Interview with Stan Lai

Professor Stan Lai   LRCCS Distinguished Visitor

Professor Stan Lai

LRCCS Distinguished Visitor

LRCCS had the honor to host Professor Stan Lai 赖声川 as our distinguished visitor for the last week of March. Stan Lai is one of the most acclaimed playwrights and directors in Asia, whose work includes over 30 original plays as well as feature films and operas. In this interview, Prof Lai talks about his views on creativity, and its link to wisdom and spirituality.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

LRCCS: The first thing I want to ask you about is your book, 《赖声川的创意学》 (Stan Lai’s Studies in Creativity). What inspired you to write it?

Prof Lai: I'd practiced and taught for many years, but never thought that creativity ITSELF could be taught. On a trip to India I had a breakthrough. I think of creativity as having two facets – method and wisdom. But we only concentrate on method, and that is a problem. You need to have both, and you need to learn both in separate domains, the domains of art and life. For example, a guitar player can’t learn wisdom through the fingerboard of their instrument. You can learn method there, but the wisdom comes from somewhere else. Which is life.

Is it possible to learn wisdom? During my stay in India, I realized it MUST be, but it is something that is seldom addressed today. I wrote this book to address that gap.

Before that breakthrough, I saw that everyone was looking at all this teaching about “thinking outside the box,” brainstorming, that sort of thing, but I still see those as method approaches to creativity. I was unsatisfied with the books I saw about this side of creativity, so I think my approach is unique and want to get it out in English as soon as possible. The Chinese book has been a best seller for over 12 years now.

LRCCS: It seems like creativity is a very spiritual thing for you.

Prof Lai: No; it can happen in mysterious ways, but it is very practical. People think artists just have inspiration and write things, but no – it’s very nuts and bolts.

LRCCS: What are some of the most important nuts and bolts?

Prof Lai: When I’m writing a play, there’s so many nuts and bolts. Just writing out the dialogue and stage directions of a full length play is an enormous practical undertaking that includes formatting etc. More important is, why is this scene first and that scene second? What are the scenes building to? How is the arc of one character's journey affecting the arc of the whole story? How can you make dialogue more effective? All these things are nuts and bolts. It’s an incredible puzzle that requires wisdom and experience.

LRCCS: One of the reviews I read of your book compared it to a Buddhist sutra, and you’ve also got a diagram in the book which you describe as a kind of mandala. Tell me more about that link, from your perspective.

Prof Lai: I’ve been a practicing Tibetan Buddhist for over 40 years. I’ve had the good fortune to meet with many great masters – but that’s not to say I have good practice, because I don’t.

I remember when I was doing my PhD there were all sorts of new concepts coming in, like semiotics, existentialism, etc. All these –isms come and go like fashion. But what’s the –ism that’s so comprehensive that it stays around? To me, that’s Buddhism. And I don't see it as a religion in that there is nothing that must be believed in. It is more a path that must be proved as one tries to find the Truth of existence.

To me it makes so much sense when we talk about cause and effect, impermanence, the training of your own mind. These are the aspects of wisdom I write about in my book that are based on Buddhist practice.

LRCCS: What do you most hope readers will get out of your book?

Prof Lai: Depends who’s reading it. If you’re an artist, I hope you find a clear and more effective path to do your work. If you’re in other fields like business, I hope you find a path to be more creative and therefore more effective.

The problems of creativity are not totally solvable in your work. They spill into your life. It forces you to think about your life and to conceive of it differently – your life, the way you think, the habits you have to store experience and conceptualize it, have to change in order to become creative.

LRCCS: You mention some specific techniques to help you get there. Is it possible to describe one briefly?

Prof Lai: We can observe the hell out of life. But how are we processing what we observe? First, be mindful – know how you’re using your mind. For example, where are the words I’m speaking coming from right now? Mindfulness helps bring you into the present moment, which is what a lot of Buddhist practice is about. When we know where things come from in our minds, it is easier to train our minds to be creative.

Another very important thing is to check your motivation for everything. If you meditate, why do you do it? Because someone said it was good for you? That’s an OK motivation, but it’s not very deep. Same goes for all creative endeavors. Your motivation will play a big part in what you eventually accomplish (or fail to).

Whenever you go to hear a Tibetan Buddhist teaching, the first thing they’ll do is ask you to make sure you have the right motivation to receive the teaching. When I heard that for the first time I was a little offended – why are you questioning my motivation for coming to listen to you? But then I realized, yes, we should do this. Otherwise we’re unaware of all the incorrect motivations we can have.

LRCCS: What is the correct motivation?

Prof Lai: Basically, the answer is that any selfish motivation is ultimately not productive, though it may seem to be in the short run. The altruistic motivation is the more beneficial -- to others, and ultimately to yourself. You’re listening to the teaching for the sake of others – not for your own personal gain.

That’s very radical if you think about it. Everything people do, particularly in the West, is all about me. Why am I at this talk? Of course I’m coming to gain something for ME.

But the paradoxical truth is that once you get rid of that egoistic motivator, you actually learn much faster.

LRCCS: I’m wanting to unpack this a little bit. Because sometimes wanting to help other people can actually be an insidious form of selfishness.

Prof Lai: Totally – that’s the trap. For example, people who do charitable work but need to be recognized for it.

LRCCS: What do you think helps people take ego out of the equation?

Prof Lai: It’s really hard for people to actually see that their egos are often in their way. We feel too empowered. Everything should be for us. Altruism is really a radical way of thinking about the world.

Prof Lai at the Ross School of Business, March 2019

Prof Lai at the Ross School of Business, March 2019

LRCCS: Do you take your artistic work as a spiritual practice?

Prof Lai: I talk about that in the book. I once thought that art was spiritual practice – but I slowly realized that there’s no art without life. Life is the domain of wisdom, art is the domain of method. You don't do spiritual practice on the method side. You do it on the wisdom side, and that wisdom informs your method.

In other words, it's easier to do spiritual practice in your life, and then when you create art that spiritual practice is the backbone of your work. The other way around is harder to make work -- to make your art a spiritual path that becomes the backbone for your life. The wisdom you attain through art may be the wisdom of art and not life, and may not be applicable to your life.

LRCCS: Is there an altruistic vision for your work?

Prof Lai: I aspire to be altruistic, but I don't believe it is easy these days to be 100% altruistic. Now I have a theatre of my own – Theatre Above, in Shanghai, and also help run the Wuzhen Theatre Festival. I look at these as windows through which audiences, by seeing work, have the opportunity to be transformed. Transformed into what? I guess that depends on my wisdom. For now, I can only hope that my art can help people become larger, more open, more aware, more connected, gentler, and more tolerant.

Thanks for reading! Stan Lai’s Studies in Creativity should be available in English soon – stay tuned!