Imagine a modern-day Hamlet in which the protagonist’s son is a Black Korean-American man living in LA. Intrigued? Yeah, so are we — which is why we are delighted to perform an excerpt of Muse Lee’s “Minutes” at Our Stories, Ourselves, our June 17 virtual show in partnership with the San Jose Museum of Art.
Muse Lee (he/him) is the writer and co-executive producer of ARISTOS: the Musical, a pop/rock Iliad adaptation featuring an international cast and crew collaborating remotely during the pandemic. An artist and educator, he taught writing and performance behind bars as a member of the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Circle, and taught a novel writing course at a court school to youth involved in the juvenile justice system.
At Los Angeles Opera, he founded and led the Opera 90012 Ambassador Program, a training program for teens interested in arts administration. In 2019, Muse graduated with a B.A. in English from Stanford University, where he served for three years as a teaching assistant in the Theatre and Performance Studies Department. He is currently writing the textbook Acting for Non-Majors with noted Stanford theatre lecturer Kay Kostopoulos.
During the pandemic, Muse has been been producing the album of my musical Aristos (www.aristosmusical.com), a pop/rock Iliad adaptation that sings the love story of Achilles and Patroclus. Slated for release in summer 2021, the crowdfunded project features an international ensemble, production team, and fanbase, all creating and connecting remotely from our own homes.
The musical proudly tells Homer’s immortal story — one that has come to symbolize Western culture —through the voices of a majority queer, BIPOC cast, comprised of earnest aspiring performers, professional actors, beloved music teachers, retired opera singers, renowned stage directors, and everything in between. Our artists range from ages 13-70 and hail from seven different countries. The show can be found on Instagram as aristosmusical and on Youtube as ARISTOStheMusical!
Muse answered a few questions for us in advance of the June show.
HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT PLAY ON WORDS?
I met Melinda Marks (POW co-founder and casting director) when I auditioned for a show she was directing! While an Aristos conflict meant that I didn’t get the chance to work with her at the time, she reached out to me some months later about performing in “Play on Words: Beyond Boundaries.” I’d grown woefully used to a certain stiff-necked atmosphere in university theatre spaces, and I was enchanted by the energy of the rehearsal: a gaggle of artists bringing life to stories in a cozy apartment on a Saturday morning. I knew that this was a group I wanted to be a part of as long as they would have me!
HOW HAS YOUR CREATIVE PRACTICE CHANGED DURING THE PANDEMIC?
It’s actually become more extroverted! My practice used to be very cloistered, but the pandemic pushed me to find new ways of creating and connecting. I’ve held Zoom readings with my friends, where we showed up in hilarious costumes fashioned out of whatever we could find in the closet. I’ve attended virtual performances and tuned into audio dramas, joyfully reacting over chat with other audience members in real time. I’ve worked with artists all over the world, our tenuous, wonderful connections flickering at the mercy of our WiFi.
These are all ways I had never really engaged with storytelling before. Sure, there’s nothing like live theatre, but there’s something to be said about how not having that option gives you the opportunity to reimagine theatre entirely. The productions I’ve seen over the last year involved artists of all levels of experience, of diverse ability statuses, and from all over the world. People could pop in and take part after school, or before their evening shift, or during their lunch break. While the pandemic delivered a devastating blow to the theatre industry, I was also humbled by how it forced me to reexamine my preconceptions about what performance could be, who could participate, and who it could reach. So much of what I had taken for granted about the world of performance had vanished in a blink of an eye — including its gilded barriers.
WHAT DOES “IMMIGRANT HERITAGE” MEAN TO YOU?
It’s the way I was alone in New York and thought I was doing just fine, but then I walked into a Korean restaurant and felt a weight lift off me that I didn’t even know was there.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT YOU?
I knocked out the first draft of my featured PoW piece, “Minutes,” at the end of my senior year of college, but I’d actually been trying to write this Korean-American Hamlet for three years. I was going to write from the perspective of the Ophelia parallel character, Jiyun, exploring her heartbreak and grief at losing her boyfriend. I tried and tried, but it just wasn’t working. Which was incredibly frustrating, because I loved the premise so much and really wanted to do something with it!
Then, in my last quarter before graduating, I was in a course about adapting Shakespeare. The final had two options: you could either write an essay about an existing adaptation or you could make your own. I leapt at the chance to make my own. By then, I had realized that I was transmasc and gay. Within just a few months, I would also finally embrace that I was on the aromantic spectrum. I sat down to take another shot at my Hamlet. This time, I wrote from the perspective of the Horatio parallel, Hoseung, who quietly watched his friend fall apart as he swallowed down the feelings he didn’t understand and wasn’t allowed to have. I wrote in one night what I hadn’t been able to write in three years.
The piece that became “Minutes” was my very first queer work, and I cannot express how much it liberated me to write the kinds of love stories I had yearned to tell my whole life. I think this piece was, to paraphrase Greta Gerwig, me trying to explain myself to myself.