Life is but a dream

A Dream Like A Dream, a theatre production by Taiwanese playwright and director Stan Lai.

Taiwanese director and playwright Stan Lai, the eloquent wordsmith behind lavish, talky pieces of theatre, cannot seem to find the words to describe what might be his most epic work of all.

"It just sort of came to me?" the 59-year-old theatre icon sounds almost apologetic over a crackling telephone connection from Beijing.

"It's hard to describe," he says in fluent English and filling his sentences with uncharacteristic pauses. "But, uh, when it came - it came in complete form in my mind. And, uh, I wrote it down. And, uh, it turned out to be a 29-page outline."

Given that most of his scripts are about 50 to 60 pages, he knew that this was going to be a long one.

There is a reason for his hesitance in describing the conception of the eight-hour A Dream Like A Dream (2000), possibly his most ambitious work to date and first staged in Taipei to critical acclaim that same year. It has been given a rapturous reception in China and Hong Kong and will be staged in Singapore for the first time, at the Esplanade's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts next month.

The masterpiece about death, life and redemption seems divinely inspired, summoned into existence when Lai was in India for a Buddhism seminar in 1999.

He found himself in a rut, under pressure to write a play for a Taiwanese university, but he "didn't have a very good notion" of what he wanted to do. And then, while at Bodh Gaya, said to be the place where the Buddha obtained enlightenment, several strands of thought coalesced into a coherent whole and he began to write.

One of his touchpoints was the Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying, a book on the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. He says: "One page triggered it all, about a doctor who had a few patients die on her first day on the job, and she was very disconcerted because none of her training made her capable of dealing with her dying patients at the moment of death."

This is exactly how Dream's main plot begins, with a young doctor who is devastated when she loses most of her patients on her first day at work.

But she takes the time to listen to the story of her final patient, and what transpires is a tale that weaves together many lives - including a Shanghainese courtesan and a French diplomat - inextricably bound in their cycles of love and suffering.

Dream features 28 actors playing more than 100 characters across 90 scenes, straddling an elaborate two-storey set and donning about 400 costumes in the process. The production is transported in five freight containers and requires a technical team of 59 crew members and 10 days to set up.

It will be performed in Mandarin without surtitles, but audio headsets providing simultaneous English translation will be available for rent at $15 a piece on a first-come, first-served basis.

What is arguably unique about the production is its method of staging.

Lai had been ruminating on the concept of the Buddhist holy site, where pilgrims circle the sacred space in a clockwise direction. In the same way, 230 audience members will sit in a sunken portion of the theatre, surrounded by the stage. Their chairs can swivel 360 degrees and they will have an immersive view of the performance as it unfolds around them.

Lai says much of this stems from his desire to go back to that deep relationship between theatre and ritual in both the Eastern and Western origins of theatre.

"People went to the theatre as part of fulfilling some sort of ritual," he says, "but today it's all become very secular. You just go there for entertainment - in many ways you're going to the movies or the theatre to escape from your life.

"But that's not the way theatre was designed to work. It was designed to work as a way of facing your life, in a more intense and immediate way."

He often reminds his cast and crew: "A performance is a gift for the audience. It's like a feast. And if you are the host, you want to give your best offering to your guests. We've taken that a step further to say that the audience is the sacred object, and we're circling the audience and weaving stories."

This concept has profoundly influenced some of the actors in the work, including prominent Chinese stage and screen actress Xu Qing, 45, who plays the lead female role of the chameleonic Shanghai comfort woman Gu Xianglan.

Some might recognise Xu as the actress who played the wife of Bruce Willis' character in the blockbuster timetravel movie Looper (2012).

Speaking in crisp Mandarin over the telephone from Beijing, Xu says she had initially found the physical demands of being on stage for hours on end particularly daunting. "When we had just started rehearsals and I had to do all this walking, I would get home and be so tired that I wouldn't even be able to get up. It was like doing manual labour."

That soon changed. "But I got used to it. Once you find your character's heart, you don't feel as tired as before because you've started to love your character."

Lai has often avoided discussing his Buddhist philosophies in his work, but Dream is the exception. "As an author, you don't want to preach. I think as an audience member, I get turned off when people start preaching at me... or telling me how to lead my life."

He laughs, adding: "Buddhism is like quantum physics. You don't write a play about quantum physics because it's just too difficult to explain."

