Seven Questions With Playwright Lauren Yee

Tania Thompson
 | Mar 21, 2017
Lauren Yee

Playwright Lauren Yee.

Coffee shops are ​where you'll most likely find playwright Lauren Yee at work. Probably some in Costa Mesa. Her latest play—Cambodian Rock Bandis part of the 20th Pacific Playwrights Festival, April 21-23, 2017. This new work is a commission out of South Coast Repertory’s CrossRoads Initiative, a program that brings artists to Orange County for residencies and to be inspired by what they find.

“I love the white noise of coffee shops,” she says. “Plus, if I'm sitting at a coffee shop, there's nowhere else to go. I need to have a relative din in the background. I read my dialogue under my breath and a public place covers this up. It's a counterintuitive idea, but it works for me.”

Writing from home? Yee has a firm “no” for that. “There are so many distractions—I literally begin to clean my home before I start writing!”

We had a few more questions for Yee. Read on.

What story did you read in secret as a kid?
I can't remember any books I had to read in secret, though I was a voracious reader constantly reading something. But I DID have a tiny tiny tv in the stereo in my room, that I use to secretly watch the late night “Masterpiece Theater” specials.

When did you know you wanted to be a playwright?
I always knew that I wanted to be a writer, but it was probably around high school that I found playwriting as the form my writing took. I fell in love with how collaborative it is. Writing can be lonely—and I loved how much theatre and playwriting require other people to make it happen and that every time you do it, it's a different beast.

What play changed your life?
Adam Bock's Five Flights was my first "new" play. I'd of course seen plays in school, but this show was the first time I saw what a new play could be, how the form could be manipulated, what theatre was capable of. A really formative play and production for me.

How does SCR’s approach to play development support your work?
South Coast Repertory is very collaborative about how it approaches dramaturgical feedback. The literary team at South Coast is huge compared to many other theatres of the same size. There's a lot of intellectual firepower and I actually enjoy hearing from a lot of different voices in my process.

What inspired Cambodian Rock Band?
CrossRoads fundamentally changed how I approach playwriting and how I encourage others to view their playwriting process. It was amazing how deeply and how quickly I was able to jump into vastly different worlds during my research phase of the CrossRoads commissioning process.

Basically, I spent two weeks delving into the culture of Orange County, able to investigate any aspect of life in the county that I was interested in. And so, of course, I crammed all my interests into just two weeks; we did research for about 12 hours a day, on everything from video gaming to Asian food courts to urban planning in Irvine. I didn't know yet what my play was going to be about, but the freedom to look into whatever I want in Orange County was absolutely freeing and thought-provoking. It is that so rare that I clear two weeks from my schedule and say, "Okay, I will go wherever the research leads me." I came out of that research time with material enough for five plays.

At first, I thought we were getting so much access [in the community] and face time because the requests were coming from South Coast Rep. But then I realized these organizations had no idea what South Coast Rep was, and that this kind of deep research is something that we're all capable of—I'd just never put aside the time to do so. It is something I can and should be doing in my everyday life.

During my two weeks in residence, it became incredibly clear that my play was going to be about the Cambodian music scene, even if I didn't realize it at the time. Dengue Fever—the band I collaborated with—happened to be playing in Long Beach while I was there. There also happened to be an all-day Cambodian music festival that we attended. And, my last day of research ended with dinner and dancing at 2 a.m. in Long Beach, because we got a last minute invite for a fundraiser for Cambodia Town. It's such a strange way to think about it, but the play chose me.

Coffee or tea?
Oh definitely tea. I can't do the caffeine in coffee. It makes me angry. Tea I can sling back all day long.

What are you binge-watching?
I lean towards the non-fictional tv shows, it feels like a break to me from narrative. My husband is the opposite, so we're always trying to find the best compromise.

Learn more about the Pacific Playwrights Festival and buy tickets