by Savas Patsalidis*

Stan Lai

Lissa Tyler Renaud first interviewed Stan Lai for Critical Stages/Scènes critiques in 2010. Nine years later, and with the occasion of the special issue on contemporary Chinese theatre, we felt that this was an appropriate moment  to renew our conversation with the “preeminent Chinese playwright and stage director of this generation” (China Daily), and “the most celebrated Chinese language playwright and director in the world” (according to Broadway World), who, besides being a significant theatre artist,  is also an award-winning filmmaker, alternative television comedy creator, opera director and event director (Deaflympics Opening Ceremony, 2009).

Lai holds a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from the University of Berkeley. He has taught extensively at the Taipei National University of the Arts, and at Berkeley and Stanford. His book Stan Lai on Creativity is a bestseller in China and Taiwan. His plays have been published in numerous Chinese editions in both Taiwan and China, as well as in English versions from Oxford and Columbia University Press. Ten of his plays in English are to be published in 2019.

Lai is currently Artistic Director of Theatre Above (Shanghai), Creative Director of Performance Workshop in Taiwan, and Co-founder and Festival Director of the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, the place where I met him and requested this interview.

The atmospheric lighting of A Dream Like a Dream, directed by Stan Lai. Photo: Wang Ching-ho

Let me start from the very beginnings of your career. What was your exposure to theatre before going to the United States?

In my formative years, in Taiwan, there was no modern theatre culture. It had been suppressed by the government, which seemed to have a deep mistrust of theatre, because it understood its propaganda value during wartime. We could see traditional Taiwanese opera on the street, or live performances of Peking opera, but there was little incentive to see those.

In my university, the foreign language departments would give amateur performances in foreign languages, but not in Chinese. You may wonder why I got into theatre in the first place, and sometimes I think it is strange indeed. I spent much of my college time playing music in a band. I had interest in all of the arts, and, knowing nothing about the theatre except what I studied as an English major, I had this strange notion that theatre perhaps would unify them all. It was this notion that brought me into theatre, sort of as a blank slate.

An all-inclusive view of the acting space of A Dream Like a Dream, directed by Stan Lai.
Photo: Wang Ching-ho

You spent some time in the United States pursuing your doctorate. Has this experience helped you develop your own voice? Have you ever felt that you would have written different plays without this experience?

When I was at Berkeley, the ideal was to produce what they envisioned as a “scholar-director”, so I was trained as both. With so little experience to start with, I saw my goal as simply to learn as much as I could about Western theatre, and then bring this knowledge back to Taiwan to help develop the unknown possibilities of the theatre there. It was a vague goal. I wasn’t even thinking about being a playwright, or even a director. I was just learning what I could. What nurtured me was the open-mindedness of Berkeley, as well as its academic discipline.

Had you gone now to the United States, as an experienced theatre person, do you feel that there are things you would have taken back home with you?

The mainstream American way of producing theatre is the opposite of what I have been practicing. A completed script is the starting point of production in America, after which the director, designers and actors are chosen. I have inverted the process, starting from the core creatives and working toward a final production. Sometimes it seems as if the system of play selection, readings and, in fact, the whole process in America seems to be more geared to avoiding failure, than making a creative work of art, in which you should have an environment that allows for failure.

Then, of course, there are those places which work differently, like the CalArts Center for New Performance, which I worked for in creating Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden for the Huntington library, in 2018. It would be from places like them that I would bring home inspiration.

A panoramic view of A Dream Like a Dream with the audience right in the middle, directed by Stan Lai. Photo: Wang Ching-ho

In your Ph.D. thesis, you argue that Western artists like Artaud, Strindberg and many others misrepresented or misused Asian theatre, Asian traditions and Asian philosophy. I couldn’t agree with you more. My question, however, is this: can there be any intercultural dialogue without misrepresentations? Can there be a “real” and “fair” dialogue between a big and economically strong country and a small and weak one? Or is what we really have a “monologue” disguised as democratic dialogue?

