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At the height of the fear and panic caused by the SARS pandemic in 2003, Taipei like many Asian cities was a veritable ghost town with restaurants and cinemas all shuttered. Yet 1,500 people still showed up in face masks at the National Theater every night for a week, filling the venue for one of director Stan Lai’s plays, Sand and a Distant Star.
This is emblematic not just of the power of Lai’s brand of tragicomedy, which at its best is capable of wringing both laughter and tears at the same time, but also of his standing as the doyen of modern Taiwanese theatre.
Performance Workshop, the theatre company he founded in 1985 and continues to lead, has produced over 30 original plays. These include gems of Chinese-language theatre such as Lai’s Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land (1986), a comedy about a Taipei venue double-booked by two theatre troupes. In it, two plays-within-a-play are skillfully embedded—a personal tragedy set against the backdrop of Taiwan’s turbulent 20th century history with China, and a farcical parody of a seventh-century Chinese fable’s search for Utopia. Lai, who directs and writes most of his plays based on material devised with actors, also adapted Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land into an award-winning 1992 film starring Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia.
He and Performance Workshop are credited with building up a vibrant theatre-going culture in Taiwan from the mid-1980s onwards as the island crawled out of over three decades of authoritarian rule and experienced its first stirrings of a two-party democracy.
Flashing a photograph of Taipei audiences in face masks watching Sand and a Distant Star at a talk many years later in Singapore, Lai mused over why he found that image significant. Running a hand through his salt-and-pepper-streaked, chin-length locks, he said reflectively,
"I like this photo because it tells of how, from 1984 to 2003, in the short time of 19 years, we made great strides in Taiwan in theatre, film, in the creative arts. When we started working, it was at the tail end of martial law and just before the start of democracy, so it was a very fertile period in terms of the social, political and psychological issues, and all this became material for our works. By the time of 2003, watching a play had become a very typical activity. So, in that short time, we went from nothing to a mature theatre scene."2
Lai’s friends and contemporaries include masters of Taiwan’s New Wave Cinema such as Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien. In the 1980s, all three began creating work rooted in the island’s sociopolitical context. Yang and Hou were in the audience for Lai’s first play We All Grew Up This Way in 1984, which pre-dates the founding of Performance Workshop and was created in collaboration with students from Taiwan’s National Institute of the Arts (now Taipei National University of the Arts), based on their coming-of-age experiences.
This production was significant, according to Lai, because “at that time there was virtually nothing in Taipei, there was no proper theatre company to speak of, everyone was looking at a new way of creating work”3. As financially-struggling young artists, Lai, Yang and Hou also borrowed each other’s furniture for the sets of their films and plays, and one of Lai’s two daughters was even cast in a small role in Yang’s watershed film, A Brighter Summer Day (1991), a teenage tragedy set in the heightened atmosphere of martial law-era Taiwan.
Later in his career, Lai’s works became more philosophical than political, influenced by his Buddhist faith and also as a result of the growing polarisation of Taiwan’s dual-party democracy. In his words,
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This phase of his oeuvre is best exemplified by A Dream Like A Dream (2000), a sprawling eight-hour production about death, fate and the redemptive power of storytelling. This epic play is notable as much for its length as for its unusual staging—the audience is seated on swivel chairs in the middle of the stage while the actors stalk the perimeter, evoking at times the circumambulation of a stupa.
There is also its nested narrative structure in which a deathbed tale told by a hospital patient leads one back in time and across continents to other characters and their unresolved mysteries. In this, as in his other productions, Lai demonstrates his flair for the metatheatrical, as well as his ability to draw out intimate moments from a large cast and vast historical canvas.
The son of a diplomat, Lai was born in 1954 in Washington D.C., and educated in America and Taiwan. He and his wife Ding Nai-chu both did postgraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley – he a PhD in Dramatic Art, she a Masters in Education Administration.
Ding would go on to be managing director of Performance Workshop and producer of many of Lai’s works. The couple returned to Taipei in 1983 where Lai began his long teaching career at the Taipei National University of the Arts, later becoming Founding Dean of the College of Theater.
In the early 1980s Taiwan was at the tail end of martial law, which had been imposed by the Kuomintang (KMT) government in 1949 in the wake of violent clashes between locally-born Taiwanese and mainland Chinese on the island.
From the late 1940s to the 1960s, there were killings, arrests and detentions by the KMT regime, which had installed itself in Taiwan following its defeat by the Chinese Communist Party in a civil war on the mainland. This so-called “White Terror” and curbing of civil liberties had bred for decades a climate of fear, even as Taiwan’s economy began to take off and living standards went up.
Upon his return to Taiwan, Lai found himself in a cultural desert. For example, he found that the once-thriving folk art form of xiangsheng (crosstalk comedy) "had not only died but left no trace. I went to the record store to buy xiangsheng records, and the owner, it was as though he had been brainwashed, he looked at me very strangely when I asked him whether there were any new xiangsheng releases. It was as though he had never heard of the word”5.
This provided the inspiration for Performance Workshop’s first production, That Evening, We Performed Xiangsheng (1985), a eulogy-slash-valentine to the art form using the form itself.
