Interview with Stan Lai

Source: Sinosphere, NYT (9/13/16)
Theater’s Evolving Role in China and Taiwan
By AMY QIN

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A scene from a production of “A Dream Like a Dream” by Stan Lai in Beijing. The play has audiences sitting on swivel chairs in the center of the stage. Credit: Gao Yan Bing

Over the past few decades, Stan Lai has established a reputation as one of the most celebrated Chinese-language playwrights and directors. His works include more than 30 original plays, two feature films and four operas. Mr. Lai, who was born in the United States and is based in Taiwan, has written classics like “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” (1986), now an iconic play in contemporary Chinese theater, while still continuing to experiment with new forms, as seen in his eight-hour epic “A Dream Like a Dream” (2000), which has audiences sitting on swivel chairs in the center of the stage.

He is a co-founder of the Performance Workshop in Taiwan and the Wuzhen Theater Festival in China. In 2015, he opened his first theater, Theater Above, a 699-seat venue in Shanghai. Most recently, he directed San Francisco Opera’s production of the Chinese classic “Dream of the Red Chamber,” which had its premiere last weekend. In a recent interview, Mr. Lai spoke about changes in the theater industry in China and Taiwan and how his Buddhist beliefs influence his writing.

When did you first start writing plays?

I started writing plays in 1983. As a new teacher in Taiwan just having received my Ph.D. from Berkeley, I found a great lack of teaching materials for my students, who didn’t read English. Since Taiwan had been under martial law for so long, there wasn’t a body of creative work — plays — and there were very few translated materials to fall back on as teaching material, so I decided to create my own.

What was the environment for theater in Taiwan like at the time?

It was a time when there was no theater industry in Taiwan, so no professional anything — writers, directors, actors, designers, scene shops, etc. Not even a theater with a fully functioning fly system. So my way of creating new works also was my way of conducting actor training and general training in creating works for the theater, with the larger context being the lack of theater facilities or even a style of training or performing.

The new works I was making reflected the fact that we were forming a new grammar of theater in the Chinese language, working in a vacuum with little or no points of reference from the past. My fourth play, “That Evening, We Performed Crosstalk” (1985), was a breakout work.

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Mr. Lai has established a reputation as one of the most celebrated Chinese-language playwrights and directors. Credit: Hsu Chin Min

What was that play about?

That play dealt with the death of culture, “cross talk” in particular, and unexpectedly was a huge commercial success, at the same time reviving the dying traditional comic performing art called cross talk (xiangsheng). And so it set the mold for a new type of theater — commercially viable yet intellectually challenging. We were doing serious theater, engaging our audiences in deep and essential dialogue, and at the same time creating a new audience. That was the excitement of our early works. What we are witnessing in China today is not dissimilar.

How have your interests as a playwright changed since then?

My own personal evolution as a playwright went through an era of political change in Taiwan, where my work as many people see it contributed to the dialogue surrounding change. As I continued to evolve as a human being, I began to believe that politics is a smaller and lesser topic to deal with, much smaller than life itself, and the human forces shaping the external world are subservient to the forces shaping our inner world. Thus my shift in focus from the external to the internal, most notably in “A Dream Like a Dream.”

Talk a little bit about “A Dream Like a Dream.” What inspired you to write it?

The idea came to me when I was traveling in India in Bodh Gaya. I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for over 40 years. In the past, I’ve been quite reluctant to put my Buddhist practice into my work, but it was a moment when I was inspired to do so. The whole eight-hour, very complicated story came to my mind in one piece, in one inspiration.

How has politics affected the larger creative environment in Taiwan?

As politics and society in Taiwan evolved, the acute confrontational stance of the two opposing parties has created a fatigue and distaste toward politics in society in general, including the artistic community. The constant ongoing daily exchange of attacks and vicious views in the media often seems to make life much more theatrical than theater could ever be, and in fact even more absurd and entertaining as well. This uncontrolled media violence has negated the possibility of meaningful dialogue, and any artist who wishes to engage the issues runs the risk of being immediately labeled this or that.

There is no space for objective and rational discourse. That is why artists in Taiwan today naturally gravitate away from dealing with political issues. How they find their expression is a question of their own personal growth and path. I found mine in the deeper and larger domain that is called life itself.

What has been the biggest change in theater in mainland China over the last few decades?

Certainly the biggest changes have been the denationalization of theater and its increasing commercialization. So while it’s great that theater is growing at the pace it is, it is a little unfortunate that people there see theater as a lucrative business plan, as crazy as it sounds. I say crazy because in the U.S. it would never happen.

As a result, theater is underappreciated as a true, integral part of the cultural growth of a society. That’s why things like the Wuzhen Theater Festival and my own theater in Shanghai mean so much to me. We are working to counter those trends where you see investors coming in and trying to create a Chinese type of Broadway musical everywhere all the time. Your motivation for doing something is so important in shaping that thing. And if your motivation is to make money, then it shapes it in a very odd way. Theater becomes a very patronizing thing, and you’ll see that a lot in China — copying and pasting things together that they think will sell.

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