Playwright/alum Stan Lai to discuss creativity, theater

January 25, 2013

By Kathleen Maclay

Stan Lai, considered the leading playwright/director in Asia and one of the region’s most prolific, is taking a break from his hectic schedule and heading back to his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, for a series of public talks and workshops about his own artistic practice and the state of modern theater.

Stan Lai sitting in a chair with writing pad in lap, smiling.
Playwright/director Stan Lai.

He will serve as the Avenali Resident Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities and the artist-in-residence for UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center from Jan. 29 to Feb. 8.

Lai is returning to the campus where he earned a Ph.D. in dramatic art in 1983, before he launched himself into the world of theater on a professional path marked by innovation, eclectic interests and a never-ending series of challenging projects as he has spearheaded avant-garde theater in the Chinese-speaking world.

At the moment, Lai is preparing for the Beijing premiere of his epic eight-hour play “A Dream Like a Dream,” organizing an international theater festival in China and contemplating his 2014 Broadway musical about martial arts master Bruce Lee.

When Lai returned to Taiwan after graduating from UC Berkeley, the newly democratic Taiwan that was suddenly freed from censorship and regimentation “provided creative talents such as Lai the public space for cultural expression, as well as an informed audience keen to take part in critical self-reflection,” said Wen-hsin Yeh, a UC Berkeley professor of modern Chinese history and director of the campus’s Institute of East Asian Studies.

Lai is the author of over 30 original plays and a book on how to uncover personal creativity through self reflection. He has woven romance, science fiction, spirituality, tragedy and comedy into artistic endeavors that often cross the boundaries of countries, cultures and style. Lai has directed five operas and two films; an unconventional, nearly 600-episode Taiwanese TV sitcom; and a Chinese-language version of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America.”  Lai’s stylistic range often taps into improvisation or utilizes a traditional Chinese “cross talk” a comedic performance style called xiangsheng.

Peter Glazer, chair of UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies said the department is proud to have played a role in providing educational underpinnings for the career of this major innovative figure in Chinese and Taiwanese theater. 

“Lai has said that the ideas that he wrestled with as a graduate student at UC Berkeley really shaped who he became as an artist,” said Glazer.  “Many of our graduate students are both theater scholars and theater practitioners – we like to think that the intellectual work feeds the creative work and vice versa.  The groundbreaking work that Lai has done shows how this approach can bear fruit.”

Lai has won Taiwan’s National Arts Award twice and has been inducted into the Chinese Theater Hall of Fame.

“Stan’s works consistently deal with complex political issues of enormous difficulty,” said Yeh. She noted the topics have included civil wars between the Nationalist Chinese and the Communists on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait, ethnic tensions and Taiwan’s dilemma with statehood, identity and historical continuity. 

“He works with these issues and takes them to a different level,” said Yeh. “Stan places on stage ordinary people who desire normal things – food, shelter, love, wine, functioning toilet – in extraordinary times.  His characters wear their politics lightly. But their stories subvert the mainstream national narratives.”

While his stories concern the Chinese on Taiwan, Yeh said, Lai’s concerns are much deeper and broader. “What is history to Stan Lai: Ways to find home?  And what is displacement to Stan:  A shared condition of modernity?” she asked rhetorically. Officials at the Arts Research Center, a UC Berkeley “think tank for the arts” focusing on interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration, said it was Lai’s wide interests across the arts and their desire to extend campus interactions between disciplines and cultures that made Lai a natural candidate for an ARC residency.

At several campus venues, Lai will discuss his perspectives on theater, Taiwan and China’s evolving cultural landscape and contemporary art practices, and UC Berkeley’s influence on his work. He also will discuss the 1992 Academy Award-nominated film adaptation of his most famous play, the Oscar-nominated “The Peach Blossom Land,” at a Jan. 31 screening at the Berkeley Art Museum/Film Archive (BAM/PFA).

A detailed schedule of Lai’s appearances is available online.

Highlights include a Feb. 6 conversation with Philip Kan Gotanda, a leading Asian American playwright and visiting professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies about the creative process and Lai’s years at UC Berkeley. Lai also will deliver the closing keynote address at an Arts Research Center symposium on contemporary Chinese and Taiwanese art practices. During his residency, he also will meet with faculty, administrators and friends of the campus to discuss the potential for ongoing cultural exchange between UC Berkeley and Asia.

“For this Berkeley visit it will be interesting to see how he continues to tear down walls and mix time zones for theaters on both sides of the Pacific,” said Yeh.

