Arts scene pulsating with promise, Lai says

Updated: 2013-03-08 12:30

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily)

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 Arts scene pulsating with promise, Lai says

Stan Lai, a famous Chinese playwright and director, says that as a lot of investment and talented people are entering the arts and culture arena in China, the country is likely to be an influencing source to other countries artistically. Chen Jia / China Daily

With money "pouring" into its arts and culture scene, China stands poised to begin influencing other nations artistically. That's the view of Stan Lai, the Chinese-speaking world's leading playwright and director.

"China is very open to new trends at this moment," Lai, the author of the acclaimed play, Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land, and some 30 other dramatic works, recently told an audience at the University of California, Berkeley. "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."

Lai was taking a break from writing - the centerpiece of his hectic schedule - by returning to his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, for a series of public talks and workshops about his art and the state of modern theater from Jan 29 to Feb 8. As an Avenali Resident Fellow, he has spent the past several weeks at the northern California school engaging faculty, students, and community members in lectures and workshops related to his work.

"I see a lot of money pouring into the arts and culture in China, on a scale unheard of in the West," Lai told an audience. "If they do it right, soon China will be the one influencing other nations artistically."

Young artists in China, Lai said, "may spend a lot of time complaining about the taboos". But, he tells them, "put those aside, and there is a huge territory that can be covered. You can still create true art".

In Chinese medicine, the doctor takes a patient's pulse as a way of reading the person's health outlook. To Lai, theater is the pulse for a society.

Born in Washington DC in 1954, Lai was 12 when his family moved to Taiwan. As a territory under martial law and without theater, Taiwan, Lai said, was not the best of societies.

In the Chinese mainland, during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), only eight revolutionary plays were allowed to be performed, and that was not a good time either, he said.

"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," Lai said.

In 1976, Lai graduated fromFu Jen Catholic University. He married two years later. With his wife, he moved to the US to further his theater arts education.

Lai received hisPhDin Dramatic Art fromUniversity of California, Berkeleyin 1983. His scholarly titles include professor and founding dean of the College of Theatre atTaipei National University of the Arts. Lai taught at Stanford University as visiting professor between 2006 and 2007.

"When I taught at Stanford, I actually felt deeply that theater in America has declined creatively; I was seeing few new works that moved me," he said. Theater, however, has declined everywhere, creatively, he said. In China, he noted, theater has become more and more commercial with no government support, although, he said, "the Chinese government supports many government productions no one ever sees".

Lai said this with "no bitterness", because he understands the difficulties of transforming from a 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.

In Taiwan, theater gets a fair amount of government support, and the creative atmosphere is one of the freest in the world, he said. "But - and this is a big but - in recent years the absolute freedom we all once enjoyed in the late 1980s and 1990s is being increasingly stifled by politics and the rift between the two major political parties," he said.

"I think, for younger artists, this translates into a reluctance to tackle political or social issues, for fear of being labeled and distorted," he said.

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 the Chinese 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," Glazer said. "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 thatLaihas 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 Wen-hsin Yeh, a UC Berkeley professor of modern Chinese history and director of the campus' Institute of East Asian Studies.

"He works with these issues and takes them to a different level," Yeh said. "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."

Illustrating Lai's willingness to go deeper and broader with his art, Yeh asked rhetorically: "What is history to Stan Lai: Ways to find home? And what is displacement to Stan:A shared condition of modernity?" At several campus venues, Lai discussed his perspectives on theater, evolving cultural landscape and contemporary art practices in the mainland and Taiwan, and the potential for ongoing cultural exchange between UC Berkeley and Asia.

He also talked about the 1992 Academy Award-nominated film adaptation of his most famous play, Secret Love in The Peach Blossom Land, at a Jan 31 screening of the movie.

The play was on Taiwan's stage in 1986, and the audience in the Chinese mainland had the chance to see it 20 years later. Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land is actually two plays that at first have seemingly little in common, centered on a theater mistakenly scheduling simultaneous dress rehearsals for both shows.

Lai's new projects include working on a Broadway musical about martial arts icon Bruce Lee. The show represents a breakthrough for Lai, because it required him to overcome his long-held prejudices against Broadway commercialism.

Bruce Lee's story, Lai said, is not an easy one to tell in a compelling way, as a piece of musical theater. Moreover, he said, 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, he said.

"Initially, I did not accept, because commercial theater is not my thing," Lai said. "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," he said.

"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," he said.

(China Daily 03/08/2013 page11)