Interviewed by Lissa Tyler Renaud[1]

Photograph of Stan Lai by Shi Peng.
Photograph of Stan Lai by Shi Peng.

Widely recognized as the most influential playwright/theatre director in the Chinese world, Stan Lai has been called “Asia’s Top Theatre Director” (Asiaweek) and “the best playwright in the Chinese language” (BBC).

Many of Lai’s 30 original plays have become classics of the Chinese theatre. His most famous work Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land (1986) “may be the most popularcontemporary play in China” according to the New York Times. Lai’s epic 8-hour A Dream Like A Dream has been widely called by critics “a masterpiece” of modern Chinese drama. His “crosstalk” (xiangsheng) plays, starting with the groundbreaking That Evening, We Performed Xiangsheng (1985), epitomize the unique quality of his work that “blends high art with popular culture.” His recent The Village (2008) has become the most highly acclaimed Chinese language play of recent times. The Beijing News calls it “the pinnacle of our era.”

Lai lives and works in Taipei, Taiwan, where he has received the National Arts Award an unprecedented two times. In 2007, Lai was elected into the Chinese Theatre Hall of Fame. Lai’s work is celebrated for its heroic contribution to articulating the Chinese diaspora culture in its fullest complexity. His approach to doing this has been informed in some part by his years in the West: his Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from U.C. Berkeley in 1983, the improvisational approach to play creation he originally came to through Shireen Strooker of the Amsterdam Werkteater’s, an affinity for the early European avant-garde. Lovers of Chekhov and Beckett, for example, detect much to gratify them in Lai’s productions. But it is through his commitment to Taiwan that he has so profoundly integrated and animated these forces.

The Chinese-speaking world observed the modern Western theatre for a century without having a comparable dramatic canon of its own, for the most part developing instead its magnificient classical theatrical forms and adaptations of Western plays. Lai has given the Chinese people a contemporary theatre of their own―a theatre that speaks for his nation, his part of the globe, his people in the largest sense.

Lai served as Professor and Founding Dean of the College of Theatre at Taipei National University of the Arts, and also as Visiting Professor at Berkeley, Stanford, Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama and Shanghai Theatre Academy. Lai has also made two feature films that have received top awards at the Berlin, Tokyo and Singapore film festivals. Lai’s website is located at http://www.pwshop.com/eng/stanlai.php.

Already known around the theatre-going world, Lai created the opening and closing ceremonies for this past summer’s 2009 Deaflympics in Taipei (see YouTube), that gave prominence to deaf communities internationally. His directing was acclaimed for the aesthetic beauty and innovation of these ceremonies.

Lai is so interviewed, so written about, so scrutinized with regards to his methods, his politics, his religion, on and on―that one can only hope to distinguish oneself as an interviewer by staying out of the man’s way. Lai answered the following questions against the backdrop of his shows in Guangzhou in January, in Beijing in February, in Taipei in March, and a trip to Nepal in between.

1. In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community’s shared perception of the world―or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?

My creative base is Taipei, Taiwan, which I consider one of the freest places for expression in the world. Since the late ‘80s this free atmosphere has become an incubator for some of the most diverse and interesting theatre in the world. This was not true when I started making theatre in the early ‘80s. In those days we had stringent government censors who required us to submit scripts three months before opening. My method of writing plays has always been improvisational, so three months ahead of time there usually was nothing to show. We had to fabricate fake plays for the censors to screen. It was quite an absurd cat-and-mouse game. Oddly enough, the broad popular success of my plays kept the censors quiet, even though we were treading on many taboo subjects.

My plays are performed all over China―we share a common language. There we often run into interesting judgment calls on what can be performed.

The Passer-by: playwright/director: Stan Lai. Company: National Institute of the Arts Theatre Department. Theatre venue: National Arts Hall, Taipei, Taiwan. Date of the premiere: 1984.6.15. Photograph courtesy of National Taipei University of the Arts.
The Passer-by: playwright/director: Stan Lai. Company: National Institute of the Arts Theatre Department. Theatre venue: National Arts Hall, Taipei, Taiwan. Date of the premiere: 1984.6.15. Photograph courtesy of National Taipei University of the Arts.

2. What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you designed shows yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?

Communication is always a problem and time consuming. The simple fact is that we all see the world differently and we all work differently. My method of making plays is very organic and difficult to comprehend. It sometimes starts from a kernel of a concept that can be very abstract, or sometimes a very mature idea and structure. That doesn’t mean that I have a set vision in my mind that the play has to look so and so. Not at all. I leave as much space as possible for visual elements to work themselves in to the play. But since mine is an organic process of creativity that progresses from phase to phase, the designer must tune in to the deepest nucleus of the work―before it is fleshed out. This is not at all easy. For many institution-trained scenic designers, (particularly from the U.S.), their priority is to produce a design as soon as possible. This is understandable for production needs, but undesirable for my process. The result is sometimes unusable or obsolete come performance. Some designers thus attempt to design a stage that is as open as possible to modulation, thinking that this will be the best way to satisfy my needs as the creative process unfolds.

