Mostly fearless: an interview with Rachel Yong

For Decent Company October: fear, Rachel Yong will be telling the story of how she conquered her fear of diving. Except that she actually kind of didn’t. Rachel sat down with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman to talk about why she still fears diving but doesn’t fear a whole lot else.

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JOSH BOERMAN: This is the first Decent Company that you’ve done since February. You’re doing another piece about memory, in a way. You’re talking about a different series of memories, but it’s still that same sort of thing. You’re talking about a story of where you came from and how it still impacts you today. So why’d you decide to do that again?

RACHEL YONG: When you sent out the call for submissions, I automatically associate that word, “fear,” with my fear of diving. Because I wrote a college essay about it, and it was this very narrow narrative about fear and diving.

And so I instantly had this image of me on a diving board, and it being a really theatrical image or it’d be blue, and I’d get to wear my high school swimsuit again, and it would be cathartic and beautiful. And I really didn’t want it to be just me standing there talking like the last one was. But yeah, I don’t know. That’s the easiest source material for a solo show, it seems like, for me.

JB: Totally. And you draw on your life experiences, you look at how these experiences have shaped you into who you are. But part of what I think is interesting about this piece is that it kind of leaves the question open about what this experience actually means. Because like you said, you’re afraid of diving, have been afraid of diving, still are to a degree afraid of diving.

RY: More, probably.

JB: More. It never goes away. So what does that mean? 

RY: I don’t know. I mean, I think the meta thing that I’m playing with in the piece is, like, when is the story really finished? When is it ready to be packaged up and, like, “Okay, this is what happened, this is exactly the impact, this is the identity I had during these years, and now I’m this.” And it’s just realizing it’s constantly evolving. Identity is fluid. It is open ended, still.

JB: Yeah. And I think that’s something that a lot of people have a certain discomfort with, right? We like to have our happy endings. We like to have it wrapped up in a little bow, just like, “Here it is. Done. Finished.”

RY: Yeah. I think a lot of people like to say, “Oh, in high school, I was such a different person. Like, I’m such a different person now.” And I’ve never been that person. Like, I reread my diaries pretty frequently, and I’m always like, “Oh, wow. I do sound very different.”

But when I remember the memories, I’m like, “No, I’m pretty consistent as a person.” People’s perception of me through the years has pretty much always been the same.

JB: Yeah. When I go back and read my old journal entries from when I was 14, 15, 16, whatever, I look at them and I’m like, “Who is this pretentious dick?”

RY: (laughs) Yeah.

JB: And them I’m like, “Oh, wait a minute.” And you kinda realize that maybe those things that you’d like to dissociate or distance yourself from are— they don’t really go away. Right?

RY: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s really humbling. And I don’t always know what the point is of saying it’s a totally different person. Unless they’re pretentious. (laughs)

JB: Well, talking about fear, again, I think we’re afraid perhaps of the idea that those things, those insecurities that we’ve put away, that we thought we’d put away, are still very much there.

RY: Right.

JB: Or that those things that we see in ourselves that we fear are still actually parts of ourselves.

RY: Yeah. I think there’s this bias toward thinking that we’re always getting better, and we’re evolving, and we’re not scared of that anymore, and we’ve learned from that experience. But I actually really don’t think that’s true. Like, I think people can be in stasis or be the same for many, many decades and can become more reclusive. That you don’t necessarily get wiser with age.

JB: It’s a matter of how you choose to live your life, right? Because I work at a box office and sell tickets to a lot of old people.

RY: Are they all wise? The wisest of everyone? (laughs)

JB: Some of them are clearly very self-aware. They’re always continuing to evaluate themselves. Some clearly stopped doing that a long time ago. And I think we can all make that choice.

RY: Yeah. I think that’s part of the question in the thing, is, like, when do you know who you are, exactly, and when do you stop asking yourself? I feel like maybe in high school there’s more pressure to be a thing. Like, “I’m a diver, I am fearless, I am a sister, I’m a nonconformist,” whatever. But I think somewhere in your mid-20s you start to just be okay, just try and survive and you don’t have to stand out and be anything.

JB: Or you don’t.

RY: Yeah.

JB: I mean, there are so many people who I know who are still trying to project a very specific, singularly focused image or brand of who they are rather than just accepting that, hey, I’m a multifaceted person and there’s a lot of things about me.

RY: Yeah. Oh my god, yes. That is something that I care so much about. ‘Cause I went through a phase where I wanted to be nonconformist. Maybe, like, sixth grade to eighth grade. And after a point, I was like, “Oh, everyone who’s not conforming is actually doing the same thing. Like, we’re all wearing the Dickies and the gear and stuff.”

JB: And the Hot Topic T-shirts. Don’t forget about those.

RY: (laughs) And the Hot Topic T-shirts. But when you stop trying to actively create an identity, like, who are you? And I think for the past eight years, ten years, I haven’t really been like, “Am I still fearless?” Like, what does define who I am, and how do other people perceive me?

So doing this was really weird, because it was like this weird intersection of a time when I had a pretty clear set of identities, and now thinking back on it, I don’t know if it still sits in there.

JB: Do you find yourself consciously or subconsciously kind of re-entering that headspace at all?

RY: Of high school?

JB: Yeah.