I find it truly fascinating the way that different cultures misunderstand and misrepresent others. Perhaps the history of the world is all about misunderstanding. Nevertheless, interesting things come from misunderstanding, such as, for instance, the plays of Strindberg and Brecht (which I wrote of in my dissertation long ago), and, in fact, my own misunderstanding of theatre, which led me into theatre in the first place.

In my dissertation, I also wrote about an equally interesting phenomenon, which is that certain artists would be echoing or even seemingly copying forms of art that were alien to them, and which they, perhaps, had never ever come in contact with. I refer to the plays of Samuel Beckett and the later works of Eugene O’Neill, which oddly and profoundly resemble the structure and spirit of the Japanese Noh play.

Perhaps the hard reality is that understanding promotes progress, but can also create destruction, while misunderstanding actually does the same. In terms of dialogue on cultural issues, which you ask about, I find that it is hard in this world to have real and fair dialogue. It seems too much to ask for people to not only have very open minds, but also sufficient knowledge to process whatever information comes from the dialogues. Thus, it seems that any understanding between cultures seems to always come at a discount.

I love the way you use the word “discount” to describe intercultural exchange. But allow me at this point to bring my previous question closer to home turf: how does this intercultural traffic work in Chinese theatre, especially in relation to tradition?

It is difficult to talk about or judge China through a normal Western perspective. Having worked in China for 20 years, I find that what is happening here is unlike anything in the world. The experience of living and working in China is full of paradoxes. Chinese have great reverence for their past, which in the Cultural Revolution was vilified.

China, also, has a great love of foreign things, gimmicks and novelties, which were equally vilified in the not too distant past. At the same time, an extremely intelligent culture is moving forward at an astonishing pace, assimilating and digesting these paradoxes on the way.

Chinese theatregoers are definitely willing to accept re-readings or deconstructions of classic texts. Many of these experiments take place more as a play on form rather than meaning, although it is impossible to avoid playing with meaning. Chinese theatregoers are very sophisticated, and can smell in an instant what a director is trying to say or do.

Do you feel that foreign influences are somehow “derailing” Chinese theatre, changing it into something else which is not its “true” self?

The real question here is: what is modern Chinese theatre? I personally think that this definition is still in flux, still ongoing. It is something that I set out to do over three decades ago, and even through my own work, you can see how the definition continually shifts.

In China, a style grew out of the ideals of the Socialist Realism of the Soviet era, and another style grew out from the reaction to this in the experimental works of the 1980s. In Taiwan, there was no such style to react against, and so, for people like me, it was like working in a vacuum. Unable to access the modern Chinese theatre from the 1930s, or we might say, unable to claim this pre-Communist legacy, and unwilling to blindly accept Western forms, we strived to find the organic answer to the question, through working collectively, through the life experiences of the collective, and using improvisation as the essential tool to create plays.

From the production of Secret Love in Peach Blossom, directed by Stan Lai Photo: Performance Workshop

China is experiencing a phenomenal economic boom. The market is growing immensely. Is there any room for theatre in all this? Do you think there is a market for independent companies to survive without state funding; I mean to survive commercially, at the box office?

The economic buzzword in recent years in China has been “creative cultural industries.” Therefore, there definitely is a place for theatre in all this. Unfortunately, the emphasis is almost totally on the third word, “industries.” Businessmen look at enterprises like my own theatre company and believe that there is a lucrative business in there somewhere, but they mostly create and produce works that not only fail artistically, but commercially as well.

There are hard lessons to be learned here, but there are independent companies that are surviving, like my own, without state funding, almost solely on box office. I do believe that a viable and mature commercial theatre is currently in its developing stages. But its merits must rely on the heights of artistic achievement. Government sponsored groups, as well as pure commercial endeavors, do not yet understand, or just aren’t able to produce works of artistic merit in any great numbers. I do believe this will take time. Currently, the situation is quite muddled, with many practitioners working hard but blindly, toward undefined goals.

And what about playwrights? Can they make a living from writing without pursuing another job? Can you survive from writing?

There is a very small number of playwrights writing exclusively for the theatre, and even less writing for the theatre, because it’s something they love. Most of the talented or flexible ones go into writing for film, television or the internet.

