The Hidden Costs and Labor That Go Into Making New Artwork

What kind of support should be available to artists when they are turning concepts and ideas into a living artwork? We know that artists need space, materials, and collaborators, but there are so many untold stories about the real costs and struggles of being an artist in a country that lacks resources to support them. For a glimpse into what one artist endured to make her work, we spoke to Young Jean Lee, a celebrated theater playwright and director, and the first female Asian-American playwright on Broadway. In 2009 she received the Creative Capital Award to make Lear, a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s play that featured female actors of color and explored how the children of aging parents cope with their parents’ impending deaths. The support Lee received from Creative Capital is just one story of the needs an artist faces while producing an ambitious project.

Lee’s work, Lear, is indicative of a shift in her life that led her to make art. Before becoming an artist, Lee had studied Shakespeare for ten years—her original goal was to become a Shakespeare professor. “I was working on a dissertation on King Lear when I had a nervous breakdown of sorts and dropped out of my PhD program to become a playwright,” she said. She went on to write Lear while her father was dying of cancer. “It captures the emotional chaos both of that time, and also the period when I was working on the dissertation.”

By the time she was ready to bring Lear to the theater, Lee had already produced a series of plays, including Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and The Shipment. Those plays were minimalist (according to her style), but she imagined that Lear would be different: “Lear had an incredibly ornate, elaborate set and these incredibly fancy, custom-made, period costumes,” she said. “I honestly don’t think the costumes could have been any fancier or more expensive than they were.” With Creative Capital’s support, Lee was able to take the leap from minimal theater design to a more baroque look that fit her vision.

“I have no idea what would have happened to me as a person and artist if Creative Capital hadn’t stepped in.” — Young Jean Lee

What the audience saw when Lear premiered at Soho Theater in 2010 wasn’t exactly the version Lee started with. “There were actually two completely different versions of the script before the final one,” explained Lee, “both of which I threw out after workshopping them.” Funding from Creative Capital “enabled me to do those workshops so that I could get to the best version of the play.” Lear, starring Paul Lazar, April Matthis, Okwui Okpokwasili, Pete Simpson, and Amelia Workman, premiered at Soho Rep in 2010.

For Lee and artists like her, there are hidden costs outside the actual creation and production of her work. After a violent event in her life, Lee suffered from severe PTSD and because she had terrible health insurance, she and her work suffered from the trauma. “I was seeking free counseling services,” Lee said, all that she could afford at the time, “and the counselors literally wouldn’t show up for scheduled meetings, or else they were so inexperienced and incompetent they would make my PTSD worse.”

Lee relayed this all to a career coach she was speaking to as part of the advisory services included with the Creative Capital Award. The coach suggested she use funding she had left over from Creative Capital to pay for mental health assistance. “I got the best care available and got much better after only a few months,” said Lee. “I have no idea what would have happened to me as a person and artist if Creative Capital hadn’t stepped in.”

It’s not difficult to imagine artists whose undoubtedly brilliant work was never made because there was no support for their various needs—needs that include research, development production, and even continued well-being of the artist. Lee went on to make many other hit plays, receiving a major New York Times Magazine profile in 2018. Still interested in the ideas explored in Lear—how the abstract idea of death becomes real—she is currently working on a revival of her show We’re Gonna Die.

Perhaps less significantly to our culture as a whole, but just as significant for us, she has also become a donor to Creative Capital. “I often wonder where I would be today if Creative Capital hadn’t made that intervention. As long as I have a real job,” said Lee, “you can count on my donations!”

Young Jean Lee’s revival of We’re Gonna Die, directed by Raja Feather Kelly, is currently playing at 2nd Stage in New York through March 22.

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