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Success flowing like water

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2020-11-04 09:57
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Writing in Water, a play directed by Stan Lai, starring He Jiong (left) and Huang Yici, is staged at Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing on Oct 23. [Photo provided to China Daily]

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.

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