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Through improv techniques and experimentation, the US-born, Taiwan-based playwright and stage director Stan Lai connects space, time and cultures in his plays

By Qiu Guangyu Updated Mar.1

Stan Lai

Stan Lai looks the same as he did 10 years ago – albeit with more gray hair. The 67-year-old speaks with a mild and calm tone. His temperament, in the words of his friend and long-term creative partner, Taiwanese playwright and actor Chin Shin-Chieh, is “too calm to be a director.”  
Postponed in 2020 because of the pandemic, the ancient town of Wuzhen in Zhejiang Province embraced the Eighth Wuzhen Theater Festival from October 15 to 23, 2021, China’s most influential theater festival.  

As one of the four founders and president of the festival, Lai had his hands full. Not only did he plan the event, but he was also preparing his latest play Like Before to close the festival. He also served on the jury of the Emerging Theater Artists Competition, an important part of the festival.  

“All I want to do is play basketball here in the middle of the night,” Lai said with a smile.  
Penning 40 original Chinese plays over four decades, Lai is among the most celebrated contemporary playwrights and stage directors in the Chinese-speaking world. Born in Washington, DC, and raised between the US and Taiwan, China, Lai traces his ancestry to Huichang County, Jiangxi Province. His multi-cultural background and life experiences have inspired his plays, enabling him to connect human cultures and emotions through theater.  

Asked about the role of the theater under the pandemic, Lai said the theater is a “dream space” – creators weave dreams while the audience escapes in them. “We need [theater] more when it’s absent,” Lai told NewsChina.  

Improvised Lines 
The curtain slowly fell at 1:30am on October 22. 
The audience at the Wuzhen Internet International Exhibition Center had just watched a six-hour play.  

Involving more than 200 characters, Like Before tells an epic story of migration that spans decades. A disastrous earthquake in Yunnan Province in 1988 forces a group of villagers to leave their homes at the foot of Himalayas for the US. They start a new life in New York’s Lower East Side, but their refuge is shaken by the 9/11 attacks. They leave their homes again and return to the Himalayas, this time in Sikkim, India. Once again, they meet with disaster – an avalanche on Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.  

The long length is characteristic of Lai’s works. Early in 2000, he shocked the theater world with A Dream Like a Dream, an eighthour epic. Based on the life experiences and dreams of a terminally ill patient, the story transcends time and space, passing from the early Republican period (1912-1949) to modern China, spanning Taipei, Paris, Shanghai, Beijing and Normandy, France.  

One challenge was how to keep the audience engaged over eight hours. To give the audience an immersive viewing experience, Lai created a “lotus-flower theater,” in which the viewers were seated in the center, circled by eight stages that extended out like lotus flower petals. The lotus-flower design was also adopted for Like Before.  

Lai uses another device to grab the audience’s attention – collective improvisation. Lai drafts an outline and lets actors riff on it, and refines the script based on their performances. This way, the actors bring their own personalities and manner of speaking to the characters.  

Throughout the years, Lai has cooperated with actors from different backgrounds, such as TV hosts, musicians and pop idols. He sees collective improvisation as a way to make the most of their creative strengths.  

Lai first used improvisation to write in 1983. He returned to Taiwan after graduating from UC Berkeley with a doctorate in theater to teach at the newly founded Taipei National University of the Arts.  

In the early 1980s, the theater industry in Taiwan was a blank page. There were no professional theater troupes, actors or playwrights. Starting from scratch, Lai created a play with his students. To write the story, he used the improv-based scriptwriting technique he learned from his mentor, Dutch theater actor-writer-director Shireen Strooker.  

Lai encouraged his students to improvise based on their own experiences. The result was the play We All Grew Up This Way. Debuting in January 1984, the play tells the stories of 20-somethings’ childhoods, family, love, education and work. Its honesty, sincerity and creativity deeply impressed audiences, including famed Taiwan filmmakers Hou Hsiao-Hsien (A City of Sadness) and Edward Yang (Yi Yi).  

Connecting Cultures 
Lai’s father was a diplomat for the Republic of China (1911-1949) in the US. Born in 1954, Lai was a teenager during the counterculture movement of the late 1960s. 
“I was born in Washington, DC and moved to Seattle when I was 7, then to Taipei at 12, and back to California at 24... I was always on the go,” Lai said in an interview with The Beijing News in September 2019. “I call myself a ‘cosmopolitan.’ Ninety percent of my works are set in China, but the way I write is not like other Chinese creators,” he said.  

After moving to Taipei with his family in 1966, the 12-year-old experienced cultural shock. Taiwan was under martial law (1949 to 1987) imposed by the Nationalist government. During the period, known as “The White Terror,” media and speech were tightly controlled. Literature, music and art were strictly censored.  

In school, Lai had trouble understanding most of his classes, except English. Several years later, his father suddenly died after an illness.  