In advance of his visit, UC Berkeley Media Relations caught up with Lai, who was born in Washington, D.C., into the family of a Taiwanese diplomat. They moved to Taiwan when he was 12, and Lai returned to the United States when he was in his 20s to study at UC Berkeley. He earned a Ph.D. in 1983 and a year later produced his first play in Taiwan, “We All Grew Up This Way.”

Lai answered questions about art and politics, and how theater is faring in the United States, Taiwan and China.

Q: You are coming to Berkeley from China. What is the climate for theater in China today – has the country fully recovered from its Cultural Revolution? Is there censorship in the theater?

Theater production promotion with 9 people sitting and standing around a table.  "The Village" text.
This poster depicts a scene from “The Village,” a play telling the story of three generations of the families of Kuomintang soldiers who fled the Chinese mainland after their defeat in 1949. Director/playwright Stan Lai directed the production in collaboration with Wang Wei-chung, a prolific TV producer in Taiwan.

A: Even though the Cultural Revolution ended over 40 years ago, I feel its effects everywhere in China, mostly in the way people interact. There is certainly censorship in the theater. All scripts must get approval from the authorities, who can close down your show at any time. That sounds chilling, but I always look at the positive side – the censors have come a long, long way in allowing subject matter to be performed.

I tell young artists in China that they may spend a lot of time complaining about the taboos, things you absolutely cannot write about, but put those aside and there is a huge territory that can be covered. You can still create true art.

Q: What is the future of theater in China, and how is that being influenced by China’s economic boom?

A: China is very open to new trends, and at this moment “creative cultural industries” is a hot term. The latest government policies seem to show that the new leaders understand that 30 years of fantastic economic development have stolen China’s soul, and culture and the arts are one way to regain that soul.

I see a lot of money pouring into the arts and culture, on a scale unheard of in the West. If they do it right, soon China will be the one influencing other nations artistically. But it’s a steep curve.

Q: How does public response to theater differ today in the United States from that in Taiwan and in China?  How is it the same?

A: When I taught (as a visiting professor) at Stanford in 2007, I actually felt deeply that theater in America has declined creatively; I was seeing few new works that moved me. Interesting, yes, but moving? I felt a sort of aversion to the emotional by artists, and I see this as a uniquely American malady, or characteristic, if we take out the judgment. It’s like you’re not cool or not a man if you succumb to feelings. But to me, that’s what the theatrical event is all about, and if I can conjure the feelings of joy and sadness, and the emotions to want to create a better world and better bonds with everyone and everything in an audience, what’s unmanly or uncool about that?

But theater has declined everywhere, creatively. In China, theater has become more and more commercial with no government support, although the Chinese government supports many government productions no one ever sees. I say this with no bitterness because I understand the difficulties of transforming from a Communist society where all theater is government made and all groups belong to the government, to a market system where these former groups must now fend for themselves. It is an unfair competition, either way.

In Taiwan, theater gets a fair amount of government support, and the creative atmosphere is one of the freest in the world. But – and this is a big but – in recent years the absolute freedom we all once enjoyed in the late 1980s and ‘90s is being increasingly stifled by politics and the rift between the two major political parties. I think, for younger artists, this translates into a reluctance to tackle political or social issues, for fear of being labeled and distorted.

Q: How big of a deal is it that your opus, “A Dream Like A Dream,” is finally playing in China? Why did it take so long, considering the play first came out in 2000? (“Dream” was originally workshopped with students at UC Berkeley when Stan Lai was previously visiting campus, as a Regents Lecturer.)

A: It’s a big deal culturally, not politically. We understand that to perform in China, you lay low or take out any material that may shut down your show, so there is no sense in challenging the system.

Why it took so long is not a problem specific to China. “Dream” is a monster to produce and amounts to a “producer’s suicide” because, due to the special audience configuration I dreamed up, you need to in effect build a theater within the existing performance venues; you need a huge cast with four times the tech time and scenic design (there are, in effect, four stages surrounding the audience) and then you need to limit the audience.

Q: “Dream” is eight hours long. How does that work for an audience?

A: “Dream” doesn’t work on a “leave and re-enter” logic. It is intended to grip you and keep you gripped for eight hours. From what I get from audiences in the three previous incarnations, it succeeds.

The eight-hour length is purely organic. It takes that much time to finish telling this complex story. The first line of the play is, “In a story, someone had a dream; in that dream, someone told a story.” The logic is that to truly understand one person’s life story, you may have to enter the life stories of others. So “Dream” is about interlocking life stories spanning a century and two continents.

