The Theater, Dance and Performance Studies Department at the University of California at Berkeley is hosting “Art & Design Thursdays @ BAMPFA (Berkeley Arts Museum, Pacific Film Archive),” where the public sits in on faculty and guest lectures on creativity. Admission is free. On January 31, 2019, playwrights Mary Zimmermann and Stan Lai were in conversation. Zimmermann, is the author of the play “Metamorphoses,” which opened at Berkeley Rep that evening. Lai, who the BBC has called “the best Chinese language playwright and stage director of this generation” is a 2019 BAMPFA visiting professor.
Having attended the noon conversation and Metamorphoses opening, I interviewed Lai the following afternoon.
Toba Singer: In your conversation with Mary Zimmermann, she quoted Willa Cather as having said, “I never was the artist I was as a child.” Do you think that the self-consciousness of adolescence, coupled with peer pressure to conform during those years, truncates innate artistry? Why do so many artists get “stuck” in adolescence? Do they confuse it with childhood abandon?
Stan Lai: We must be careful when we form our ideas, and those being transplanted from and among our peers, that their importance to you is not based on a mistaken claim to individuality that sends you in search of that herd, where the transplant makes you feel accepted. It can turn out to be the opposite, and do harm to your creativity and individuality.
TS: Please comment on how the creative process matures in real time, where both playwright and audience register their presence as witnesses uncovering the bones of a story or the spine of a character. Does that process depend on the playwright’s transport from self-consciousness to self-awareness, as well as the audience’s? Does success or failure determine whether the work falls into the category of art or entertainment?
SL: I don’t think that all writing, as you may be inferring,
has to move one toward self-awareness. It may move one toward awareness. Sometimes
we’ve made a discrete discovery, that doesn’t necessarily imply a process where
we take the audience with us. But we do take the audience on a journey. If I
ask myself why I write, I would say that one of the reasons is the hope that my
work has something to offer. It may not be the only reason, but without it I’d
consider my effort invalid. It doesn’t even need to be public, but to be worthy
of an audience, I must constantly reflect on how to be of benefit to that
When you’re writing, you can’t think about so many whys and whos, but must always ask yourself where you are, who you are, what you are thinking, and are these views packaged as a performance, because the theater asks whether a play can be performed over a period of years. I’ll give the example of my work, “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land.” It was produced in 1986, and is still being performed. It hasn’t changed very much, but I have been faced with the dilemmas that come up with changing directors and casting, especially with one of the characters, the writer of one of the plays called “Secret Love” who vies for rehearsal space with “Peach Blossom Land.” He is an old man who has written a not very good play about China that takes place in 1949, in the shadow of the Chinese Revolution. When you reprise it in 2019, you are stretching it to have a character who retains memories that go back to 1949, where he actually says, “What I wrote is not the way I remember it.” In a recent production, I changed the old director to a young hip hop character. The meaning of the play should not have to change though, just because the years have moved us further away from a central, referenced event.
TS: In your conversation with Mary, you said that you judge a society by the quality of its theater. Does that criterion extend to all art? Where, on the one hand, does a Joseph Meyerhoff fit into that definition, and on the other, a Leni Reifenstahl, recognizing that her medium was film, not theater?
SL: I wouldn’t want that definition to go broader than theater.
Look at theater in Taiwan, for example. It looks good on the surface, but when you
look deeper, you see how the theater is an institution that is not faring well
there. There are no new theaters in Taipei because they are caught in a
Byzantine legal process, having fallen victim to the dysfunction of the political
machine. It then prompts you to ask why there
are so few plays written about politics there, especially since it is looked
upon as the freest city in the Chinese world.
When you look deeper, you see that yes, you have freedom of expression, but no one uses it. Artists don’t want to be identified with the various polarities. If you want to succeed, you must adopt the view in China that approaches the performances you can see every night as commercially based entities, created to make money, and therefore no different from any other commodity.
