Young Jean Lee, Prized, And Heading To Windham Campbell Events

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Playwright Young Jean Lee was on her way to teach her class at Stanford when she got a call from an organization unknown to her: the Windham Campbell Prize. The operative word here is “prize,” and when she learned she was to be awarded $165,000, she burst into tears. (To put awards in perspective, you get $15,000 when you win a Pulitzer Prize, upped two years ago from $10,000.)

You’re talking enough money to change the course of a career — and a life.

Lee and seven other writers of drama, fiction, nonfiction and poetry will take part in lectures and readings Sept. 18-20 around the Yale campus. Renowned poet Eileen Myles will deliver the Why I Write lecture Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. at the lecture hall at the Yale Art Gallery.

“This award came at a very crucial moment in my career,” Lee says. Though the South Korea native’s play Straight White Men was presented on Broadway last season, it was written at least five years ago and she hadn’t written a new play since. The reason, she says, was because she was focused on looking for and establishing a collegiate teaching position. She pursued academics when a $225,000 grant from a Doris Duke Performing Artist award, which was spread out over five years, ran out.

“When I got the Doris Duke Award, those were like five of the most productive years of my career because I could just live off the grant,” she says. Teaching, Lee found, is insanely time consuming. “I have zero doubt that if I got the Windham Campbell Prize right after the Doris Duke Award, I would have just continued to write.”

The Windham Campbell Prize — which fellow Yale School of Drama playwriting teacher Tarell Alvin McCraney also received six years ago — “means that I don’t have to do anything just for the money — and that is huge in terms of feeling you now have time and freedom.”

But she also found that she gets a different kind of reward from teaching now, too — and is getting better at it. “I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t like to teach. It’s a wonderful job and I’m on a tenure track at Stanford. It’s just the first year was brutal because teaching is a skill you have to learn. That first year I taught at Yale in the first semester, and Stanford in winter and spring was like a trial by fire, just learning how to teach. But once you figure it out, it’s a wonderful job for an artist.”

Lee says she’s already working on a new musical “about class” as well as preparing to direct and co-write a movie, Mistress Hand, which she describes as a horror film set on a Dakota reservation.