Playwright Stan Lai returns to UC Berkeley as Townsend fellow

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UC Berkeley NewsCenter/Courtesy

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Renowned in Taiwan and among theater buffs, UC Berkeley alumnus and playwright Stan Lai returned to his alma mater to share his experiences with students and faculty last week.

Lai is serving as the artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center and as the Avenali resident fellow at the Townsend Center for Humanities from Jan. 29 to Feb. 8. The fellows contribute to arts and humanities programs by engaging in public lectures, screenings and workshops, said Teresa Stojkov, associate director for the Townsend Center, in an email.

Since 1983, when Lai graduated from UC Berkeley with a doctorate in dramatic art, he has developed an award-winning career that skyrocketed him into fame in China and Taiwan. He has written more than 30 plays, been inducted into the Chinese Theatre Hall of Fame and directed multiple films, operas and even a Taiwanese sitcom.

“We knew, and everybody knew, that he was the smartest and the most talented in our cohort,” said Harry Elam, a former classmate of Lai and the current vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford University.

Elam said he is not surprised at the success of Lai, whom he recalled was the only student in their graduating class of 10 students who directed a production and won the Eisner Prize, UC Berkeley’s highest award for creativity.

Elam said that while working with Lai on his production, Lai was an enjoyable director who worked well with his cast.

“His fame basically in the Chinese world is amazing,” Elam said. “But yet, he’s still the same person (and) has that sense of calm.”

Despite this talent, Lai still had to work hard, spending most of his time either in the library or rehearsal.

“The whole idea was to create a scholar director,” Lai said. “They worked us really hard.”

Lai had a choice between attending the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he had a full scholarship waiting, or UC Berkeley, which offered no scholarship. It was the latter’s famous academic and social reputation that won him over.

“I think mostly the lure of the environment — meaning the post-’60s, post-hippie — really attracted me,” Lai said. “Just to me, (that) is the stuff of legend.”

One of Lai’s fondest memories was the gatherings of people at the entrance of campus every Tuesday. Starting at noon, people sat on grass, came and went as they pleased and prayed for world peace.

Lai moved with his wife to Berkeley in 1978, where he had to work as a waiter while simultaneously managing the responsibility of school. Lai attributes his success as a director to the ability to manage a large workload as a waiter.

“The reason I can be a good director is because I can be a good waiter,” Lai said, laughing a bit. “That’s one thing, juggling all of the tables so they’re all happy. That’s the skill of a director. You’re working the rhythm and tempo.”

Lai’s next event will be held Wednesday at 5:30 p.m at the Durham Studio Theater, where he and Philip Kan Gotanda will discuss his creative process and the impact his time at UC Berkeley had on his artistic development.

Gladys Rosario covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected]

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