked it. He invited me to do the show in its original form for Meltdown but as I hadn’t done it for a while I wasn’t sure.
"The most stressful part is the singing and as I was reluctant to do it again I said I’d find a singer but he offered to do it instead.
"It is a very surreal experience to see and hear David Byrne singing your songs – there is nothing like it!
“When we did rehearsals it was a very weird experience because I got way more emotional than I would normally. He really infuses so much energy and emotion into the music so it was hard to keep my emotions in check.”
That it was difficult to both write and perform should not be a surprise to those who know Young Jean Lee’s work.
She says she does things “that would be my worst nightmare” because they will take her out of her comfort zone.
Her work is unashamedly unorthodox and previous pieces include Untitled Feminist Show in which the cast perform nude, an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear and identity plays such as Straight White Men.
“When I start a play, I ask myself, ‘what is the last show in the world I would ever want to make?’ and then I force myself to do it,” she says.
"For me it's all about struggling to achieve something in the face of failure, incompetence and not-knowing.
"That’s my inspiration really. It’s so uncomfortable, there is nothing easy about the process and it’s always a nightmare but it gives my work an energy, I learn new skills and I always get a real buzz doing it.
"Since I've been writing I've found the only way to make theatre that gets the audience thinking is when I feel uncomfortable creating it. So my work is uncomfortable and hard for me to write but it takes me out of my comfort zone, is always a challenge and makes me stronger.
"There is a level of terror that never goes away though,” she adds. “Each show I do the stakes get higher.
“We're Gonna Die was definitely the worst to do because I perform in it. Nothing can top that terror! It was and is the most terrifying experience and I used to shake throughout the entire show.”
Despite the terror, she says she’s looking forward to coming back to London, a place she’s performed at before and to be part of the festival.
“I’m so excited,” she enthuses. “To perform on stage with David is definitely going to be a career highlight – I can’t even process it!
“It doesn’t seem real especially as I’ve never performed to that amount of people before. I’m very nervous about being on stage with such a superstar and as part of such an important festival but I’m really excited to be in London and hanging out here.
"It’s going to be very special.”

Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die is on at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre as part of Meltdown Festival on between Thursday August 27 and Sunday August 30. Tickets from £20. Visit or call the box office on 020 7960 4200 for full Meltdown Festival listings.

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