You can’t talk about contemporary Chinese theatre for very long without hearing Stan Lai’s name. Though born, partly educated, and frequently employed in the U.S.—and though his home base has long been Taipei in Taiwan, not mainland China—Lai, 62, has been a force in Chinese-language theatre and film for decades. In addition to writing and directing (his iconic theatre works include That Evening, We Performed Crosstalk; A Dream Like a Dream; and Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land), he’s been a prolific theatre founder: In the early 1980s he started Performance Workshop in Taipei with his wife, Ding Nai-chu; in 2013 he cofounded the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, an international gathering in an idyllic canal town each October, with mainland director Meng Jinghui, actor Huang Lei, and real-estate developer Chen Xianghong; and just two years ago he opened Theatre Above, a new 699-space in Shanghai.
He took time out of rehearsal for a 30th-anniversary staging of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land at Theatre Above to answer some questions by email.
I’ll start by asking you what we like to ask many theatre artists: How did you catch the theatre bug? And then what made you think, “There’s a place for me there”?
I lived in Taiwan during my formative years in the early 1970s, under martial law, which basically dissuaded people to get into the arts. There was in fact no organized theatre activity to see, though there was traditional theatre that you could see at festival time on the streets. So I never really “caught the bug.” Going to high school and college, my interests were pretty much opposite of most people. I had a broad interest in and seemed to be good at various arts like painting, music, and literature. I sort of rationalized that theatre would be the natural synthesizer for these broad interests.
Since you’ve worked often in the U.S., how would you compare the theatre in China to theatre here? Does China have the equivalent of commercial and “nonprofit” theatres?
Very big question. It’s very hard to compare. My observation is that all of humanity responds in a similar profound way to the great works that are created, no matter in what culture.
Of course how the government supports theatre influences many things. In China, once there were only government-supported theatres and theatre groups, 100 percent run and subsidized by the government. Now most of these groups have been forced to fend for themselves in the market, which may be a cruel thing, as the advent of commercial theatre has given rise to many inferior productions that are created for the purpose of making money.
What has been the influence of traditional Chinese performance traditions on your work and that of your peers? And what has been the influence of Western theatrical traditions and writers?
In terms of traditional forms, most notable in my works is the traditional Chinese comic dialogue called crosstalk (xiangsheng). What is “Chinese” in my works perhaps goes beyond performance traditions and can be found in a deeper cultural or philosophical sense. In many ways, Western traditions and their aesthetics have a much more apparent influence on my works, but again, the deeper layers are more Eastern than Western in my opinion.
To get an idea of what kind of artists influenced to me, one might want to have a look at my Ph.D. dissertation from the University of California-Berkeley, way back in 1983, where I wrote about how many of the major playwrights and directors of the modern Western theatre misused or misconceived of Asian theatre or philosophy. These included Strindberg, Artaud, Brecht, Yeats, O’Neill, and Beckett, each of whom I wrote a chapter about.
I guess my works are more Eastern than Western because at the heart of my basic concept of creativity is an organic theory that we make something from nothing, we draw from the void, the deeper well of all humanity, and therefore it is best if we preconceive nothing. We try to be free of the concept of what is theatre. At the same time we are not trying to make anything new, or claim to be creating anything new. We are tuning in with our society and creating works for the society. It’s that simple, and that complicated.
Is it possible or desirable to speak of a distinctly Chinese theatre aesthetic, and if so how would you characterize it?
If we are talking about the traditional Chinese theatre, its distinct theatre aesthetic would be the presentational aspect of performance, the creation of a theatrical reality that is distinctly different from everyday life through the use of mime and abstraction, and the distortion of language and movement. If we are talking about contemporary theatre, I think that the so-called “Chinese” aesthetic is still in the developmental stage. Maybe my A Dream Like a Dream contains elements of this in-progress aesthetic that breaks the concepts of space and time in the theatre, and the place is the audience in the special zone where they can be receptive to the story in a special way.
Can you talk about the degree to which your work addresses politics? Do you feel unconstrained and able to express whatever you wish to express through your writing and theatre works?
My earlier work was more concerned with politics, as can be seen in the early crosstalk plays, in particular Look Who’s Crosstalking Tonight? (1989), which dealt with cross-straits politics [between mainland China and Taiwan], and Strange Tales From Taiwan (1991), a one-person show collaborating with the great actor Lee Li-chun, which dealt with corruption and the environment. These and many other works of mine were created directly before or on the cusp of the end of martial law and the start of two-party democracy in Taiwan. My experience was going from submitting everything to censors to being able to write and perform anything, with no censorship whatsoever.
