Stan Lai (賴聲川), a Leader in Asian Theater Arts

Stan Lai (Sheng-chuan Lai) is the most celebrated Chinese language playwright/ director in the world, renowned not only for creating some of the most memorable works for the contemporary Chinese stage, but also for creating bold new genres and staging innovations. Based in Taiwan, Lai has continually pioneered new horizons in modern Chinese theatre, writing of the beauty and frailty of human spirit through unforgettable characters and imaginative structures. China’s most prominent critic Yu Qiuyu once said that Lai’s work “always has the ability to touch the heartstrings of countless audiences.”

Lai’s 30 original plays have been described as being “rare works that delicately blend fine art with popular culture.” His most famous work “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” (1986), which combines tragedy and comedy in most creative ways, has toured worldwide, been made into an award-winning film (1992), and in 2007 was chosen as one of the top ten Chinese plays of the 20th century. Lai’s 2006 Beijing production of the play has become an icon of recent Chinese theatre for the breadth and depth of its influence. The New York Times said it “may be the most popular contemporary play in China…by the finale, the audience is left to contemplate the burdens of memory, history, longing, love and the power of theater itself.” In 2007, Lai directed his own English translation of the play at Stanford University. His recent play “The Village” (2008), about refugees from the Chinese civil war, is the most acclaimed Chinese work of the current decade, and has been called “the pinnacle of our era of theatre” by the Beijing News.

Lai’s “crosstalk” (xiangsheng) plays, starting with the groundbreaking “That Evening, We Performed Xiangsheng” (1985) have virtually forged a new theatrical genre. These hugely popular works have resuscitated the dying traditional performing art form of xiangsheng. His epic 8 hour “A Dream like a Dream” (2000) has been called “a masterpiece” of modern Chinese drama, and has drawn comparisons to Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata”. This compassionate work traces the path of a man with an undiagnosable illness. It reveals the Buddhist and universal themes of suffering and recurring life cycles in a unique performance style devised by Lai that places the audience in the center of the theater, with the performance surrounding them. For many, this special play is a life-changing experience.

At one time, Lai has 4 plays being performed in different cities in the Chinese world. He remains a significant cultural bridge between Taiwan and China, and his influence on contemporary Chinese culture continues to grow. Aside from his creative base in Taipei, Lai has been commissioned to create new works in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Beijing. In 2009 Lai was hired as the chief director of the Deaflympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies held in Taipei, which received high acclaim for their aesthetic beauty and representation of the spirit of the deaf community. The Far Eastern Economic Review describes his works as "the most exciting theatre in the Chinese-speaking world." Newsweek calls them "the most recent piece of evidence that Taiwan is creating the boldest Chinese art in Asia today." The International Herald Tribune says "His work is never one dimensional or linear; there are always layers to it."

Lai has also written and directed two widely acclaimed feature films, “The Peach Blossom Land” (1992) and “The Red Lotus Society” (1994), which received top prizes at the Tokyo, Berlin, and Singapore international film festivals, including Tokyo’s Silver Sakura prize, Berlin’s Caligari prize, and Best Picture, Best Director, and FIPRESCI prizes at Singapore. “The Peach Blossom Land” in particular enjoys almost mythical status in China, where the bootleg tape of a film festival copy led to wide underground circulation that has influenced a generation of film and theatre artists. To date, over 1,000 unauthorized productions of the play version have been performed in China, and the film version is standard material for courses at the Beijing Film Institute and the Central Academy of Drama.

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1954, a diplomat’s son, Lai was educated in America and Taiwan, and received his Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from U.C. Berkeley in 1983. He has received Taiwan’s highest award for the arts, the National Arts Award, an unprecedented two times (1988, 2001). In 2007, Lai received the prestigious Taipei Cultural Award, and was elected in Beijing to the Chinese theatre Hall of Fame.

While becoming the premier playwright in the Chinese world, Lai maintained a long teaching career. He taught for over 2 decades at Taipei National University of the Arts, where he was a professor and founding Dean of the College of Theatre. His students make up the core of Taiwan's theatre culture. In 2000, he returned to Berkeley as Visiting Professor. In 2006 and 2007, he taught at Stanford University as Visiting Professor and Resident Artist. He has also taught at Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama and the Shanghai Drama Academy, and lectured at Beijing University and recently at Yale University, where he conducted a week of workshops and classes in his honor.

In 2006, Lai published an innovative study of creativity called “Stan Lai on Creativity” (Lai Shengchuan de chuangyixue) which became a best seller in both Taiwan and China. The book also became required reading for artists and writers, and for many corporations as well. Throughout these years Lai lectured extensively on creativity, bringing his message that creativity can be learned through proper methods. For his work in creativity studies, Lai has received numerous awards, including “Most Creative Person Award” at the 2007 Beijing Creative Industries Fair.

Lai’s plays have been published in numerous Chinese editions in Taiwan and China. His own English version of “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” is published in the “Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Drama” in 2010. “In the Moment – the Theatre of Stan Lai” is a full length study of his works. An “International Conference on the Works of Stan Lai” was held in Taipei in 2006.

