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Young Jean Lee on Out There’s 25th Anniversary

In celebration of Out There’s 25th anniversary, we invited theater professionals from near and far — Jeff Bartlett, Wendy Knox, Young Jean Lee, and Mark Russell–to share their perspectives on this annual festival of boundary-crossing performance. In 2006, I had never toured a show before, but I’d heard all about touring from friends in the […]

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

In celebration of Out There’s 25th anniversary, we invited theater professionals from near and far — Jeff Bartlett, Wendy Knox, Young Jean Lee, and Mark Russell–to share their perspectives on this annual festival of boundary-crossing performance.

In 2006, I had never toured a show before, but I’d heard all about touring from friends in the New York downtown theater scene. I knew which were the best venues to tour to and who were the most important presenters to know. Nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned Philip Bither and the Walker Art Center. More than one person described Philip as “the perfect human being.” So when I finally met him and he invited my show Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven to be part of his 2007 Out There festival, I was beyond thrilled that my very first tour ever was going to be at this famously dreamy venue.

Young Jean Lee, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, 2007. Photo: Frank Hentschker

But it turned out that having your first tour be at the Walker is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the venue is luxurious, the staff is top-notch, the audience is from heaven, the snacks in the green room are abundant, and Philip is a perfect human being. And a curse because it spoils your company for every subsequent tour. To this day, the Walker’s audience remains one of my favorites in the world: savvy, open-hearted, generous, fun, and extremely rock-and-roll.

In 2008, Philip commissioned my next play, Church, and gave me my first American commission. Church had two successful runs in New York, but presenters didn’t want to touch it because of its religious subject matter. Philip, undaunted, brought it to Minneapolis for 2008’s Out There, where it was a hit. Although this was my production’s only tour, in the years since, Church has become my most produced play around the country, with a wide range of companies creating their own versions. I will always be grateful to and full of admiration for Philip for his willingness to present Church when nobody else would. Commissions are now a major source of funding for my shows, and I know that his early faith in me, before most people knew about my work, definitely opened the doors for other theaters to invest in me. And that’s Philip. He’s unafraid to take a risk on someone or something unknown, and I think that is a real gift to audiences at the Walker–and to artists around the world.

In 2010, we approached Philip about partnering with us on Untitled Feminist Show, and he commissioned the show and gave it its world premiere at Out There in January 2012. It was by far my most challenging work to date, and when my team arrived at the Walker, we were all petrified. We had no idea how this crazy naked dance theater piece without words would land on an audience. We had never presented it in its full form and had our fears about whether or not it would come together.

Young Jean Lee, Church, 2009. Photo: Ryan Jensen

As soon as the performers entered the theater, the atmosphere in the room was electric. The crowd screamed and cheered like it was a rock concert. It was unreal. Here we were, ragged from this intense development process, unsure if anything we made would work, unsure how it would work, and in front of our first audience, and it was completely explosive. The love and generosity in the room were palpable as the performers rocked the house scene after scene. When the lights came up at the end, my collaborators and I were sitting there, in shock. We all burst into tears and started hugging each other and saying, “What?! What?!” It was the one of the most joyous moments in my life as an artist.

I am so grateful to Philip and to the Walker for all they’ve done for me, as well as for friends such as Elevator Repair Service, Radiohole, NTUSA, Big Dance Theater, and many more. From that first Songs tour in 2007, Philip has treated me like a valued artist who deserves respect, support, and resources. Walker audiences have challenged me, uplifted me, and continually surprised me. The Walker has served as an artistic home and launching pad for touring that sustains my company to this day. I can’t wait for my next visit.