Playwright Lauren Yee: From SCR’s CrossRoads Project to the CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND World Premiere
Lauren Yee is a playwright to watch. Her play King of the Yees debuted last season to rave reviews, and with upcoming premieres scheduled from coast to coast, including the much-anticipated Cambodian Rock Band (Julianne Argyros Stage, March 4–25), Yee is in great demand. We recently caught up with this rising star of the theatre world to learn more about her thrilling new play, which has been described as part comedy, part mystery and part rock concert.
How did the band Dengue Fever’s music serve as a source of inspiration for Cambodian Rock Band?
Dengue Fever was my gateway to Cambodia’s wild musical past. When I was in grad school in San Diego, a good friend dragged me to a music festival to see one of her favorite bands, Dengue Fever. As soon as I heard their music, what I describe as psychedelic surf rock, I was hooked. It felt fresh, electric, but also, so very familiar. I immediately went home to delve into their catalog and discovered the actual Cambodian oldies of the ’60s and ’70s their music draws inspiration from. And with this music, I learned not only about Cambodia’s incredible music scene, but also the tragic fate of so many of those musicians once Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the country for four terrifying years.
Even then, I knew this history all added up to a play, but for years, I had no idea of how to do this.
You wrote this play as part of SCR’s CrossRoads Commissioning Project. Tell us about your CrossRoads experience.
About two and a half years ago, I got commissioned by South Coast Rep as part of its CrossRoads program. My job was to write any play I wanted but, before then, I was invited to spend 10 days in Orange County and research absolutely anything I wanted.
This is total writer catnip and something that has completely changed the way I embark on new projects. What followed was 10 days in which I got to indulge in all my nerdiest fantasies. How do malls operate? What is Pageant of the Masters? Who can I talk to about OC’s gaming community? I was literally dragging the SCR literary staff around Orange County from morning to night.
But over and over, it was the Cambodian music scene that emerged as the clear winner of the trip. I just happened to be in town the same time as Dengue Fever was playing in Long Beach (so we met them), just as the Cambodian Music Festival was happening in Anaheim (we went), just as the annual Cambodia Town fundraiser was happening (we may or may not have crashed it). This incredible confluence of events was really what contributed to the piece you see here.
What kind of research did you have to do for this play?
I’ve been more or less obsessed with the Cambodian music scene and the history around the Khmer Rouge years since the first time I heard Dengue Fever play and have been gradually absorbing information on the history since then. Shortly after seeing the band play for the first time, I visited Cambodia, which is still recovering from the scars of the Khmer Rouge genocide.
But a lot of the research has been done as I’ve written the play. I’ll run into stumbling blocks in the writing and then have to go back into the research to help me figure out how a scene should feel or what a character might have encountered in the country during Pol Pot’s reign of terror.
What were some of the surprises you encountered while writing Cambodian Rock Band?
I didn’t know it would be a play with music and a live band. That discovery came organically. I first thought the play would be about music and so maybe we’d play a couple Dengue Fever songs over the sound system during transitions or intermission.
But then, while work-shopping the play at Berkeley Repertory’s Ground Floor, I happened to cast actors who were already incredible musicians. They brought in instruments and the whole play opened up. And I realized how much the act of playing music live was crucial to the play. Cambodian Rock Band is about the survival of Cambodia’s musical past. It’s about radical acts of defiance and it’s why music and art is critical to sustaining us as human beings. And having that live music makes that message so much clearer.
What’s your writing process like?
I start with no idea of what the play is about, but as long as I can tap into strong character voices, my instincts as a writer can take me the rest of the way. Which means that I can very quickly discover what the pieces of the play are, but I also spend a lot of the time trying to figure out how those pieces are supposed to fit together. I can write it quickly but it takes me a very long time to make it good.
Congrats on being named a 2018-2019 Hodder Fellow at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University. Tell us about it.
It really is the ultimate gift of “studious leisure” (as the Lewis Center calls it). Along with four other fellows, I get a stipend of $81,000 and incredible access to Princeton University’s resources in support of whatever projects I’m working on during the year. It’s an immense honor and will really help someone like me whose work has become much more research-heavy in recent years. I can’t wait. I miss university libraries.
What’s next for you as a playwright?
My other new play of the year, The Great Leap (based on my father’s early basketball career and the first trip he ever took to China), heads to New York’s Atlantic Theater Company, following the world premiere at the Denver Center and Seattle Repertory Theatre. That play has been its own delightful rabbit hole of research, and I’m so happy to get to see it up again.
What can audiences expect when they attend the world premiere of Cambodian Rock Band?
Incredible live music. Untold, unbelievable history. A funny, fraught father/daughter relationship that anyone who loves (and is driven crazy by) their family will relate to. Also a dangerous, electric emcee with a pitch-black sense of humor who guides us through this journey back into Cambodia’s musical past.