I turned away from politics in the late ’90s to focus on what I thought was more important: the inner or spiritual aspect of humanity. In recent years, I find it a pity that, due to what I feel is the degeneration of democracy in Taiwan, younger artists are less liable to deal with politics in their works the way we used to, because of a stigmatizing factor that brands you as sympathizing with either one party or the other. These days I am working more and more in China, where I also have created new plays. In China there are obvious lines you don’t want to cross as a writer. But there is plenty that you can deal with.
Can you talk about the role of improvisation in your work?
I learned the extremely difficult art of creating scenes through the use of improvisation from the great Dutch actor/director/“stimulator” Shireen Strooker of the Amsterdam Werkteater. (They used the term “stimulator” in lieu of “playwright,” for the plays weren’t “written” but “stimulated.”) This was during my final year as a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, while I was writing my dissertation, and actually feeling depressed at the state of the theatre at the time in America, which I felt lacked creativity and relevance. Having learned the basics of the Werkteater method through working with Shireen at Berkeley, I felt compelled to begin creating new works when I began my teaching career at Taiwan’s National Institute of the Arts (now Taipei National University of the Arts) in 1983, and found to my dismay that there were very few plays in Chinese that were available to use in my teaching of acting and theatre history. So my use of improvisation in the classroom became not only a means of creating new works for the theatre, but a backbone for a training method for actors emerging in a society that had no modern theatre tradition.
The highly controlled use of improvisation, which I practiced, and developed into a system of my own, was extremely useful, because it implied starting from nothing instead of starting from some already defined methodology or aesthetic. This was perfect for Taiwan then, which had no tradition of modern theatre. Instead of translating Western works and performing them according to the established aesthetics from the West, we created our own works through a method that extracted relevant content from the group that was formed and expressed through an organic type of performance style that reflected on the group and thus was unique to the group but accessible by the society.
The stories that came through the use of improvisation, as well as the means to express them, were all integral in the shaping of what became a new expression in the Chinese-language theatre. Over the years this method has evolved, and in a way has become much more closed as a system, meaning that in the early years, I was very open to actor participation and willing to spend more time exploring possibilities that today I would not. Over the years I have become the major improviser in the rehearsal room, and it has become part of my standard way of “composing” a play. Whereas before the whole process could be undefined, now I start the composing process with a detailed structure and outline that is followed meticulously.
A key feature of my process is that often the form of a piece grows organically with the emergence of the content. A Dream Like a Dream (2000), for instance, is a complicated eight-hour work with a special audience configuration that places the audience in the center of the theatre and has the performance circling around the audience. If you see the play, you understand that this unique configuration is organically married to the story and the way the story is told.
What is the role or impact of theatre on contemporary Chinese audiences? Are plays matters of broad public conversation, of the popular culture, or do they appeal mostly to a small, self-selecting audience?
I have a theory that if one wishes to gauge the general health of a society, contemporary or historical, one can take the pulse of the society, like a Chinese doctor does to gauge his patient’s qi, through the current condition of the theatre. The state of the theatre will tell you many things about the state of the society as a whole. For instance, theatre in China and Taiwan up through the 1970s was primarily for propaganda purposes, and this says a lot about the society. In the ’80s in Taiwan theatre became a vital part of social and political dialogue. The same trend can be also traced in China, as if the qi is circulating well. Today I feel that theatre has become a relevant part of everyday life in all the Chinese-speaking regions: China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. People look to the theatre for spiritual enrichment. But at the same time, a strong trend is to look at theatre as a viable source of entertainment for audiences, and commercial revenue for theatres and theatre groups. So there are double expectations: People look up to the theatre as a temple where they can receive revelations for the soul; people look down on the theatre as a place for crude and quick satisfaction.
Recent visitors to see my work in China, including Robert Brustein, who was the honorary chairman of the inaugural Wuzhen Theatre Festival, and Yun-Cheol Kim, head of the National Theater in Korea, who visited Theatre Above, my theatre in Shanghai, both commented on their surprise at seeing how young the audiences were. This is a great source of encouragement.
You brought Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival two seasons ago. What are some of the most telling differences you found in the way you work versus the way American theatre artists work?