TS: You and Mary referred to “competence” as a standard for theater imbuing a profound sense of community. What makes a theatrical work “competent”?
SL: Mary and I were talking like the craftsmen we are. Take a house, for example. As a craftsman, I know or I don’t know how to build that house. She and I know how to build a play, where we as directors control the timing, and when and if and how you’re affected. That craft in the hands of an artist can go any number of ways. That’s why Reifenstahl succeeds: she presents fascism and Nazis effectively and affectively. When I was giving a lecture at a doctorate commencement in Prague, I was surprised to learn that the graduates are required to take an oath that their works will be used for the good of humanity. That was refreshing!
TS: Compare the filmmaking maxim “Show don’t tell” to the possible variant of “feel don’t tell.”
SL: I don’t agree with the first one. First of all, it’s a maxim for making a film. I don’t think there’s a credible maxim for writing a play. I am in favor of whatever works, however flippant that may sound. You develop a sense that comes with know-how. What you may think is corny and over the top in one circumstance may work quite well in another. In observing what changes from one culture to another, I’ve found that one crucial thing is how people feel and react at performances. Playwrights and directors in America seem to treat emotions differently than in China: in the U.S., they are more averse to showing strong emotions, wanting to avoid sentimentality, but to me, there’s no “good/not good.” Sentimental or stoic is fine. In terms of what you are making, if it jolts you back to reality by framing something in a stoic way, do it. In a village setting, they will be moved instantaneously from tears to laughter, even hitting them in close proximity. In our toolbox there are many mechanisms to make you laugh and cry, and so for me, that’s not hard, but to sequence them to maximum effect, to bring them into a different place, is the art of writing and directing.
TS: In conversation with Mary, you said, “All people are born creative, but we are taught to not take the creative seriously.” Please say more about that.
SL: I’ll give an extreme example from the streets of Shanghai. I saw a mother with her son. The son was pointing at the sky and saying, “Dog.” The mother slapped the boy, saying, “That’s a cloud.” Wow! In the same vein, I met a Chinese couple in Zurich. They were very wealthy, and owned eight restaurants. Their five-year-old son was very artistically talented, so they would tie his hand when he wanted to draw. I asked these people “Why would you do that?” The answer was that an artist does not make enough money. I give these examples only as illustrations and not to generalize about Chinese parents—there are plenty who support their children’s artistic inclinations.
TS: You referenced the imperative that an audience must be able to see “the man that lives inside the monster.” How does a competent work lead an audience to experience the interpenetration of opposites, so that it can see both the monster and the man?
SL: Knowing one’s art
has to do with a grasp of the entirety of your craft. Yes, you must be a
craftsman, but the artist still has to be an artist. The craftsman aspect keeps your ego in check.
You are reminded, though, that you have to be on top of your craft, regardless
of what it is. I have heard that Coco Chanel, didn’t need to measure. Can I
craft a one-minute and 12 second show segment? Yes, no problem! What comes
next? A commercial? Yes, I can do that!
There’s an arc that develops over time, and you must continually ask yourself “What do I feed into that arc?” If you introduce something funny, how do you shape, and attach it to a whole consisting of larger bits? [“Bits” refers to the Russian-speaking Constantin Stanislavski’s parsing of a scene, which the renowned author of “An Actor Prepares” pronounced “beats.”]
As you work on details, do you know and are you mindful of the dotted lines of that greater whole? Is what I’m conceptualizing of value to the audience? What do I have to offer each day in my kitchen? Is it delicious or does it make you want to vomit? Always interrogate the value. During the Wuzhen Theater Festival, there were dialogues with artists. A Polish director said that he would like to direct “Hamlet” because he knows nothing about it. My advice would be the opposite: to learn everything you can about a work before you direct it. To do otherwise would be like saying, “I don’t know what shoes are for, but I want to make [and sell] you a pair anyway, just so that I can maybe learn that they’re for walking in.”