Director changes mind and reaps the benefit of a new course as play hits the big screen, Chen Nan reports.
Director and playwright Stan Lai, in one regard at least, is old school. He firmly believes that for true theater fans, there is no substitute for gathering together and watching talented performers act out a compelling story in real time. Theater is life and should be live, he argues.
So, it's perhaps no surprise then, that, when he was asked by streaming services to digitalize his plays, Lai said no. A resounding no.
However, in light of recent events, he has changed his mind and for the first time, Lai allowed his play, Writing in Water, to be screened in cinemas all over the country.
Premiering on Oct 23 at Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing, the play will be screened in more Chinese cities, including Nanjing and Suzhou, Jiangsu province, along with Xi'an, Shaanxi province, later this year.
Writing in Water revolves around a man named He Shi, who returns to China to teach lessons on happiness after finishing his studies in the United Kingdom. However, his business partner keeps pushing him to make more money, which frustrates He because he cares more about teaching people how to feel happy rather than about expanding their business.
One day He, who never knew his parents, receives a message about inheriting a seaside house from his mother, and he embarks on a mysterious trip that changes his life. He meets up with a little girl, named Shui'er. The girl, who grew up by the sea, has never been to a city. She is happy and lives a simple life, watching the sunrise, sunset and playing near the sea every day.
The first version of the play was staged in March 2009. Directed and written by Lai, it was performed by the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre. The story of the play took inspiration from Lai's experiences, along with those of his wife, Ismene Ting, who is also a playwright and stage director, when translating the book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, written by French writer and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.
In 2010, Lai rewrote the play and created a new version based on Writing in Water, titled Happiness Lessons. The new version premiered in Taiwan that same year.
In 2016, Lai decided to change the name of the play back to Writing in Water and restaged it in Shanghai, featuring TV host and actor He Jiong in the leading role.
In July 2018, the play was filmed at Theatre Above in Shanghai, which was founded by Lai in 2015. Participating in the process were the film crew behind Les Miserables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary, an online theater production celebrating the hit musical's milestone at the O2 in London. Big names involved included American costume designer Sandra Woodall, Chinese-American composer Du Yun, who won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in music for her opera Angel's Bone, and Xiao Lihe, one of the lead lighting engineers of the Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony in 2008.
"When I watched the play on the screen for the first time, I felt intrigued. It's not a theatrical production, nor a movie. It is something beyond those two art forms, which I cannot define by my own language," says Lai, 66, who was born in the United States and began his creative career in Taiwan.
"I worried if the audience could enjoy the new art form of digitalizing a theatrical production, but during the screening, my attention was undivided and I think that it's an achievement," Lai says.
"At its essence, theater is what happens when strangers physically come together to enter a shared space and to share a story told by the actors onstage. Thanks to the technology, we have a new way of enjoying theater."
Lai's wife, Ting, recalls that one of the most challenging parts of making this happen－broadcasting the play on screens in cinemas－was to convince Lai, as he "loves and respects theater so much". Ting is happy that they finally made this happen. "I'm sure theater and technology are experimenting on new methods of performance that we wouldn't ever be able to imagine until we actually did it," she adds.
An early start
TV host and actor He Jiong has been working with Lai since 2006 when he starred in Lai's classic play, Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, a piece which made its debut 20 years earlier. For the 46-year-old, a popular host of the TV show, Happy Camp, produced by Hunan Satellite TV Station, theater was the start of his career. He gained attention in 1994 when, as a student of Arabic at Beijing Foreign Studies University, he wrote, directed and performed sketches for the stage.
He launched a career as a TV host the following year, landing a spot on a children's TV show at China Central Television. Until 2015, he was also an Arabic teacher at his alma mater.
"Sine 2006, we have given over 600 performances of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. However, compared to movies screened in cinemas, the number of audience members in theaters is limited," says He Jiong, from Changsha, Hunan province. "With this new take on Writing in Water, more people will be able to enjoy the play and some people may be interested in watching the play in theaters someday."
Huang Yici, 14, plays the role of Shui'er in Writing in Water. When the play was first remade and staged in Shanghai in 2016, she was about 10.
As the eldest daughter of veteran Chinese actor-director Huang Lei and actress Sun Li, Yici grew up watching her parents working in theaters.
"My parents have taken me on tour with them since I was only a year old. When they take their bow during a final curtain call, I often bow with them while standing in the wings. I feel excited and dream about acting onstage myself one day," says Yici.
Since her parents play leading roles in Lai's Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, Yici wanted to make her stage debut by one day playing the same role as her mother. "But I would have to wait for a very long time to play the role like my mother, so I played in Writing in Water," she says.
Broadcasting theatrical productions in cinemas isn't breaking new ground for Chinese audiences. In 2012, Britain's National Theatre Live, or NT Live, first came to China, when it broadcast Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch at Beijing's MOMA Broadway Cinema. Tickets sold out within hours. Beijing-based ATW Culture Media Ltd, co-organizer of filming and distributing Lai's Writing in Water, was also NT Live's sole distributor in the country and has been bringing live theater programs to China since 2015.