The Village (2008)
“The pinnacle of our era of theatre.” -- China's premier critic Raymond Zhou, in Beijing News
The Village has electrified audiences since its premiere December 2008 at Taipei's National Theatre, becoming one of the milestone productions in the Chinese language theatre of recent years. Written and directed by Stan Lai, the most celebrated playwright of his generation, in collaboration with Wang Wei-chung and the original cast, it is based on the childhood stories of Wang, the mogul of Taiwanese television entertainment, and tells the story of military dependent's villages, or "juancun," in Taiwan, reaching in time from 1949 to the 2000s.
The Village is a theatrical record of a special piece of history. It is an epic and radiant celebration of life in all its tragic and comic splendor. In 1949, the Nationalist government moved to Taiwan in defeat at the hands of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. Within a few years, hundreds of temporary "Dependent Villages" were built all over the island to house the hundreds of thousands of military dependents who had come from China. Construction was cheap, even telephone poles had numbers on them, the plan being to ship them back to China once the mainland was recovered. Everything was temporary, each family thought they would be going home soon.
But year after year passed, and they stayed on, raising their families within these "bamboo fences," as these villages were come to be known. Inside the village gates, one would think one was in a miniature China. Dialects from north, south, east and west rang through the air; scents of cooking from Szechuan hot noodles to Shandong dumplings were everywhere. Outside the gates was the native Taiwanese population. Soon the complex population within the gates began to assimilate with the people outside, and those who once dreamed of going home discovered that was never to happen, that this was their home.
In these villages, an important generation of Taiwanese were born and bred, including well-known leaders in government, entertainment, education, and business sectors. It also features famous gang members and criminals. To come from a "Village" means one is tough, one knows how to survive. To come from a "Village" means one knows a kind of chivalric code, a code of bonding, a code of survival.
Today, most of the "Villages" have been torn down, and what is left of the occupant community has been relocated to high rise housing. Little remains of this remarkable passage of history. This play is an enduring statement on this special human story.
Stan Lai was approached by Wang Wei-chung in 2006 to write a play about the villages, where Wang grew up and which Lai was familiar with. In the beginning, Lai declined, because he thought there was simply too much material to be able to cover within the format of a regular stage play. In their meetings, Wang had told Lai over 100 stories from his childhood, that came from over 25 different households in his village. Lai told Wang that he should make a television series out of it, which was Wang‘s forte, but Wang persisted, saying that only the theatre could possibly create something for the ages. After much thought, Lai was able to create the structure for the current play, The Village, which not only encompassed the over 100 stories told to him by Wang, but also included many of his own childhood memories, of villages, and contemporary families in Taipei that fit into the structure. Work began with the actors only two months before the opening. Lai used his famous "improvisational" rehearsal process at breakneck speed, working from his detailed outline, with a seasoned cast that included many of Lai's former actors, as well as many who actually grew up in military dependent villages, to quickly construct the scenes.
Lai recalls the process was fluid and moving. "We were writing about our own story, collectively, as a society, a special corner of Taiwan that would easily have been forgotten once the actual buildings were torn down." He chose to instill comedy into the bleak subject matter, precisely because, as he has explained:
"The story of life in the villages is bleak and dark. With a bleak background, how would one paint the foreground? A bleak and dark foreground, against a bleak and dark background, to me is not so interesting, and everything gets easily lost in the pathos. Perhaps it is part of my own nature, and also Wang‘s, to see the lighthearted side of things. So to paint the foreground light, doesn’t necessarily make the whole picture light, but in fact possibly lets the bleak and dark background become highlighted, and intensified." (interview, Theatre Above, 2021)
Herein lies the genius of the play, which has been emphasized time and again by writers and audience. The Mandarin movie queen Lin Chin-hsia wrote:
"I watched, intoxicated and crazed, now sad, now happy, sometimes howling with laughter, sometimes crying in spasms; my tears hadn't even dried when my mouth opened to laugh; before finishing the laugh, I started crying again." ( Apple Daily , 2008/12/28)
The play toured America twice, as well as Australia Singapore and Hong Kong, and in 2010 began touring in China, where over the years it has performed in over 40 cities with over 200 performances. The writing and directing has been revelatory to Chinese theatre artists:
"The Village throws out all fancy devices and seeks to create a simple reality . . . No effort is made to create conflict; much of the play is simple happenings from everyday life, simple but not without interest . . . What moves the audience is precisely this simplicity and realism . . . This technique of not showing technique is truly masterful."
--Wang Chunyu, “After the Opulence, True Purity,” Beijing Times, Feb 8, 2010
The acting has also drawn notice as one of the strongest ensemble work in recent memory. A comprehensive introduction to the play can be found in Raymond Zhou's Introduction to the printed version of the script in Selected Plays of Stan Lai, Vol. 2, Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud (University of Michigan Press, 2021).
CAST & CREATIVES
Written and Directed by Stan Lai
Based on stories by Wang Wei-Chung
In partial collaboration with the original cast.
Qu Zhongheng, Xu Yenling
Feng Yigang, Fan Ruijun
Sung Shaoqing, Xiao Ai
Lin Liqing, Hwang Shiwei, Liu Liangzo
Ashley Huang, Liu Meiyu, Wei Yichen
Na Weixun, Xiao Zhengwei
Tseng Xingyu, Soo Ming Seng, Su Teyang,
Weng Quanwei, Wang An-Qi, Cheng I-ting
With Special Appearance by Wang Wei-Chung
Scenic Design by Austin Wang
Lighting Design by Michael Lizen Chien
Costume Design by Gyokurei and Christine Suzuka
Produced by Nai-chu Ding
Producer: Hsieh Mingchang
"During the performance, it was if I were drunk, had lost my senses, in one moment I was overcome with sorrow, at another laughing so hard, at times I was crying so hard I was convulsing, like an absolute fool."
