Sand on a Distant Star: Dramaturgy Note

Written by: Carol Ann Tan

The 2003 premiere of Stan Lai’s 在那遙遠的星球,一粒砂 (Sand on a Distant Star) coincided, quite unfortunately, with the height of the SARS outbreak in Taipei, Taiwan. Fear of the disease’s spread had caused numerous businesses across the city to close; yet 1,500 people still donned protective face masks and showed up at the theater every night for a week. As they say, the show must go on — especially for the artist the BBC has hailed as “the best Chinese-language playwright and director in the world.”

The son of a diplomat, Stan Lai was born in Washington, D.C. in 1954 but also spent many of his formative years in Taiwan. Up till the late 1970s, Taiwan had been governed by a one-party military dictatorship. Martial law was in effect, with one consequence being the strict regulation of artistic expression; the theatre was mainly used as a platform for state-sanctioned propaganda. As a result, when Lai began pursuing his Ph.D. in dramatic arts from the University of California, Berkeley, he had only been minimally exposed to the art form. (When asked why he decided to pursue theatre, he said, “I played music when I was in college, and I thought theater would be a natural extension of all my interests and potential talents.”)

After graduating from Berkeley in 1983, Lai returned to Taiwan to teach at the Taipei National University of the Arts. In his absence, Taiwan had changed dramatically: Martial law was ending, and Taiwanese society was rethinking the role of censorship in art. But for the reasons mentioned earlier, Taiwan had never previously been able to develop its own theatrical conventions, and so Lai didn’t have enough canonical Chinese plays to use in his classroom. Out of necessity, Lai decided to create new works through improvisation. At Berkeley, he had learned the basics of improvisational scene-building from Shireen Strooker of the Amsterdam Werkteater, and he relied heavily on those techniques to develop his early work. As Lai noted, “The highly controlled use of improvisation, which I practiced, and developed into a system of my own, was extremely useful, because it implied starting from nothing instead of starting from some already defined methodology or aesthetic. This was perfect for Taiwan then, which had no tradition of modern theatre.” Lai’s early plays were also rooted in the state’s sociopolitical context; at the time, Taiwan had been on the cusp of democratizing its political system. So for example, 這一夜,誰來說相聲? (1989; Look Who’s Crosstalking Tonight?) dealt with the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan.

But by the late 1990s, as Taiwan’s political landscape grew increasingly polarized, Lai began to feel that individual people held the key to real societal change. Consequently, his work shifted towards exploring what he describes as “the inner or spiritual aspect of humanity.” Lai also began taking a more structured approach to his playwriting, relying less on actor contributions and more on outlines that he had already created on his own. Sand on a Distant Star, a tragicomedy about a woman who believes her husband has been abducted by aliens, was conceived during this time — though Lai added that “as I handed out copies of the script to the actors, I said, ‘The purpose of having a draft is to undo it.’” True to his word, Lai rehearsed the play for a month and then incorporated those insights into the play’s second draft.

Today, Lai’s work is frequently performed all over mainland China and internationally, making him China’s most commercially successful playwright — and more importantly, a deeply relevant voice in the global theater community. And though Lai himself has expressed frustration at the growing over-commercialization of the art form (in his view, artistry is often sacrificed at the altar of financial profit), the success of his experimental approach demonstrates that we don’t always have to compromise creativity for marketability.

Brent Eickhoff