The “Minutes” of Muse Lee

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.

Muse Lee

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. 

JOIN US JUNE 17 TO SEE MUSE’S WORK PERFORMED ALOUD.

What is Annotation? [Part One]

At Play On Words, we like to read. We like to write. You know those magnetic poetry kits you can use on your fridge? We got those. This spring, as we plan ahead for our next show, we’re busy reading, writing and discussion production. In addition to rehearsing, performing, teaching and curating, Play On Words Casting Director and co-founder Melinda Marks is busy adapting Shakespeare plays. She agreed to share some thoughts on the process of annotation, and how adaptation can help writers reflect on their own artistic processes. Today’s post is the first of three in a series we’ll be sharing over the next few weeks on the art of annotation.

Julia:
So Melinda, you are a playwright slash dramaturg, director, actress. Tell me what it means to annotate a play.

Melinda:
With anything, it’s making notes that are relevant, making notes about what other people have said about something, anything that contextualizes a piece of writing for a reader or an audience. I decided that I was going to annotate some Shakespeare plays for fun. I’m just doing a cut of the play, how I would like to see it done, edited how I would like to see it edited, in order to make a cleaner and clearer version of what I imagine the play to be about. It isn’t radically different from how it started, but it’s different enough that if whatever imaginary people might read or watch this version of the play, if they had any questions about it, then I would be addressing those cuts in as bold and defensive manner as I can.

Julia:
Do you actually cut lines?

Melinda:
Yea.

Julia:
What’s an example of a change you made?

Melinda:
With Hamlet, I actually ended up cutting about 50 percent of all the dialogue. I made it really short because I wanted to see a version where the only time that Hamlet really talked a lot was when he was alone. And that’s very different from the version where everyone has these long speeches, especially Hamlet. When he’s alone he goes on and on to the audience. But I decided that I was going to make it really dense. And that’s because I wanted a version of Hamlet that was really scary, where people weren’t really saying anything, or a lot of it was represented visually. That’s a choice, and I justified it at the time.

Julia:
Did you stage it?

Melinda:
No. I don’t have that kind of pull. If I were ever to stage it, I would go into it being able to justify it, not only to whoever was on my creative team, based on what I wanted, but already having that version, having thought about it.

I went to Virginia recently and I saw three Shakespeare plays and none of them were edited. I saw a version of the Taming of the Shrew, and while I don’t have a problem with it, a lot of people do, because of the lighthearted psychological torture that happens.

Julia:
Which part makes people uncomfortable?

Melinda:
The fact that Petruchio marries Kate for her money, and she’s a mean person, so he decides to give her a taste of her own medicine. Once he takes her back to his house, there are these references to the fact that he’s denying her food, or he’s denying her sleep. And they are played for laughs, and that makes me think that it was played very broad and very silly, and at the end the conceit is that they go back to her dad’s house, and everybody says, she’s so different, and there’s this speech about marital obedience at the end. A lot of people have different approaches to this, with different degrees of tongue-in-cheek.

Ten Things I Hate About You
Source: Wikipedia

Julia:
Isn’t Ten Things I Hate About You based on Taming of the Shrew?

Melinda:
Yea.

Julia:
That’s my cultural reference.

Melinda:
In 10 Things I Hate About You, Kate realized that she wanted more than herself, and that she could still be who she was, but also fall in love, be in love with someone at the same time. The switcheroo there was that Petruchio made a bet, but he felt bad about it. A lot of people play it with different degrees of that. I’ve always considered it to be the fact that it should be a joke, that that should never be taken seriously.

Stay tuned next week to hear Melinda’s thoughts on adapting Taming of the Shrew.