I guess this is a global phenomenon. Television and cinema are more attractive markets for most writers. Let’s talk about your plays. The image of what it means to be Chinese keeps coming back, either directly or indirectly, either through the use of a traditional form like “crosstalk” or via a historical reference or an event. Why? Does that have to do with you as an artist who tries to create a space for himself to fit in? Does it have to do with a more general problem that reflects the state of affairs in contemporary Chinese theatre?

From the production of Secret Love in Peach Blossom, directed by Stan Lai. Photo: Li Yan

I believe that the question of what it means to be Chinese is becoming increasingly relevant and significant, but in a different way than I experienced it when I was younger.

My personal experience is rather unique, because I am one of the few who was first exposed to Western culture, and then went on to have an extended career creatively in the Chinese world. Usually, it works the other way around. My parents’ generation had difficult lives which we were witness to. In the post-war years and following the division of China after the Chinese Civil War, and the consequent expansion of the diaspora, the definition of what it meant to be Chinese underwent significant change and elaboration.

To cut a long story short, we often make a distinction between what is politically China and what is culturally China. How one relates to the cultural aspect defines one’s Chinese-ness. This is very problematic for many Chinese, to whom the cultural past has only in recent decades become politically correct.

In all, what it means to be Chinese is not a simple political question or a question of passport. As China and the Chinese people as a whole collide, synthesize and merge with the world, it is sometimes easy to lose track of what is Chinese anymore, particularly when new definitions of what it means to be Chinese are continually emerging, in the arts, in design, in life.

Your plays carry a distinct Chinese aura. Do you think that this “locality” makes the traveling of your work more difficult? What feedback do you get when you bring your plays in front of a foreign audience that is totally unaware of the local elements that inform your stories?

My plays were all mostly made locally, written with specific actors in mind. This, plus the fact that they are very verbal, has certainly made the traveling of them to non-Chinese speaking lands difficult. For Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land at the 2015 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I translated and adapted the script myself, choosing to leave out many cultural allusions that may have been too detailed, and explaining in simple language some of the larger political issues that were relevant and needed to be known by the audience. I do believe that this strategy worked, and I have applied it in the upcoming edition, in English, of two volumes of 10 plays of mine. What actually surprised me was, some of the audience found the structure of the play to be challenging. Yet, this was a piece from 1986!

From The Night We Became Hsiang-Sheng Comedians, directed by Stan Lai. Photo: Stan Lai

Do you start writing with a preconceived notion or idea or do you just let the writing show you where to go?

I have done both. Earlier in my career, I would often go without any preconceived ideas and just lead the group I was working with in a sort of random but controlled fashion. Much of my later work begins with very clear ideas and structures.

Do you write for a specific audience in mind?

Not really. I find that to be a burden.

What about local critics? How do they treat your plays? Have you ever felt that they were unfair? Do you read critics to begin with?

The profession of criticism is not particularly well developed in the Chinese world, and less so in Taiwan during the time since I started out. I firmly believe that people have the right to their own opinion, but, when they write critiques, they are also exposing how much they know, so their opinion may be flawed, which is often the case. Sometimes I am astonished at the depths that writers find in my work, sometimes I am equally astonished at how they misinterpret or just don’t get it. At any rate, it is beyond my control, and I do not let it control me.

You also direct your own plays? Why? Do you think you do more justice to them? Aren’t you curious to see how other directors handle your work? When you allow someone else to direct your play, do you attend rehearsals? And, if you do, do you intervene when you disagree with the director’s choices?

From The Village, dir. Stan Lai. Photo: Performance Workshop

In my method of making theatre, the work of the writer and the director are actually one, and it happens at the same time. It is not writing first, directing later, but a special way of making a theatre piece as a complete, unified whole. The script, which evolves as the play is being “built” in the studio, is written especially for the theatre, not for the page. There is no need to wonder at what tempo a dialogue should be going, or what the dialogue means. There is no need to research how one might design the show. It’s all done in one “composition,” without dividing between what part is playwright, what part is director.

If I were a composer of classical music, I would know where all of the pianos and fortissimos, ritards and ad libs would be. So, it would be easy for me to conduct my own work, and in fact, all of the directions to the conductor are in the musical score. Plays are not written that way, although we try.

