The American-born, Taiwan-based playwright and theater director Stan Lai (Lai Shengchuan) is the father of Taiwanese modern theater, and one of the greatest contemporary playwrights in the Chinese-speaking world. The celebrated theatre group that Lai, his wife and producer Ding Naichu founded in 1984, Performance Workshop, has breathed fresh air and limitless creativity into the current theatre scene in Taiwan, producing about two shows per year, at least one of which is an original play.

His most popular work, “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land”, may be the first title that comes to mind when thinking about Chinese contemporary theatre. It’s an ingenious play about two theater troupes rehearsing completely different shows — a drama and a comedy — that happen to share one auditorium for rehearsal. Farce and tragedy are interwoven throughout the play in organized chaos, until ultimately merging magically into one inseparable entity. His most ambitious and groundbreaking work,” A Dream Like A Dream”, lasts for a shocking length of 7.5 hours as the actors continually circle the audience on a special stage, telling us stories about their dreams and the dreams within their stories. Meeting the creative mastermind behind these incredible works in real life, I could sense a powerful artistic aura about him, as well as a patient and gentle nature, which is perhaps related to his practice of Buddhism for more than 30 years. On Tuesday, I sat down with him to talk about his work, Taiwanese theater and Buddhism.

Q: Before you went to Berkeley for your Ph.D. in Dramatic Arts, you were interested in all kinds of art — literature, film, music, etc. How did you decide to focus on theater?

A: I was always drawn to the arts. Growing up in Taiwan, the artistic atmosphere was stifling and the censorship system was under military rule. There was very little theater performance. If I were in a different environment, I might have become a musician, very easily. But in this environment, I sort of bounced around. I liked music, literature, poetry, film, art — I always liked to draw, and was pretty good at it. It turned out that theater was a plausible solution to the needs of my expression. When I got into the Ph.D. program at Berkeley, I knew very little about theater.

Q: You used to make music and sing in a restaurant in Taipei in the late 60s. You once said in an interview that young people today couldn’t compare to the idealistic and passionate youth in those days. Why is this so?

A: If you look at the popular music today, it’s all very monotonous and violent. It’s all about “me,” very little about other people. But in the 60s, the number one songs on the charts, sure, some were love songs, but others cared about the world, the war, the human mind, the future of humanity. There’s real poetry and there’s real music in there. But I find it hard to find music like that today. I think what causes that is that the inner desires of an era will shape the popular culture of that era.

Q: Why would you say that Taiwan has the most creative freedom in the arts?

A: You can do pretty much what you want in America, but you can do more in Taiwan. I’ve been to performances in Taiwan where a pig’s urine was thrown at the audience, where an audience would be locked in a venue and not be able to come out even after the actors left. Of course this created outrage, but at the same time it created a very tolerant society.

Q: You are both a theater director and a film director. What would you say is the difference between film and theater in terms of artistic expression?

A: It’s a whole different mindset. The advantage of theatre is that it’s all there in front of you. So in a play like “The Village”, I would just put the three families in front of you throughout the whole play. In a way it seems limiting because you can’t zoom in to any one house, but you can make things happen simultaneously that you can’t with film, and as a director I am manipulating where the audience is watching. In cinema, the camera is the audience’s eye.

Q: I’ve noticed that many of your plays seem to have some sort of social message.

A: My earlier work was very much into social impact and politics in Taiwan or across the Taiwan Strait. In my recent work, I’ve mellowed a bit. Particularly since television in Taiwan has blossomed into such a monster, a big monster of totally brilliant, ridiculous and outrageous exchange of ideas. They don’t need me as a public forum anymore. I like that, as I can look into the deeper concerns that I’m dealing with in my own life, and perhaps go more towards what I might call a Buddhist theater. “A Dream Like a Dream” is a big step towards that way. But that’s another label and labels are always not very good. And particularly my work is very hard to label. I’ve created a big world, a sort of a universe out there that you can’t describe.

Q: How did you first become interested in Buddhism?

A: When I was in high school in Taiwan, I was really into music in America and in England. So through the Beatles, Bob Dylan and even the heavy rockers that came later, I started wanting to learn more about … about what’s going on. There is a very beautiful song by Marvin Gaye called “What’s Going On”. There is also the Beatles song “Within You Without You” by George Harrison. If you hear the songs you’ll know the ideals that we’re talking about. Then you’ll start looking inside, saying that the problems of the world are not external but internal, and if every person can change and transform themselves into wise and peaceful people — wise meaning peaceful — then we’ll be okay. That was my strange path — it took the Western counterculture to bring me back to my own roots.

Q: How do you incorporate these Buddhist philosophies in your work?

A: I think Buddhism is very humbling to an artist, because if you’re really an artist and really a Buddhist, then you think twice before you do something. There is a quote by His Holiness the Dalai Lama that has always been a good guide for me. Once a very rude Westerner asked him if he could condense Buddhism into one line. He answered: “As Buddhists we believe that there is a cause to everything.” That was it. Because there is a cause to everything, everything has an effect that creates new causes. And if you are constantly aware of that, then you’ll realize that your work may have effects on the audience that would create causes, hopefully good. I’ve heard from many Buddhist teachers that they find teaching in the West very difficult because people’s concepts are like rocks. It seems like the exchange of ideas is very free and lively, but in fact it is all based on very solid concepts that keeps people very unsatisfied and unhappy. These teachers see that the percentage of happy people in America or European societies is very low, as opposed to the societies that they are from, where even an uneducated person lives at ease and in touch with reality.

Q: Say like Bhutan, the happiest country in the world.

A: That’s what they call it. My son-in-law is from Bhutan. On Tuesday, I was talking about how the motivation for creative work actually becomes the most important element in the shaping of the work. We can break down the motivation onto two ends of a spectrum: totally egoistic or totally altruistic. I don’t think any work is on either extreme, but where we are in between the spectrum really shapes the effect of the work. So for a Hollywood thriller, the number one motivation is box office, and the number two motivation is to thrill you in order to gain box office. There yo
u have the central values of a Hollywood film — it is there to thrill you. That’s the central value of a Disneyland ride too. It’s right to be thrilled, but as a Buddhist I have to question that. Why is it important to be thrilled? Does it mean that you’re so bored that you need some sort of stimulus to breathe, to see yourself, or to see reality? Or is it really because you’re living mindlessly?

Untrue reality is what Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the whole consumer society is teaching us. It’s very amazing, as they have become our greatest teachers. In one of my plays, “Millenium Teahouse”, in the second half, there is a line that goes, “The problem is that we no longer know how to live, nobody teaches us how to live. Our only teacher is the commercials.”

Q: They make you want to become something you are not.

A: Exactly. And so many people get lost in that. It is sad. You see, I work in that system, I make entertainment. It has to have promotion and sell tickets, so therefore I understand the game. And I see what some people are doing mindlessly. It’s really incredible what Madison Avenue and advertising does — they manipulate the audience into believing what is beautiful, what is ugly, what is right and what is wrong. Of course in the long run, you’re not better by adding cosmetics on your face or wearing a certain brand of shoe, but that’s what people believe in. Their whole lives revolve around obtaining these things that they think will make them better, but of course they don’t.

Desires are fine, but if you desire things that will ultimately lead to unhappiness, then what the hell are you doing? And the fact is that that’s what everyone is doing. Even at Yale, even at such a supposedly enlightened lighthouse of higher education, people are still wandering around. It’s very sad because people don’t question it.