Certain designers can delve into the core of the piece and contribute essential visual elements that in turn propel the creative process, enriching the script or changing the direction of the script-in-progress. This is for me the optimal situation, but often this creates chaos for the production side that must adjust with limited time.

More and more I design shows myself, or work with artists that I need to have less communication with! This may sound like a strange statement. Communication is not so much a problem as the time it takes to communicate. For me, since playwriting and directing is one job, not two, the two jobs happening concurrently, I always wish to have more time to myself to work on the enormous tasks to do with these two facets of the work. Thus to leave design issues to trusted artists who know me well becomes the desirable mode of working.

3. In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?

Once in Beijing, I was sat down at a table in a café from 9 in the morning till 7 in the evening, doing interview after interview after interview. The last one of the day, a very nice and polite man, asked this very question, and I rudely answered “This.” Though not part of the creative process per se (all facets of which I enjoy), promotion/publicity is an essential part of the success of a production, so I am listing it here. The Beijing circumstances are repeated everywhere, every time. Once in Tokyo I was “captive” in a hotel room for two days doing non-stop interviews from different media, and my translator at one point, after fielding a question, turned to me and said, “You rest, I’ll answer for you.”

Why? Because we never think this is part of our job, thus resenting it, but it is [part of our job] and we should accept it as such. Every production I wish for more and more private time to work on the script and everything to do with it, and every production I am called on for promotional needs. In recent years I have learned to live with it, and even look at every encounter with media as a chance to let people know more deeply about my work and even about life. Thus according to some media, some recent interviews I have given have let reporters change their attitudes about art and life. This comes from patience and tuning in to THEIR needs.

In China particularly, since my plays have had good success at the box office, many reporters assume I am a “commercial director.” And in market-crazy China, they are always curious about how I can always predict the market for theatre audiences. One recent interviewer even went so far as to ask, about my recent play The Village which had a very successful recent tour of China: “Which part of your play was trying to patronize the government? Which lines were attempts to patronize the audience?” I kept my cool and replied, “Do you really think that’s the way to write a play? Act one is brown-nosing the government. Act two brown-noses Shanghai audiences. Act 3 brown-noses Beijing audiences. I think that anyone writing a play using this strategy would certainly write a ridiculously lousy play.” Later this reporter apologized and sincerely said, “Thank you for making me understand this issue.”

The Village: playwright/director: Stan Lai. Company: Performance Workshop Theatre Taiwan. Theatre venuer: National Theatre, Taipei, Taiwan. Date of the premiere: 2008/12/15. Photograph by Wang Zhiwei.
The Village: playwright/director: Stan Lai. Company: Performance Workshop Theatre Taiwan. Theatre venuer: National Theatre, Taipei, Taiwan. Date of the premiere: 2008/12/15. Photograph by Wang Zhiwei.

4. During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?

Though I have been blessed with my share of good critiques throughout my career, I always think that any negative criticism, right or wrong, is worth thinking about. Early in my career, after having made two plays through my improvisational methodology, a critic said that such a new method of creating plays is good, but it can only make episodic works of unrelated short scenes; it can never make a unified story. This was like saying that a collage artist can never paint a still life. This criticism spurred me to make my next play, called The Passer-By, a unified story akin to a psychological thriller, but built through improvisational rehearsals. Since then I have made many many unified stories, but they all have the layers and complexity that can be constructed through my method. A Dream Like a Dream is several unified stories spread out over an 8-hour structure.

A Dream Like a Dream: playwright/director: Stan Lai. Company: Performance Workshop Theatre Taiwan. Theatre venuer: National Theatre, Taipei, Taiwan. Date of the premiere: 2000/5/18. This production's premiere: 2005/4/24. Photograph by Wang Jinghe.
A Dream Like a Dream: playwright/director: Stan Lai. Company: Performance Workshop Theatre Taiwan. Theatre venuer: National Theatre, Taipei, Taiwan. Date of the premiere: 2000/5/18. This production’s premiere: 2005/4/24. Photograph by Wang Jinghe.

Lissa RenaudHeadshotCS12

[1] Lissa Tyler Renaud, a master teacher of acting and voice at InterArts Training in California, has taught throughout the U.S. and at major theatre institutions of South Korea, India, Taiwan and Singapore. A recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Foundations grants, among others, she is an award-winning actress and is recognized as a director and alignment practitioner. She publishes and lectures widely on the European avant-garde. Her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training, is newly out from Routledge, 2009.

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Interview with Stan Lai (Lai Shengchuan): Director and Playwright