Its premise is classic, metatheatrical Stan Lai—two variety show hosts in a nightclub introduce a well-known xiangsheng duo who do not show up, and are forced to impersonate them in a panoply of xiangsheng performances spanning different eras, from the 1960s all the way back to the close of China’s Qing Dynasty.
That Evening, We Performed Xiangsheng electrified Taiwan; the video recording of the performance sold two million copies. Since then, Lai has created for Performance Workshop a regular series of xiangsheng plays that use the comic routines of the genre to explore larger issues.
This mining of the island’s stories continues with another one of Lai’s enduring works, The Village (2008).
This was a collaboration between him and prominent Taiwanese entertainment producer Wang Wei Zhong, loosely based on the latter’s personal experience of growing up in a “dependents’ village”—one of over 800 in Taiwan built to house Kuomintang soldiers and their families after their government retreated from mainland China.
About notions of home and community, intergenerational conflict as well as helplessness in the face of larger forces beyond one’s control, The Village is also rich in moments of levity and continues to be staged a decade after its premiere.
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Lai has said that he and his artistic contemporaries in Taiwan “placed great store on our own creations, we were not inclined to put on translated works from abroad. It wasn’t that we thought they were no good, just that everyone preferred to do their own. We also felt that in developing new content, we could at the same time arrive at new forms”6.
Here the techniques of improvisation, as deployed in workshops or rehearsals with actors, were critical. Improvisation became for him “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”7.
One can see, in this respect, parallels with modern theatre pioneers in other postcolonial societies who created some of their best work through improvisation with an ensemble—Athol Fugard in South Africa, Krishen Jit in Malaysia, and Kuo Pao Kun in Singapore.
Improvisation gives the dialogue in Lai’s plays a certain earthiness and spontaneity, a grounding in the language as it is spoken in Taiwan. At the same time, the material is also tightly structured by the playwright, as what Lai is after is the well-made mainstream play and not arty stream-of-consciousness drifts reminiscent of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, known for building his films around improvisations with actors.
The degree to which Lai has loosened the reins for improvisation varies from production to production.
In the programme notes for Sand and a Distant Star, a tragicomedy about a woman who optimistically believes her missing husband has been killed by aliens, Lai writes that “this time” he had a script going into rehearsals. However, “as I handed out copies of the script to the actors, I said, ‘The purpose of having a draft is to undo it.’” Eventually, “more than a month of thorough exploration of the characters, problems and possibilities” would produce a second draft of the script.
In general, Lai believes his method of improvisation “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… Whereas before the whole process could be undefined, now I start the composing process with a detailed structure and outline that is followed meticulously”8.
In recent years, Lai’s influence has spread beyond Taiwan to China, the mainland market beckoning with its huge pool of creative talent, state funding, new venues, and audiences (Performance Workshop’s official write-up says it is “one of the few theatre groups in the world that has sustained itself for almost 30 years primarily on box office earnings, with little or no government and corporate sponsorship”).
He has spearheaded numerous revivals of his work across the Taiwan Strait, started a theatre festival amidst the canals and waterways of scenic Wuzhen, and set up a theatre company, Theatre Above, in nearby Shanghai.
Lai has spoken about being a cultural bridge between Taiwan and China, given the fraught history and sociopolitical differences between the two societies. He told American Theatre magazine in 2017, “On any given weekend there may be three or four cities in China performing a different play of mine… This is encouraging and exciting, because China is so vast and we are able to bring theatre to places that have 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.”9
China aside, the bilingual Lai is evolving into an elder statesman of world theatre, whether in directing a multi-ethnic cast in his own well-received English translation of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, or helming the 2006 Beijing version of the play with star mainland actors such as Huang Lei. In 2016, he began developing an immersive new work inspired by the Chinese garden of Los Angeles’ Huntington Library, one of the largest Chinese-style gardens outside China.
Whether at home or abroad, in new work or revivals of his classics, the constants are Lai’s deft mixing of the cerebral and populist, and the assured intermingling of comic and tragic elements. The latter can be traced back to his doctoral research into ancient forms such as Greek tragedy and noh drama, where sequences of profound tragedy would be followed by irreverent comedy, some of it mocking what had gone on before. As he put it,
Whether in putting a comedy and a tragedy simultaneously on stage and having them rub off on each other (Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land), or wearing quotidian tragedies lightly a la Chekhov (The Village), Lai manages to blend nuance and commentary into the broad brushstrokes of good old-fashioned entertainment.
1‘Tragedy and humour found an inch apart,’ Han Bingbin, China Daily, 24 Jan 2014.
2 ‘Encountering Creativity: Stan Lai and Singapore’, Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts, 9 Feb 2014.
4 ‘How Stan Lai Improvised a New Theatre from Old Forms,’ Rob Weinert-Kendt, American Theatre, May/June 2017.
5 ‘Encountering Creativity: Stan Lai and Singapore’, op. cit.
7 ‘How Stan Lai Improvised a New Theatre from Old Forms,’ op. cit.
10 ‘Encountering Creativity: Stan Lai and Singapore’, op. cit.
Clarissa Oon is a writer and editor whose writings on theatre, literature and culture have appeared in The Straits Times, ArtReview Asia and in publications by The Substation and The Necessary Stage. Previously a theatre reviewer, Beijing-based correspondent and then arts editor with The Straits Times, she is currently Head of Communications and Content at Esplanade.