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A Dream Like A Dream

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Issue No: 89March 15, 2014

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A Dream Like A Dream

Dr. Sunil Kothari writes on his experience of watching Taiwanese director Stan Lai's 8-hour production of A Dream Like A Dream in Singapore.
This is followed by excerpts from an interview with the director.

Taiwanese director Stan Lai’s magnum opus 8-hour long play A Dream Like A Dream has created waves. He is in the league of Peter Brook and Canadian director Robert Lepage. He has written and directed the play with a cast of 28 established performers from China and Taiwan, playing 100 characters, changing 400 costumes. The play consists of 90 scenes. The actors circumambulate the audience seated in an arguably unique seating area - the Lotus Pond - that places a select portion of 230 members of audience in the middle of a two-storey high stage, allowing an immersive 360 degree view of the performance with swivel chairs. The costumes are designed by Academy Award winner Taiwanese designer Tim Yip who designed costumes for Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This exceptional theatrical experience is offered in the Mandarin language. The audio headsets provide simultaneous English translation.

I had seen Peter Brook’s 9-hour version of the Mahabharata at the Avignon quarry in France and Robert Lepage’s 7-hour long plays Seven Streams of River Otta and Anderson Project, at Perth and Barbican in London. Therefore I did not want to miss this opportunity. It was an unforgettable experience.

As an additional attraction, along with the play a special exhibition of paintings, photographs, installations, sculptures and fashion designs of Tim Yip was also mounted at Jendela, the Visual Arts Gallery at the Esplanade. There was also a special talk, ‘The Journey of a Dream’, by Stan Lai.

The first part started at 1.30 pm till 4-30 pm with an intermission of 20 minutes and the second part was held from 7-30 pm till 12 midnight. The major interval was given between 5 and 7 pm for dinner. It was a marathon performance enough to tax one’s energies and patience. But it was so magical that one marvelled at Stan Lai’s ability to involve an audience in watching a complex story unfolding before one’s eyes.


As Stan Lai explained in his talk it took 15 years from first inspiration to the creation of the work: from 1985 to 2000. The story spans 82 years from 1932 to 2000. Stories within stories, dreams within dreams: it begins simply enough, in the year 2000 when an idealistic doctor finds four patients on a harrowing first day die one after another in her assigned room of five patients. She decides to connect with her fifth and final patient and is forced to confront the inevitability of life and death. Besides a doctor’s story, there is a story of the patient 5, played by Hugh Hu and Sun Qiang, who has an undefined terminal illness; the relationship between him and a lonely Parisian waitress; the relationship between him and an old lady living in seclusion in Shanghai, and the story of her youth. She as Hsiang-lan, irresistible, enigmatic, chameleonic comfort woman in 1930s Shanghai from ‘the Hall of Heavenly Goddesses’ - how she met a French Count who was a diplomatic officer, and married him and moved to a big chateau by a French lake, and learned about art, and how she was abandoned.

The story grows from one set of characters and is passed on to another as they walk, run and sometimes limp around the race track that is a metaphor for life itself. It is extremely interesting to see many of the characters played by multiple actors. Each in a different incarnation, twinning as one actor comes face to face with another playing the same part. For example, the enigmatic Hsiang-land’s younger incarnations played by actresses Tan Zuo and Xu Qing with great finesse, and veteran Shi Ke as an older Hsiang-lan give powerful performances. The various narrative styles are deployed in an assured way. The dream of life ends in death - this dream cannot resolve itself. Tim Yip has observed: “The dreamer can only ask for a little dignity before he departs, and perhaps the attention of a sincere listener.”


The visual impact of the sets is overwhelming. As a matter of fact the lavish set is itself another character. Disappearing and reappearing, rotating around the stage, north, south, east and west. And at crucial moments actors pass through a central aisle close enough for audience to see their expressions so vividly, be they tears or heart-aching sadness. One is equally dazzled by the cultural golden age of Shanghai, its colours of brothel, crimsons, burgundies, scarlets; and French chateau with chandelier, cafes, and world of painters of Montmartre. Stan Lai as a director has an amazing grasp over the power of sound and movement on stage, controlling the shifts of time and space and the progression of story so that the audience can follow the plot and characters effortlessly. The play re-enacts again and again in one’s inner eye after one leaves the auditorium, as if Dream keeps us calling back.

Inspired during his visit to Bodh Gaya, sitting in front of the stupa, and writing the script, Stan Lai, well versed in the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism does not believe in preaching. "The play", he says, “may make people turn inwards and think about their lives, which is not easy to do."


You have mentioned about Bodh Gaya in India as a special place full of spiritual energy. Would you say something more about your experience which helped you write the play?