Your question supposes that I believe that there are many ways to execute my plays. But, in fact, there may not be, at least in the way that I intended. You may think that this is all very dictatorial, and I myself even find it strange that I am saying this, but when you think about it, there isn’t a composer who doesn’t stipulate how the work should be performed, and, even today, when directors deconstruct and fool around with operas, their imagination can run wild on set and costumes and movement, but they don’t dare touch the music.

The history of my works in the hands of other directors is curious indeed. There have been literally thousands of productions, mostly in schools in China, of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, but all of them, as far as I know, have strictly adhered to my direction, which is found in videos of my stage version or the film version.

I seem to be one of the few persons to play with my own work, by adapting Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land for Taiwanese opera, in 2006, and Yue opera, in 2010, and having a joint Mandarin/Cantonese version.

I recently heard of a production in Malaysia where the Secret Love part was done in Malay, and the Peach Blossom Land part in Chinese. No one has yet attempted anything bolder than that. Why?

I tend to think that what I wrote, and the way I wrote it, works, and it works in a satisfying way that takes a certain discipline to execute a “code,” I would call it. If you understand the code, you can perform it successfully, otherwise you will easily fail.  Why toy with the code? Unless, of course, you see other possibilities.

I am definitely waiting for someone to reinterpret my work. In many ways, it is more ready to be played with than, for instance, Teahouse which created so much controversy at the Wuzhen Theatre Festival this year, in Meng Jinghui’s new version.

That said, there have been attempts to re-interpret my works, in Taipei, in Hong Kong and in Singapore. For these endeavors, I have rarely ventured into the rehearsal room. One of the attempts was a play called Singapore Impromptu, an homage to Kuo Pao-Kun. Maybe because it looked like an open ended piece, a director in Singapore attempted to re-interpret it, with results that I heard were not so satisfying. The problem was that the play is very tightly conceived in structure, so to loosen the screws on any part of it would, to my mind, not do it service.

The light design beautifully sets the tone of this scene from The Village, directed by Stan Lai. Photo: Performance Workshop

How long does it take you to properly prepare a play for the stage?

The first play of Performance Workshop, my theatre group, An Evening at the Chinese Standup Joint, took seven months to compose, with the two-man cast, through the tool of improvisation. It was two-and-a-half hours of stand-up comedy dialogue, and, believe it or not, we had not written down a single word of it; but the text was set after seven months, in our minds, and we never changed a word during the run. After that, realities took over, and the rehearsal schedule got shorter and shorter.

These days, if I am bold, as in the case of The Village, I will use three months, starting from an outline, to include composition and rehearsal as well as tech. In the case of A Dream Like a Dream, I started out with one month in Berkeley, composing the first three-and-a-half hours in English. Then, I took three months to finish the eight-hour play, in Chinese, and have it ready for performance in Taipei.

Some plays seem to never get finished. Writing in Water, was first composed in Hong Kong, in 2009, but I wasn’t satisfied with half of it, so I rewrote it for Taipei the next year, and kept tinkering with it, for what is now its final form, for the performances in 2016, in Shanghai.

In Greece, and I know in many other countries as well, actors have a strict schedule which you cannot violate. What is the situation in China? How many hours do you rehearse a day? How many days a week?

In the Chinese world, we can make up the rules as we go along, depending on each individual situation. Ideally, I work five-hour rehearsals, six days a week, occasionally taking a day off for writing. But I have also done eight to 12-hour days for special cases like Dream, which in itself is too long, with maybe one day off every 10 days.

However, speaking for myself, I am very mindful of being humanitarian, not to mention being efficient, by giving ample breaks and trying not to work too late. I have heard horror stories of never-ending all-nighters, but I have never done that. I would dare say that our actors have at least as much break time as our compatriots in America under union contracts; it’s just that the breaks don’t come at specified times, and are not uniform in length. To ask for them to be so creates a stressful environment that is not conducive to creativity (of course neither is an all-night tech).

In the Chinese world, it is always the director who calls the breaks, not the stage manager, and a director who is mindful of the state of his cast will never abuse his actors. It seems as if many of the regulations are tailored toward inefficient directors.

