Playwright/director Young Jean Lee was challenged by 13P theater company to take an unusually big risk with a new show to be co-produced by the intentionally finite company and Lee’s own troupe.
It was a challenge Lee took seriously, seeing as “my shows are normally pretty crazy anyway.”
So Lee pushed the envelope from a structural standpoint first before attacking the content. Lee told The Beat she considered the one thing that nearly all theater has in common, that being “amazing performers.”
“So I wondered, what if a show didn’t have that?” she continued.
“I decided I couldn’t cast for that, that it wouldn’t be ethical. But I’m terrible.”
Self-deprecating humor aside, Lee decided the best approach was to start by addressing her own fear of being on stage.
Once central casting was settled, Lee then took the concept further by adding a cabaret component to the show that would find her singing and dancing as well.
Lee explained she never intended to write for a purposefully bad performance – just one delivered by someone without a specific talent for performing.
At the same time, she was developing content around a theme both challenging and universal – the shadow of mortality.
She began working some improvisation, a different script-writing method than she would normally employ, but one that allowed her to ensure the material could be performed by her show’s central actor.
We’re Gonna Die became a collection of songs interspersed with poignant-yet-hilarious monologues dealing with family, human failure, sickness, aging and death. She is joined for the musical segments by her indie rock band, Future Wife. The band includes Tim Simmonds, Lee’s songwriting partner.
Despite her nervousness about performing, “the show still totally worked.”
Since the show was first performed in 2011, Lee has become slightly less terrified of being on stage. While her apprehension and anxiety were never intended to be part of show, Lee joked that her friends are much more comfortable with the show now.
“Performing is still something I don’t particularly enjoy. Writing and directing are difficult, but they don’t require your entire body. I still tend to worry about my body and my voice too much,” Lee explained.
“But (performing We’re Gonna Die) just requires total honesty, and I’m incapable of anything else.”