I have visited Bodgh Gaya many times since 1988 and feel there is incredible creative energy in this "centre of the universe." Aside from A Dream Like A Dream, I also got the deep inspiration for writing my book explaining Creativity there (which has been a best seller in the Chinese language). As a practicing Buddhist, there is nothing more incredible than to be able to actually sit and meditate next to the spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment. That afternoon in late 1999, I was not sitting and meditating, but actually writing the outline for A Dream Like A Dream on the south side of the stupa, sitting between a man doing prostrations and a woman doing prayers. I was the only one writing, I believe. While writing, watching the flow of pilgrims circumambulate the stupa became a meditative experience. I would write, then look up at the stupa, see the flow, see some friends, some strangers, write some more, look again, see that some strangers had dropped out, some friends remained, another group had come, another gone. It was like a river of flowing life, and so the idea of staging Dream was born organically, going with the theory that if pilgrims are circumambulating the holy object, in the theatre, the holy object should be the audience, and so the performance should circumambulate the audience.
It wasn't a conscious effort to break out of proscenium form. I think that is a very valid form for certain performances. But I do feel deeply that the modern theatre has moved far away from the ritual roots of the theatrical event, where audience could become included into a greater whole - the performance plus something beyond. Today theatre is often escapist entertainment that keeps all further apart from each other. Proscenium can be to blame partly because of its implied hierarchical structure. For Dream, as for any of my works, I seek the proper spatial form to fit the work. Certainly I must think in terms of proscenium most of the time, for that is the world I work in, alas.

Why it has been called ‘Lotus Pond’?

This name was coined by the audience, not by me. Actors tell me that in performance, as they circle, the light reflects on the tops of the heads of the audience, and it truly feels like a lotus pond. Of course I suspect that the audience coined the name because of the very spiritual feeling of sitting inside the 'pond'. Lotus in Chinese is a very Buddhist symbol - born from mud but not polluted by the mud.

You have said that the creation of Dream was very natural and organic. What was the instance of inspiration?

Many things I had been mulling on for over a decade, that sort of came together in an instant that evening in Bodh Gaya while I was reading a page from Sogyal Rinpoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying about a London doctor who lost many patients on her first day of work. That was the catalyst, and in that instant it seemed as if over a dozen stories or people or incidents or dreams that had been stored somewhere in my brain came together to occupy one space - one complex but coherent story - like strangers who come together into a room and they all fit and are supposed to be there together.


How has a play like Dream answered your quest of what theatre can do?

I think it has definitely propelled the dialogue along, particularly amongst audience who seem to have found it to be a very special experience. Maybe they wouldn't use the word ‘spiritual’ because that is an overused and little understood word, but I think that's what it is. I sadly observe that practitioners these days are not necessarily into this word, but more interested in finding a transcendent visual moment in a work which often leads to a fragmented and ultimately unfulfilling experience for an audience. For me, I am excited that there are now places (in China) that are planning to build or modify spaces to fit the Dream mode - and I mean to create new works specifically for this spatial configuration.

The eight hour long play play has a complex outline. How did you make the actors grasp and explore it? Did you allow the improvisation on part of the actors or directed them as per your own interpretation?

I have always used improvisation as the basic tool for creating my works, but this outline proved to be very challenging for the actors - students at both Berkeley and Taipei, two places where I workshopped the play, and the creative sessions turned out to be more of me dictating to assistants while directing the actors to do this and that, say this and that. Some accomplished actors were able to contribute much during improvisation, but it was more like a playwright having his characters in front of him to write.


You have a large cast of actors with different background and theatre experience. How did you evolve the acting as per your need?

Through the creative and rehearsal process I let the cast naturally fit in with each other. Some I must spend extra time to train - or ‘de-train’ as is often the case. My method is very natural and organic. I search for the truth in the piece and in the character at any given moment and that is what I teach my actors to do. So anything extraneous is taken away. That leaves everyone at a natural ground. Many actors these days are trained to do the opposite, which is to fake things. They have trouble with my system, but once they understand the problem, it can be corrected.

When the 5th patient breathes his last what does he tell the doctor? Please explain the concept of Tonglen.

Tonglen is an ancient Buddhist practice which means ‘giving and taking of the breath’. One simply imagines taking in another person's sickness or ill-being with inhaling, and giving the person one's well being and happiness with the exhaling. It is a profound practice for bodhicitta (compassion) and works wonders to cut down one's ego. At the end of A Dream Like A Dream, after finishing his story to the Doctor, Patient #5 becomes aware that the doctor is inhaling and exhaling in a meditative way, which she has been doing throughout most of the play. He says "What are you doing? Breathing? I get it. When Koo Hsiang-lan died, she told me that everything was so crystal clear. It's happening now, I see what you are doing - sucking away my suffering, giving me your happiness. Well, I'm the one who's leaving, so I should be the one to do this. How do you do it? Inhale -- suck away your suffering...exhale -- give you my happiness. Your suffering...my happiness..."


Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance and drama critic based in Delhi. He has written for The Economic Times and various other journals and has been closely associated with Ratan Thiyam's 'Chorus Repertory Theatre' for the last 30 years. Dr Kothari has several books on Indian performing arts to his credit, and travels extensively on lecture tours in India and abroad.

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