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Stan Lai: Inward Dreams


Text by Wang Nan

A Long Dream

In 1999, when he visited Bodh Gaya, a sacred Buddhist site in India, Taiwanese playwright and stage director Stan Lai was impressed by pious pilgrims paying homage by circling a pagoda. He was so inspired by the scene that he fell in love with the idea of building a loop-shaped stage allowing the audience to sit in the center while actors perform all around them.

The idea became reality with Lai’s 8-hour epic A Dream Like a Dream, which gives spectators a panoramic view of the play from rotating chairs in the center of a loop-shaped stage. Thirteen years after its premiere at Taipei University of the Arts, the play finally arrived at Beijing’s Poly Theater on April 1, 2013.

In 1990, while in Rome, Lai was moved by a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder depicting paintings on the wall, ground, and in people’s hands. Inspired by the concept of “paintings in a painting,” Lai quickly scribbled the note: “What if a person in a story has a dream, which becomes another story?”

The line later became the prologue of the play A Dream Like a Dream, a story about death, relief, and redemption. On his first day of work, a medical intern panics when four of five patients under his care die. He calls his cousin, who is drifting through India, to ask for her help. She suggests he listen to the remaining patient’s story. The play’s central plotline is actually the life of the fifth patient, a French diplomat at the turn of the 20th Century, and his romance with a Shanghai woman.

The play’s most prominent theme is death. Lai himself explains that death is a concept reflecting the equality of all living creatures. Before A Dream Like a Dream, he seldom incorporated his understanding of Buddhism into his work for fear of being misread by others. However, this play attempts to motivate the audience to naturally meditate on the meaning of death. 

Of course, it isn’t easy to create a dreamlike play that will be enjoyed by a thousand spectators at once. A Dream Like a Dream requires bold innovation in theatrical expression. When the play moved to Poly Theater, it took a month just to build the loop-shaped stage. The special stage requires Lai’s team to spend at least a week renovating the theater, and another week to restore it after a two-week run. For this reason, each theater earns very little from the play. However, Lai never had intentions of creating a “luxurious spiritual feast,” but wanted to place performers as close to the spectators as possible ¨C when they breathe the same air, the artistic language of the play speaks more naturally.

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