But for Dream, he feels he has "found the courage" to discuss issues of spirituality that are not often easy to understand and, to his surprise, audience members seemed keen to find out more.

He and his wife, producer Ding Nai-chu, have worked on translating Buddhist works into English and Chinese. They have two grown daughters both working in the arts industry.

While Dream feels culturally specific at first glance, with its focus on Eastern spirituality and its roots in Buddhism, it carries the same universal themes as many of Lai's past works.

He attributes this to his cross-cultural upbringing in the United States and Taiwan. "You asked me if my first language is English or Chinese - it's the same, it can go either way. I dream in English and Chinese," he says with a laugh. "That's probably a mark of being bilingual."

Lai was born in 1954 in Washington, D.C., to a diplomat father and housewife mother. At the age of 11, he returned to Taiwan and later earned a degree in English literature from Taiwan's Fu Jen Catholic University. He went back to the US for his PhD in theatre from the University of California, Berkeley, and astonished friends and family by returning in 1983 to Taiwan, then under martial law.

This sort of "reverse migration", as Lai dubs it, is rare. Many Taiwanese artists and newsmakers who uproot to the West or were born there rarely return - film-maker Lee Ang, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen and basketballer Jeremy Lin come to mind.

Lai says: "Maybe this is the thing that's not 'copy-able' about my work. There's an essence behind it that defies culture or language, that has nothing to do with culture or language."

Performance Workshop, the theatre company he founded in 1984 on his return to Taiwan, turns 30 this year, and is continuing in that tradition of breaking the mould with works such as A Dream Like A Dream.

What does he think of that milestone? "My first reaction is, wow, people are going to think we're really old. And to me, that's fine. But that doesn't mean we're not still on the cutting edge," he offers. "Sure, we're old, but as we get older, we learn more about our craft.

We learn how to better tell stories and find new ways to tell them."

He laughs embarrassedly when it is mentioned that Dream is often described as his "magnum opus".

He says: "Many people say it's lifechanging. I don't dare say any theatre work can be that. That is not my intent. We can't be so arrogant as to think that our work can change anybody's life."

He pauses and adds: "But perhaps on a scale it does, in a positive way - it makes people turn inwards and think about their lives, which is not easy to do."

Notable works by Stan Lai

That Evening, We Performed Xiangsheng (1985)

This work, created two years after Stan Lai's return to Taiwan, was instrumental in reviving interest in the traditional Chinese crosstalk format involving two performers' witty banter. Set in a nightclub, two DJs announce that two crosstalk masters will perform a work after a long absence. But when the masters do not turn up, the DJs are forced to disguise themselves as the masters. The show ran for almost three weeks in Taiwan and 200,000 videotapes of the performance were sold.

Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land (1986)

Arguably Lai's best-known play, it tells the story of two theatre troupes who book the same venue for their rehearsals.

One group is staging a modern tragedy and the other, a period comedy. The groups bicker and criticise each other's plays but end up rehearsing side by side, and the juxtaposed plays take on a new and resonant meaning about the nature of art and life.

Secret Love toured worldwide to critical acclaim and was made into a film in 1992 starring Lin Ching-hsia. It won Lai the Silver Trophy in the Young Director's Award category at the Tokyo Film Festival. His theatre company, Performance Workshop, also received the National Arts Award - Taiwan's highest recognition for artists.

It was staged at Huayi in 2007.

The Village (2008)

This historical epic revolves around three families living in Taiwan's Dependant Villages, where Kuomintang soldiers and their families fled to during the 1949 Chinese civil war. Wrestling with issues both political and personal, this modern classic turns a specific piece of history into a larger human story of struggle and survival. It was staged in Singapore in 2009 and 2012.

Crosstalk Travellers (2011)

A luxury traveller and a backpacker are stranded on a remote island when the country undergoes a political revolution. The duo embark on a humorous and heartfelt exchange on the nature of travel. It was staged in Singapore in 2012.

Book it

A DREAM LIKE A DREAM

Where: Esplanade Theatre

When: Feb 6 to 9. Part 1 at 1.30pm and Part 2 at 7.30pm daily

Admission: Limited tickets at $38 to $188 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg). Each ticket includes admission to both parts of the show on the same day Info: www.huayifestival.com.sg

TALK BY STAN LAI: THE JOURNEY OF A DREAM

Where: Esplanade Theatre

When: Feb 8, 10.30am

Admission: Free, but registration is required at www.huayifestival.com.sg


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