RY: I kind of feel like this was a selfish exercise, because since diving I’ve always wanted to not be scared of diving. And I haven’t seen a swimming pool with a diving board, and I haven’t done a single dive off a diving board.

So this is kind of my secret way to say, “Maybe I can just pretend I’m on a diving board on stage in front of a bunch of people and see if it’s still scary.” Like when Kerry, my director, suggested during the staging I actually jump off a trampoline or whatever, that scared the shit out of me. I was like, “Uhh, that’s actually scary still.” Like, anything even mirroring diving is still scary.

So yeah, doing the piece has gotten me in the headspace of what my life was like as a sophomore. I’ve been trying to cull all the other stuff out, ’cause I had just moved to a new city, we moved later, there’s all this subtext. But just making it about diving and telling one kind of clean narrative. But it has made me remember some of the things back then that were really fun and precious.

JB: I mean, I know for myself at least, when I go back and read some old journal entries, I’m instantly right back there again, you know? I can feel the way that it was at that time. I can smell the way things smelled. The sensory memory, all of it, just comes rushing back again. Does that happen to you?

RY: Yeah. It’s all crystal clear still. Which is the fun part, I think. In making the piece, though, it’s hard to know how much of that— how to bring that forward, you know? ‘Cause no one’s in my head. Like when we were doing the work in progress and getting the questions like, “Wait, where were you? What’s going on?”

JB: Right, because for you it’s like, “Well, I was here, obviously.”

RY: I know. I mean, there’s so much subtext you forget you don’t bring into the script.

JB: Yeah, you can only communicate so much. You can maybe get across a sense of the feel or the emotion of it, but without that specificity, people just get lost.

RY: Yeah, exactly.

JB: On the topic of specificity versus general whatever, I’m curious how you feel like your experience with fear sort of relates to maybe what you’ve seen or heard about other people’s experiences of fear.

Do you feel like your fears are in some way unique, or it’s just the same thing everybody else does? Do you feel like you experience it differently based on what you’ve heard? I’m just curious what it means for you and how that compares to other people.

RY: It is interesting, because I’m never— I don’t have phobias, right? I’m not like, “Oh God, spiders, no,” or “cockroaches, no.” If anything, which I kinda talk about in the piece, I always try to lean the other way. Like, anything I’m scared of, I try not to be scared of it anymore. Like I’m really sensitive to caffeine, and I hate how it makes me feel, so I actively go try to up my caffeine intake so I can get used to it. I just have that opposite response.

I don’t know, it goes back to the identity question. Like, having a fear, having a discrete fear, is an easy thing to communicate about yourself. Except for diving, which I know I’ve always had in the back of my brain, I don’t have something easy to say about myself that I fear. Which is kinda sad.

JB: One thing you do talk about, though, is the idea of being fearless and being pegged as fearless. People describing you as fearless.

RY: Yeah.

JB: What does that mean to you?

RY: I always thought it was cool. I dunno. It’s, like, so cool for people to say that. I kinda lost track of that for a few years, five or more years, while I’m just doing a job and being an adult. I kinda talk about it in the piece, but it’s been coming up again recently. Like, in the last couple months the word fearless has come up.

JB: How so?

RY: Like, a coworker basically said I was fearless because I did something without my boss’s approval. Like, I clicked a button.

JB: Gasp.

RY: Yeah. (laughs) Or at a film shoot, I said we should crawl under a fence and go near some water to try to grab a certain shot. And there are just things that I do naturally that I don’t even think they’re scary things. I just don’t feel it. So it doesn’t really fear like fearlessness when you just aren’t actually afraid. (laughs)

JB: Do you feel like other people have a low bar of what fearlessness is? Like, what constitutes fearlessness?

RY: I don’t know how to respond. All I know is when I see people who are afraid of something, I don’t know what that necessarily feels like. Except for diving, I’m just like, “Can’t you just do it?”

This is a silly example, but rope swings are really fun. I think they’re really fun. Sometimes if they’re high it’s scary and you’re like, “Can’t do it.” But when people are paralyzed by fear, it’s so weird that you can’t help with that person at all.

JB: You just want to be like, “Just do it.”

RY: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. “Just do it.” It’s not helpful. So I’m not sure if fearlessness is the right— well, maybe it is, I don’t know. In the context people say it, it’s almost like you’re not scared of things most people are scared of. Which I guess is true, but the virtuous part of fearlessness is that you are scared, but you’re still conquering your fear.

JB: Right, you’re moving on in spite of your fear, as opposed to literally lacking fear.

RY: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. Which is almost how I feel I am in some situations, where I’m like, “Why is this a virtuous thing?” Except for diving. Diving’s kinda separate. But for the most part, I’m just like, if I’m not actually feeling it, then it’s not actually that commendable.

Recently, I was terrified on this hike that I went on with my husband. And that was probably the most visceral fear I felt in a long, long time. When I pitched the piece, it was before I went on this hike. So it’s been interesting rewriting and reconciling this very recent experience of being super scared—

JB: So you did get to experience it again?

RY: I did, yeah. And it is kinda fun and thrilling and scary. And I do feel proud that I went through it anyway. So, I dunno. It’s still evolving.

To purchase tickets for Decent Company October: fear, click here.

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