Taiwanese director-playwright Stan Lai’s magnum opus A Dream Like A Dream has expanded the artistic possibilities of theatre.

How did a single spark in Lai’s mind grow into such an epic work? Excerpts from an interview with Lai in Singapore.

You say Bodh Gaya is a special place full of spiritual energy. Tell us more about the experience that helped you write the play.

I have visited Bodh 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 was also inspired to write my book (which has been a bestseller in Chinese) explaining creativity there. As a practising 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 writing the outline for A Dream Like a Dream sitting between a man prostrating and a woman praying.

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.

So the idea of staging A Dream… was born organically, going by the theory that if pilgrims circumambulate the holy object, then in theatre, the holy object should be the audience. So the performance should circumambulate the audience.

Did you want to break away from proscenium stage to present the play in this manner?

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 feel that modern theatre has moved far away from the ritual roots of the theatrical event, where the audience can be included into a greater whole — the performance plus something beyond. Today, theatre is often escapist entertainment that keeps all farther apart from each other. Proscenium can be partly blamed because of its implied hierarchical structure. For A Dream…, as for any of my works, I seek the proper spatial form to fit the work.

Why is it called the ‘Lotus Pond’?

This name was coined by the audience, not by me. Actors tell me that, 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 A Dream was very natural and organic. What was the instance of inspiration?

I had been mulling on many things for over a decade… it sort of came together that evening in Bodh Gaya while I was reading 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 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 Dream answered your quest of what theatre can do?

I think it has definitely propelled the dialogue along, particularly among the audience who seem to have found it a very special experience. They may not use the word ‘spiritual’ because that is overused and little understood, but I think that’s what it is. I 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 A Dream… mode, and I mean to create new works specifically for this spatial configuration. 

The eight-hour play has a complex outline. How did you make the actors grasp and explore it? Did you allow improvisation or directed them according to your interpretation?

I have always used improvisation as the basic tool to create my works, but this proved very challenging for the actors — students at Berkeley and Taipei where I ‘workshopped’ the play. 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 backgrounds and experience. How did you get them to act as per your need?

Through the creative and rehearsal process I let the cast naturally fit in with each other. Sometimes 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 I teach my actors to do so. So anything extraneous is taken away. That leaves everyone on 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. 

Your play reminds us of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, which was staged in French and English. Do you plan to present it in English?

It certainly could be done, but not with the current cast. A Dream’s first incarnation was at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2000, in a three-and-a-half hour workshop presentation, in English, with an American cast. It worked totally. I would be comfortable directing an international or mixed cast in English and there has been talk of doing such a one in Europe

Tell us about your collaboration with costume designer Tim Yip.

Wonderful. A true master. He doesn’t leave it to his assistants to do things. He does it all himself, even the costume for the pedestrians on the street; they all have his personal touch.

When the fifth patient breathes his last, what does he tell the doctor?

‘Tonglen’ is an ancient Buddhist practice. It 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, the fifth patient becomes aware that the doctor is inhaling and exhaling in a meditative way. He says, “What are you doing? Breathing? I get it. When 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...”

Will you bring the play to India?

Why not? How about an Indian production, in English? It would be my great honour to do so.