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Talking Across Borders: Stan Lai in Conversation with David Henry Hwang

Global Exchange
Stan Lai
Stan Lai

Stan Lai's LIKE SHADOWS will receive a Studio Retreat Reading here at The Lark on February 25th & 26th.  We asked Stan to answer some questions from fellow playwright David Henry Hwang to get to know him and his play a little better!

David Henry Hwang: Please tell us a little about the history of LIKE SHADOWS, and what you hope to achieve through the Lark workshop.

Stan Lai:  Like Shadows is an exploration of the “Bardo,” or “between” state as explained in Tibetan Buddhism. It is the first play I ever wrote in English. It started as a work in progress called Shanghai Story, in Chinese, when I was teaching a creative workshop at the Shanghai Theatre Academy in 2005, then continued development as  Stories for the Dead, which was written and performed at Stanford University in 2006 when I was teaching there as Artist in Residence at their Institute for Diversity in the Arts. In both Shanghai and California I used the same question to start the creative process with the student cast: “Can you think of anyone you know, or know of, recently passed away, whom you don’t think will get to wherever he or she thinks he or she is going to after death?” Originally written for the special type of staging I pioneered in my 2000 play A Dream Like a Dream — which puts the audience in the center, and performance surrounding the audience, I later translated and adapted it back from English/California to Chinese/Taipei for performance at Taiwan’s National Theatre in 2007, with my own group of actors, the Performance Workshop. Now I hope to make a further transformation by moving it back to America, in English, for performance in the West. I hope The Lark workshop can help me understand how the play can work in a specific American cultural context.

DHH: You are a writer/director, as are most major contemporary Chinese playwrights. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this creative model, versus America, where playwrights generally do not direct their own work?

Stan Lai
Stan Lai
SL: My work has usually been done in a specific creative way, using a structured process of improvisation with the cast, and under this process I have always found the two jobs of Playwright and Director to be one. For me, I do not split up the roles of the two jobs. They occur naturally during the process. Once the play is “written,” it practically is all blocked, designed, and ready for tech. Only in recent years have I been able to relinquish directing duties for certain projects, and I must say, I enjoy being JUST playwright, even though I was trained as a director. As to the pros and cons, I think it is more a question of individual talent rather than a cultural thing: some artists are suited to do both jobs, some are not.  It is interesting to note, however, how the job of director is more prestigious than that of playwright in the Chinese speaking world. 

DHH: What do you perceive to be the major themes of your work? How does Like Shadows fit into this?

SL: I have never thought myself of what major themes I write about. It’s just not the way I think. Maybe that’s for others to say. I can say that in my over 30 plays, I treat each project as an individual, unique work, so there may not be as much continuity in theme and style as perhaps other playwrights. I do know and can say I have been perpetually fascinated and saddened at the human condition. But I guess that’s not saying much. 

David Henry Hwang
David Henry Hwang

DHH: One of your most famous plays, Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, recently enjoyed its U.S. premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. What were the biggest challenges in translating and presenting this work to an American audience?

SL: This was the first of my works to be performed professionally in the U.S. I rewrote many passages to include a capsule of the history of China and Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War in 1949, which to me is the only essential “foreign” thing a US audience would need to know about to understand the work. I think this helped most audiences, and the result at OSF was a richly rewarding experience for both myself and audiences, if I can judge by response, but I was still amazed to find how there were audience members who didn’t even know what Taiwan was or where China is. That has led me to further contemplation on the artist and what he or she thinks about, and what “universal” can possibly mean.

The Studio Retreat reading of LIKE SHADOWS at The Lark on February 26th will feature a post-show conversation with David Henry Hwang.