Stan Lai has been married to Nai-chu Ding for over 30 years and they have 2 daughters. Ms. Ding is producer of all of Lai’s work and acted in the first version of “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land,” where she created the role of Yun Zhifan. The Lais reside in Taipei, which remains the creative base for most of their work. Aside from creative work, the Lais also are noted translators for works on Buddhism. They have focused their Chinese translations on the works of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Matthieu Ricard, including “Enlightened Courage,” “Journey to Enlightenment,” “The Monk and the Philosopher,” and “Happiness – A Guide to Life’s Most Important Skill.”


Play Title: We All Grew Up This Way (January 11, 1984)

This play was created through the shared efforts of the actors and the director through the use of collective improvisation. It is based on important personal life experiences of the actors with regards to family, love, education, and work when they were around twenty years old. As the curtain rises, the actors stand in a line, left to right, each reciting two or three representative lines about individual personality or feelings; these lines will later echo back in the last section of the play. Following the prelude are presentations of trivial things in life: the mood of students during an important national exam, what happens right before breaking up with a boyfriend, the process of looking for a home tutor, the accidental stray into a black market beauty salon, etc. More serious matters followed: as a child, being told by classmates that you are not a biological child of your parents; being called home from your required military service to sign as a witness on your parents’ divorce paper; and experiencing the bankruptcy of your family. Afterwards, the sequence is broken again: the result of finding the tutor, what happens after the breakup, and the reaction to the exam score are performed. Lastly, the actors return to form their original line, pour their heart out to imaginary partners, sing “Words of the Westerly Wind” (西風的話), and end the show by saying goodnight to their parents.


Play Title: Bach Variations (June 11, 1985)

As the curtain opens, twelve actors are each lying like newborn babies on a square of a chessboard. As the “Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major” of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” plays, the actors slowly stand up and begin to move in their square with highly individualized actions. At the beginning, there are simple and clean geometric forms on the stage; several monologuists sitting on cubes are taking turns speaking to different unseen people. To the side is a bus driver who is directing people to get on and off the bus. Next come dialogues between lovers, family members with pet, and fortune tellers and their clients. Each piece represents various forms of interpersonal relationships. In the second act, an enormous ball slowly rises from underneath the stage until it disappears from view. Then the monologuists reenter the stage. Unlike the first act when they spoke to loved ones who had passed away, they now talk to people in the future or people in the universe. With voices interjecting upon one another, they read sections of letters. At the end of the act, a large mailbox is lowered to the stage from above and a postal carrier blows a whistle. The speakers seal their letters and place them in the mailbox. Everything ends in the final musical movement. A convict crouches on a cube, laying out a daily journal. The criminal speaks slowly as if he has not spoken in a very long time. A warden contemptuously reads out the contents of the journal. The creator reads out his writings, and Bach emerges from the right side of the stage and walks languidly across it without any expression on his face. The last notes of the Fugue are played; the stage is empty, quiet.

Play title: The Seagull (November 21, 1990)

This was an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Seagull.” The characters and era of the play were changed to China in the 1930s, but the adaptation followed the construction of the original play. Yi-ling Su (蘇以玲) is a Shanghai actress. At the moment, she has brought her lover, the novelist Guo Lin (果林), back with her to her brother’s estate. When the play opens, Yi-ling is watching her son Kang-ding’s (康丁) newly-written play, performed by Kang-ding’s girlfriend Nina. Yi-ling watches with a careless, mocking attitude, which induces Kang-ding to angrily disrupt the performance. Nina is captivated by Guo Lin. When Kang-ding shoots down a seagull to present to Nina, Guo Lin is inspired: “A man sees a girl and ruins her because he just wants to play her.” After Kang-ding fails at killing himself with a gun, Yi-ling decides to take Guo Lin away to Shanghai, with Nina following right behind to pursue Guo Lin. Kang-ding eventually becomes a real writer. After Nina is abandoned by Guo Lin, she continues with her acting career. Tired and poor, she returns to hometown to visit Kang-ding. After Kang-ding sees Nina again, he chooses to kill himself with a gun. Yi-ling is playing Mahjong when all this happens. Guo Lin is told of the news and to take Yi-ling away as she still doesn’t know what has transpired.


Play title: A Dream like a Dream (May 18, 2000)

This story starts from the 269th page of “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” (西藏生死書), describing a newly-graduated medical student on her first day working at a hospital. Of the five patients in her ward that day, four end up dying. The panicked doctor realizes that in all her years of training and learning at the medical school, her teachers never taught her how to handle the moment of death. She can only stand to the side, becoming a helpless bystander. The doctor’s younger cousin tells her of a Tibetan tantra, “Tonglen tong len” (sending and receiving), which can help patients on the verge of death. If the tantra doesn’t work, the cousin tells her, she can also listen attentively to the stories of the patients. This act can be a big comfort to them. The doctor spends a great deal of time with “Patient Number 5” (五號病人), allowing him to tell his story. It is from his story that other characters, and their dreams, begin to emerge: Patient Number 5’s wife, Jiang Hong (江紅) from mainland China, the extraordinary Shanghai centenarian Gu Xiang-Lan (顧香蘭), the story of the French consul Duke Henry, etc. The current and past lives of the characters, as well as their deaths, are interwoven to create a magical journey of life.

Text and images are provided by Digital Collection of Originality in Theatre of Yi-Wei Yao, Chi-Mei Wang and Stan Lai and School of Theatre Arts, Taipei National University of the Arts