Feeling lost, the teen sought comfort in the rock music and Marvel comics he loved. He befriended lots of music fans. Many lived in Juancun Village, a community of provisional housing for Nationalist army soldiers and their descendants who retreated from the Chinese mainland during the 20th century. Most of Lai’s friends were the children of mainlanders.  

With the economic rise and liberalization of the late 1970s, Taiwan witnessed a renaissance in pop culture driven by talented second-generation mainlanders. Lai was among them.  

In 1973, Lai, then a 19-year-old English-language major at Fu Jen Catholic University, formed the rock group North Country Street Band. They regularly performed at the iconic Idea café, playing originals and covering Bob Dylan and The Beatles.  

Other performers at Idea café included Yang Hsien and Ara Kimbo – leading figures of the Campus Folk Song Movement (1978-1987), an influential cultural movement in Taiwan that promoted the development of original Chinese songs.  

Living in Taiwan helped Lai get in touch with his Chinese roots, while his father’s lessons on traditional Chinese literature and calligraphy gave him a sense of East Asian aesthetics.  
Lai attended UC Berkeley for five years. His doctoral dissertation, “Oriental Crosscurrents in Modern Western Theatre,” focuses on Asian culture in modern Western theater. In it he explored examples of how European playwrights misappropriated East Asian theater, traditions and philosophy.  

After he returned to Taiwan in 1983, Li founded his own troupe, Performance Workshop. His own experiences, the stories of friends and the histories they witnessed directly inspired Lai’s work.  

In 1985, Lai staged The Night We Became Crosstalk Comedians, which he co-wrote with writer-actor Lee Kuo-hsiu (Endless Nights in Aurora) and actor Lee Lichun (The Golden Eyes). They had pioneered the “crosstalk play,” a form that integrates modern theater with crosstalk (xiangsheng), a traditional performance likened to stand-up comedy. Showing the past and present of Taiwanese people in an innovative form, the play was an unexpected hit and proved a milestone in the development of modern theater in Taiwan.  

The following year, Lai debuted Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land. His play tells about two theater troupes each rehearsing a different play – the modern tragedy Secret Love and costume comedy drama Peach Blossom Land. Because of the theater’s tight schedule, the two troupes have to rehearse simultaneously on one stage. The result is a weaving of past and present, tragedy and comedy, time and space, drama and reality.  

In 2008, Lai and Wang Wei-chung, a celebrated TV producer, created The Village, a play based on real stories from mainlanders of different backgrounds living in Juancun Village in the 1950s and the 1960s.  

“My multi-cultural background made me the ‘other’ among mainlanders in Taiwan. Being the ‘other’ means that I can resonate with people around me, but also detach myself to examine people and things from a distance,” Lai told NewsChina.  

A scene from Like Before

Scenes from Like Before

‘We Need Good Original Stories’ 
Together with park designer Chen Xianghong, avant-garde stage director Meng Jinghui (Rhinoceros in Love) and the actor Huang Lei (Eighteen Springs), Lai founded the Wuzhen Theater Festival in 2013. “An ancient town and theater – seldom have I seen a place that combines these two elements as perfectly as Wuzhen,” Lai told NewsChina.  

In 2015, he opened his first theater, Theater Above, a 699-seat venue in Shanghai.  
Last year, the Covid-19 pandemic dealt a hard blow to the theater industry. Wuzhen Theater Festival was canceled. Theater Above was forced to close for several months, though it was among the earliest theaters to reopen.  

After reopening, the theater only saw 30 percent capacity. The decreased revenue hurt the privately owned theater, But Lai insisted on staying open. The situation improved and attendance picked up to 70 percent with the gradual easing of the pandemic. 
Early this year, Lai co-produced Theater for Living. The reality show sheds light on the struggles of theater actors by featuring eight unknown male actors in a “theater commune” on the outskirts of Wuzhen, where they live and work together for several weeks to create avant-garde dramas. Participants are not only challenged to create and perform a new play each week, but also seek funding, find a venue and promote it. The show was a hit, earning 9.2/10 on Douban, China’s leading media review website.  

The show’s popularity helped promote the Eighth Wuzhen Theater Festival in October 2021. The festival featured an unprecedented 23 invited productions, 18 debuts from the Emerging Theater Artists Competition, and over 2,000 performances around the ancient town. 
Concerning the future of Chinese theater, Lai pointed out that the industry still suffers from “a problem with originality.”  

Lai said that his friend, the celebrated American playwright David Henry Hwang (M Butterfly), asked him after visiting China several years ago: “Why does everyone in China keep calling you a director? Aren’t you a playwright?”  

Lai understood his confusion. “In the US, playwrights are regarded more highly than stage directors, while in China directors are deemed more important than playwrights,” Lai said. The reason behind it, he argued, is a lack of attention to originality.  

“We are still badly in need of good original stories. People lack the confidence to put on original plays,” he said, adding he has high hopes for China’s younger generations of theater talent.