I was amazed at the omniscient influence of the unions. Much of my time in early rehearsals was spent learning all of the union rules pertaining to rehearsal! Such a system to me creates a sort of paranoia and stifles the natural flow of creativity, if it still can come under such stringent regulation. So many of my conversations with the artistic team were not about art but about regulations that in effect were limiting art, and how to achieve what we wanted within the limitations.
This of course all helped me in my experience directing Dream of the Red Chamber for the San Francisco Opera in 2016. But now looking back at it, rehearsal time was largely a mad rush to accomplish the goals on the schedule that day, with little to no time to work on further subtleties and details. The schedules define what can and cannot be done, and the schedules are defined by union and budget, not by the actual needs of the art. In a good sense, this cuts down on a lot of wasted time for everyone and defends against the incompetent director, but at the same time puts a strangle on the creative spirit of the process.
Aside from this, there is much we have to learn from the professional American theatre in terms of organization and technical aspects. The usage of readings, for instance, is not a practice that we do, but I have learned the usefulness of it. Back in my own environment, I have much more freedom and flexibility in using rehearsals, and though I may extend a rehearsal for as long as it needs, we naturally compensate through longer breaks, so the total hours more or less conform to union regulations in the United States without the pressure and paranoia of constant clock watching. Our actors are totally fine with this, as long as we are not wasting their time. Of course, I have also heard horror stories of all-nighters called on a whim by directors in China, and I cannot judge whether these are justified or not.
One interesting note: I have discovered that my way of creating theatre pieces, using actors and improvisation through an extended period, is not readily viable in the United States. A playwright pretty much has to write a play that is then workshopped and then given to a different person to direct. That is not the way I have created my 35 plays. I think it is time to examine whether over-stringent union regulations have made a negative influence on creativity in America, and whether America maybe in this way is losing its edge, or whatever edge it had.
What current trends in Chinese theatre are most exciting/promising to you, and which are most troubling or concerning?
The government in China has in recent years come to a deeper understanding of “soft power,” and of the role of culture and the arts in creating a truly strong, wise, and just society. As a result, a lot of resources are being put into these areas, particularly in terms of infrastructure, building new theatres and creative industry parks. This is certainly a reason to be encouraged. At the same time, the over-commercialization of the performing arts in a way has made it part of the entertainment business. This has driven up the ticket prices and also resulted in many productions that exist not for the purpose of art but business.
What plays are you working on now?
In my own theatre in Shanghai, Theatre Above, I continue to revive works from my own repertoire, and have plans for a new play in the fall called Ago that will be based on stories in Buddhist texts. I am also working on various projects abroad, including an immersive project for the Chinese garden of the Huntington Library in Los Angeles.
In the meantime my plays also tour all over China. On any given weekend there may be three or four cities in China performing a different play of mine, in a production of mine. Last year the highest number was eight. This is encouraging and exciting, because China is so vast, and we are able to bring theatre to places that had never seen it before. In recent years, I have brought productions of mine to my father’s hometown, Huichang, a small town in Jiangxi province. It is gratifying to see what changes the arts can make to a small town in China.
At the same time, due to lack of enforcement of copyright laws, many of my plays are being performed all over China in productions I am not aware of. Most of these occur on college campuses, where Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land has been performed, by unofficial count, close to 10,000 times. This actually does not bother me, for like the pirated editions of my work that are available on bootleg DVD and actually online now, they spread the culture of theatre all over China, and I would say that is a good purpose.
Tell me about the Wuzhen Festival, why you helped start it, how it’s changed, and what theatrical trends it’s highlighting now.
The Wuzhen Festival is now in its fifth year, and most amazingly, it has become one of the premier festivals in China and Asia. It started as a very simple idea between friends, the actor Huang Lei and the visionary Wuzhen administrator Chen Xianghong, and though it has experienced phenomenal growth, I feel that it remains basically the same in terms of its core values: providing a unique window on international and Chinese theatre in one of the most dreamlike settings imaginable. It is a special experience for audiences, and we continue to emphasize development of young playwrights, directors, and performers.
Finally, I’m dying to know: How did Angels in America go over in Taiwan?
Performance Workshop’s production of my translation of Angels in America did reasonably well in its run at the National Theater in Taipei in 1996. However, it also reconfirmed that audiences in Taiwan are not that interested in foreign plays, and if you do choose to produce a foreign play, you might do best to adapt it to a local background, such as we have done with the work of Dario Fo.
A version of this story appears in the May/June 2017 print edition of American Theatre, with the headline “An Aesthetic in Progress.”