Walking at night along paths of the Chinese Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens can be an intoxicating experience, one in which it’s easy to imagine being rich and living on your own estate somewhere in China.
Beginning Sept. 21, The Huntington and the CalArts Center for New Performance, the professional producing arm of California Institute of the Arts, in association with Shanghai Kunqu Troupe, will be allowing small groups to take a “Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden,” a site-specific play written exclusively for the Huntington by award-winning playwright Stan Lai.
People might not have heard of Lai, because although he was born Lai Shung-chuan in Washington, DC in 1954, the Taiwan-based playwright/director is best known for writing and directing Chinese-language plays, many of which revolutionized modern theater in Taiwan in the 1980s. Lai received his PhD from UC Berkeley in 1983 and was a professor and founding dean of the College of Theatre at the National University of the Arts in Taiwan. He and his wife, Ding Nai-chu, founded the contemporary theater group Performance Workshop, also in Taiwan.
The cast of “Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden” includes CalArts students and alumni, Chinese opera performers from the Shanghai Kungu Troupe, as well as actors, musicians and dancers. And all of it, except for a smattering of opera, is in English, something new for Lai.
“At this time in my career, which is seemingly later because it’s been going on for over 30 years, and all in the Chinese language, I really feel it’s time to do more work in English and to serve as a bridge because I am bilingual, bicultural. “… Specifically “Taiwanese,” noted Lai, who is also known as Stan, “but linking with the greater Chinese culture.”
The evening Lai and I met in what is officially known as Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance at the Huntington, he was regretting that the performances wouldn’t start early enough for the audience to appreciate the golden light that was painting the plants and pavilions. The water, murky green with algae, became a liquid mirror, reflecting the wood pavilions, stone walls and overhanging trees. During the rehearsals, one line was punctuated by a fish, perhaps catching a bug on the water or offering some critical feedback. Earlier, a squirrel had been chirping away, possibly voicing displeasure that I was ruining his or her usual evening revelry.
Lai, who has seen many ancient gardens in China which are often “cluttered with residential buildings and old houses,” said that the layout and design of Huntington’s Chinese Garden are special because, although it is young, the level of workmanship is high and the open space unusual.
Two years ago, Lai began what he called “an extraordinary opportunity to explore an immersive site-specific project that had everything to do with the Huntington, that had everything to do with the Chinese Garden, and yet had nothing to do with it,” Lai recalled. He felt this meant that “Mr. Huntington becomes a figure in the play. ‘Blue Boy’ becomes a very important image in the play.”
That was certainly a timely notion, as while sold-out performances begin on Friday, Sept. 21, Project Blue Boy, the first major technical examination and conservation treatment in public view of Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 “The Blue Boy,” opens Saturday, Sept.22.
Living in Pasadena, many people likely already know about “The Blue Boy,” but one might not know about “The Peony Pavilion.” That play, written by dramatist Tang Xianzu in 1598, is about a young girl who falls asleep in a garden and dreams of a young scholar. Awakened, she can’t forget her dream lover and dies of heartbreak. The scholar comes to the garden and also dreams of the girl. The girl is resurrected and the two are married. Think of it like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with a happy ending.
“Nightwalk” mixes portions of this romantic tragicomedy with tales of early 20th-century California. Audiences will be able to immerse themselves in the performance while moving through the garden as the story unfolds around them like scenes from a Chinese scroll painting. Although the play is performed in English, some passages from “The Peony Pavilion” will be sung in Chinese to the original music, according to the Huntington’s website.
According to Lai, the first scene of “Nightwalk” is set in a tea house with the full group together. Then the audience breaks in two. One group will see the scenes in a clockwise order. The other will view things going counter-clockwise. After three more scenes, the groups converge for the fifth scene which is Chinese opera. From there, the groups will continue on, seeing the scenes in the inverse order from how the other group saw them.
“On the East side, we’re dealing with themes from ‘Peony Pavilion,’” which is exclusively about Chinese characters. “On the West side, we’re dealing with a story from the 1920s about California,” about an artist who has been commissioned by Henry Huntington to produce a painting. So what is the play about? According to Lai, “What it means to collect art. What it means to be an artist. What it means to be Chinese. What it means to be Chinese in America.”
Lai noted, “In this world today, there are too many misunderstandings between people. I think it’s important to become a bridge for East and West to get to know each other.”
For more information, visit huntington.org or call (626)405-2100.