That’s why I have a pet theory for the American unions, which is to give directors ratings, like they do in China, for instance, level one, or level two, and those above a certain level have the authority to call the breaks whenever they want, as long as the total break time equals the union standard (unfortunately, those who abuse the situation in China can be of any level).

Do you see an emerging acting method in contemporary Chinese theatre?

No. Each director and each school has their own methods, often heavily influenced by the teaching of oration in the academies. All of the actors who come out of the academies in China can recite poetry fervently. Unfortunately, that does not translate into being able to work with a director like me. Often, I have to un-teach them many of the things they have learned in order to be able to function in my system. This is not a complaint, just stating the facts.

In your plays you write that the script was created “in collaboration with the original cast”? Does that mean that you start rehearsing a work-in-progress which gradually takes its final form? Is it part of your own method? And, if it is, are there any other directors who imitate you?

I learned the art of making plays with the tool of improvisation from the great Dutch theatre artist Shireen Strooker and her group, Het Werkteater, in the early 1980s. In fact, I had to un-learn much of my American training to be able to learn this method, but I felt it was something that was vital, to create works of theatre that spoke to and meant something to their society. In this method, one person is in the role of the “stimulator” (their word for it), a role that includes playwright and director. The stimulator facilitates the group in shaping the work, including creating the characters, and setting up the situations for improvisation in the studio.

Some improvisations are fruitful, some aren’t. Those which aren’t are discarded. Those which are continue to be improvised upon, until the essence of the scene is found, and the scene evolves into its final form through continual improvisation. Under such a system, though improvisation is meant to be free inspiration and extemporization, the method limits the borders within which one is free.

When I started to use this method in Taipei in 1983, I used it in the spirit of collective creation, with myself as stimulator and my students as the collaborating actors.

Many of the creative processes of my early works were like this, inducing a free form, letting the flow of the creative process form the final work. Soon, I realized that there were many stories I wanted to tell, so instead of letting stories appear rather randomly through the process, I started to exercise more and more control over the process, meaning I would start with an outline, however simple, sometimes very detailed, and also become one of the improvisers in the room. Whenever a situation stalled, I would be the one to lead the group in a new direction.

The evolution of the method has led to the way I use it today, where I begin with a detailed outline and employ some of my actors to work through parts of the script, often being the main improvisatory voice in the room. So, there are definitely different degrees in which my actors collaborate in the process. Certainly, many directors employ improvisation as part of their process, but I have found very few who use the method I do, with each improv directly impacting and leading to the composition of a scene. Earlier in my career, I tried to teach the method to anyone who would like to learn, but without success. Apparently it is not for all.

What is the situation of playwriting now in China? Any dominant trends, any promising names who might interest theatre producers from the West?

The creative trend over the last few decades in the West has leaned toward a more physical or image-heavy mis-en-scène. As young Chinese directors learn their craft, they are often influenced by these trends.

In China, directors are considered more highly than playwrights. Thus, the concept of the “auteur” applies, but only to directors and not playwrights, and this influences how young directors consider their work.

Sadly, I am among only a handful of actual playwrights actively working and being produced in China.

What are your plans for 2019? Do you have any of your plays staged outside China? Will you be directing outside China?

In the first half of 2019, I will be composing a new work at Berkeley, called Ago. I will also be teaching my methods of making theatre and my theories of creativity there. If everything goes well, this piece will be performed in Chinese at the end of the year. In the meantime, I have various new projects lined up in China, as well as mounting a new production of A Dream Like a Dream, in Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, in late summer. I look forward to the publication of 10 of my plays, as well as the publication of my book on creativity in English.


*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of theatre and performance history and theory in the School of English (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki), the Hellenic Open University and the Drama Academy of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is also a regular lecturer on the Graduate Programme of the Theatre Department at Aristotle University. He is the author of thirteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. In addition to his academic activities, he works as a theatre reviewer for the ejournals lavartparallaxi and the greekplay project. Ηe is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Dimitria Festival and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

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“In China, directors are considered more highly than playwrights”: Interview with Stan Lai
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