Q: You’re working on a Broadway musical about Bruce Lee. How in the world did that happen?

A: I was approached by Broadway producers to undertake this project. Initially, I did not accept, and in fact, I have held a prejudice against Broadway all these years because commercial theater is not my thing. But I am reminded that I am commercially the most successful playwright in China, even though I do not judge my work on how many tickets I sell.

Eventually I came around, understanding that Broadway today is interested in bringing in the best creative talent, for only the best creative talent has a chance to survive under Broadway’s harsh economic rules.

Bruce Lee’s story is not an easy one to tell in a compelling way, for the theater, as a musical. In fact, if you believe in Aristotle (and I do), according to “Poetics,” Lee’s story is not desirable as content. An audience is not interested in seeing a talented good guy who ultimately makes it – then suddenly dies for no connected reason. But I found some inroads to the story, and am working with China’s preeminent contemporary composer Tan Dun on it now.

Q: Would you like to do more Broadway plays?

Advertising for play.  "Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land" title, and other Chinese script.
A poster for Stan Lai’s Academy Award-nominated “Peach Blossom Land,” which will screen on Thursday, Jan. 31, at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive on the UC Berkeley campus.

A: Yes, I would like my plays, translated into English, to be performed on Broadway. I think a few of them would survive and flourish. On that note, I think many of my plays will play well in the repertory theaters across America.

I am working on two volumes of translations of my work, which should be published within the next couple of years. When I was teaching at Stanford in 2007, I directed my own translation of “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land,” and it played very well. The audience responded just as if we were in Taipei or Shanghai. I was rather amazed at the lack of a cultural gap.

Q: How would you describe your work and its arc over the years?

A: For almost 30 years, I have been creating theater while trying to have no prejudice over what theater is. This explains why my over 30 plays come in very different forms; they all seem to share a common center. In short, I create works for the theater through very experimental methods, but at a very early stage, my works were exposed to a greater public and succeeded in such a market. So my major stage over the years has been the large commercial venues, although I continue to consider myself an experimental artist, not even an artist, but a craftsman.

In my earlier years, politics and social problems were the focal point of my works. But around 2000, I gradually and naturally developed to a point where I understood that the individual is the key for any change in this world. And  so my works moved more into the spiritual realm, and I chose to use heavy doses of comedy to express this.

Q: When and how did you know that you wanted a life in theater and the arts? Why did theater appeal to you so much originally, and why does it do so today?

A: I actually stumbled onto my career in theater. Growing up in Taiwan under martial law, there was no real way I could access theater. We had no modern theater, no productions, nothing to see, so someone artistically inclined like myself had to go into things like literature, art and music. That’s what I did. I played music when I was in college, and I thought theater would be a natural extension of all my interests and potential talents.

For some reason, I was accepted into the Berkeley Ph.D. program in dramatic art, and that opened up my creative path. Throughout, theater appeals to me as the most immediate of the arts. Performer and audience share the same space, breathe the same air and share the same time span. It is the most immediate forum for our thoughts, emotions and the issues that shape our times. It is a crucial link back to communal rituals in a day when there are none.

Q: As a Berkeley grad, how does it feel to come back to campus?

A: I always enjoy coming back to Berkeley. It invigorates me. However, things have changed. Cody’s bookstore is gone. Telegraph Avenue no longer has its truly genuine feel. But why should Berkeley remain constant if the world doesn’t?

Q: What do you see as the differences in being a student when you were here in the 1980s and today? Have there been changes in the ways students prepare for the theater world?

A: I think some sort of radical change happened in the ‘90s that has changed the foundation of the mentality of students today. I find that students are much more materialistic and much less idealistic. It’s a global trend.

As to how students prepare for the theater world, I find the door becoming more and more narrow, mainly because theater itself is becoming more and more narrow. There is a lack of creativity in the theater, just as there is a lack of creativity in society. Through the Internet and advances in computer technology, creativity in a way has become trivialized.

Q: What would the world be like without theater?

A: In Chinese medicine, the doctor takes one’s pulse to achieve a general outlook on one’s health. To me, theater is that pulse for a society. When we look at past cultures, any culture that had a strong theater had a strong social pulse and a strong culture. I grew up in Taiwan in a society without theater, under martial law. It was not the best of societies. At the same time, the Cultural Revolution was going on in China, and only eight revolutionary plays were allowed to be performed. That was not a good time either.

A vibrant and open society has a vibrant and open theater. A society without theater is like a tree that has dried up. It lacks a connective source that leads directly to the life force of the society.