Lai's search for himself

09:59, January 12, 2010      

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Involuntary separation, displacement and the search for identity have been constant themes in Taiwanese director Stan Lai's works.

"My own journey is a sort of microcosm of the whole modern Chinese journey. But my direction was different from many people because I was born in the West, then I emigrated to Taiwan," Lai says.

"So, definitely, identity is a theme and that is certainly one of the big themes of the past half century, I think, for all Chinese people."

Born in Washington DC, in 1954, Lai was raised there and in Seattle until he was 12 years old. His father, a diplomat, first moved to Taiwan from the mainland in 1949 and then migrated to the United States. In a diplomat's family, "You are always searching for who you are, since you are always moving around."

The 12-year-old Lai was sent back to Taiwan and got a huge culture shock.

"I was a good student in the US, every course was A, but when I returned to Taiwan, I knew almost nothing in Chinese and did very poor school work," recalls the director.

Many kids like Lai, from diplomats' families, chose to go to international schools or quickly returned to the West. Lai asked his father whether he could return and his father questioned him: "Do you want to be Chinese, or American?"

The young Lai decided to stay.

His father wanted him to learn Chinese for three years, in Taiwan, before taking the family back to the US. But Lai's father died.

"I was depressed because my father was my idol and he inspired me to learn everything. My life changed, dramatically," says Lai.

He finished his high school and college studies in Taiwan, where he displayed a talent for music, literature and the arts. He played the guitar and keyboard, and formed bands with friends. If he had not decided to work in theater, Lai might have been a good jazz musician.

He chose theater as his major and after graduating studied for a PhD in dramatic art at the University of California, Berkeley. He had to work part time as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant to pay for his studies

"The experience in that restaurant benefited me greatly in my later life, not only as a person but as a director," Lai says.

"I had to put my pride in being a PhD student to one side and serve guests. To begin with I could only hold two plates at one time but in the end I could carry dozens of plates at a time. I think I can direct a play with many performers and staff, because I was once a good waiter. You know, the two jobs equally need the ability to coordinate well," says a laughing Lai.

"What's more, the mess of a dirty kitchen, compared with the luxury and cleanliness of the restaurant taught me life has two faces. Opening a door, you can find a totally different world. I learned to think about the other person's position. I learned a slight change in life may lead to very different fates, inside the kitchen or outside," Lai says.

This experience also inspired the director to create his signature play, Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, in which, two companies share one stage to rehearse. One play is a comedy, while the other is a tragedy.

In 1984, Lai returned to Taiwan to found Performance Workshop, a contemporary theater group that has become one of the most celebrated in the Chinese theater scene. His some 30 originals plays have revitalized theater in Taiwan.

Over the years, Lai has also maintained a distinguished teaching career at Taipei National University of the Arts, where he was professor and founding dean of the College of Theater.

In 2000, he returned to Berkeley as visiting professor and in 2006 and 2007, he taught at Stanford University, as a visiting professor and resident artist. In recent years, he has also taught at Beijing's Central Academy of Drama and the Shanghai Drama Academy.

Despite his busy schedule, he manages to find time to go into retreat in the Nepalese Himalayas to practice Buddhism. "I enjoy watching NBA (basketball) and I try to find time to relax and think, because I don't want to exhaust myself mentally. Continual original creation demands endless inspiration," Lai says.

Source: China Daily
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