-- Mandarin film superstar Bridgette Lin, Apple Daily (Taiwan)
"In my mind, the Beijing People's Art Theater's production of Lao She's Teahouse is a masterpiece that brings together the stage with memories of an era. After seeing The Village, images from Teahouse kept appearing in my mind. Was it that sense of history, that forlorn sense of the times that made me make the connection? Or was it this generation of elite Taiwanese performers who made me feel that the village was even greater?... Waking up this morning, my mind was full of the play, every scene alive before my eyes. Perhaps it is too early to say, but The Village will leave its mark on history."
-- Chen Hao, "A Treasure for Our Times," China Times (Taiwan), Dec 7, 2008
"The Village is the pinnacle of our era of staged theater. Though it premiered on December 5, 2008, and then toured Chinese speaking areas, I will never forget that I was present at the Beijing premiere on February 5, 2010, just like contemporaries talk about Stanislavski's premiere of Chekhov's Seagull, or Callas's Lisbon La Traviata, or Taiwan and Hong Kong fans at the premiere of Li Hanxiang's film Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yintai. This is a moment that lives forever in my memory.
The Village is a magnificent scroll, stretching out for 60 years in time, expanding out from 3 households, 2 generations, to encompass all the turbulence and unpredictability of the times. Using the stories of Wang Weizhong, the method of telling the story is classic Stan Lai. To say “classic” seems not a very precise term. If Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land was a fresh and lasting piece of prose, The Village is soul-stirring epic poetry.
Stan Lai excels at tragicomedy that both common and sophisticated tastes can appreciate. In this play these traits are on full display. He understands how to make a tearjerker, but he also knows when to hold back, how to make an audience weep without being gross. What is most incredible is, though our tears have not quite made it down to our lips, our lips have already opened to laugh. It is as if we are back to the most primal state of human goodness, because only a baby can shift from crying to laughing at such speed. The sophistication of tragedy, the grossness of comedy, meld together here in a perfect whole. The cruelest heart will be affected, all those whose tastes have been obliterated by television can find transcendence here.
This is not a play that seeks to express a point of view, or to talk about grand philosophies. The greatness of The Village is that it transcends politics, transcends localities and conflicts, and returns us to the basic truth, goodness, and beauty of the human spirit..."
– Raymond Zhou in The Beijing News, Feb 9, 2010
"As the performance ended, the audience was still deep within the story. The actress Wan Fang, whose character spent all of her life in the village making buns, announced that on exiting the theater, everyone would receive a warm bun. It is reported that these 1550 buns were made and steamed during the performance itself. As we left the Grand Theater, audiences lined up in different rows to receive their buns in a bag that had "Formosa Village Number One" printed on it. It looked to me that as everyone dug into their buns, the flavor expanded to eternity."
-- Zhu Guang, Shanghai Xinming Evening News, Jan 30, 2010
"Such complexity of flavors, this is what is life."
--Yu Shan-lu, Performing Arts Review, Jan 2009
"There are few productions that sweep Singaporeans, who are known for their cool restraint, into an almost full-house standing ovation when the curtains fall. The Village is one of them. Emotions are so real in this stunning epic that people are left crying and laughing at the same time.
Stan Lai, most famous for Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land, has created a stunning 3 ½- hour epic, an exhausting but nourishing journey that left audiences laughing and crying – sometimes at the same time.
The Village is set in a Dependent's Village in Taiwan’s Chiayi, where Kuomintang soldiers and their families flee to during the 1949 Chinese civil war. At night, using the stars to navigate, the officers look out towards their home provinces in China, expecting to return some day. But they never do, and the Formosa #1 Village in the play eventually becomes a home they did not choose but grow to love, and later, it is a home their children cannot wait to leave.
A delightful motley crue of characters populates the play; the reprimanding mothers, the helpful but sometimes helpless fathers, brusque sons, the nerd, the belles from the neighbouring village and a mysterious slow-walking Madame Lu with her companion who never speaks.
It is easy for this production to fall prey to sentimentality, as it is explicitly a form of documentary theatre based on these fast-disappearing villages. But as a playwright, Lai knows how to tell a story and let it speak for itself; as a director, he knows how to orchestrate shifts in emotions and to stage a play with visual aplomb…Lai calibrates the scenes sensitively. Conversations between lovers in the bomb shelter are quiet and tender while rowdy scenes of mayhem turn into exciting feats of choreography. From high comedy to high tragedy, the emotions are genuine, never ersatz…
Of course, credit for the success of this play must also be given to an excellent cast, defined particularly by the actors who play the first-generation immigrants…On a simple but evocative set, consisting of skeletal house with no walls, the actors capture so well the spirit of these village communities that, unself-consciously, they also tap into a larger story of human struggle and survival.
When the play ended, I realised I had scribbled very few notes. I had been so caught up in the joys and trials of these families – sometimes so choked up with tears – that I had found no words were necessary to remember The Village by."
-- Adeline Chia, "A Village You Won’t Forget," Straits Times, Singapore, 2009/2/9
"Director Stan Lai uses 3 1/2 hours on stage to open up a long scroll depicting the life of people in the military dependent villages. Interspersed in the narrative is joy, sorrow, meeting, parting, the sweetness of adolescence, the pain of growing up, social change, political winds, everything unfolds naturally as in life, not like as a device, which is often the case in theater. Stan Lai says, that actually also is a kind of device, to mindfully take away the tracks left behind by a director on stage, and to let the actors live naturally, without having to speak for the director. To take away the tracks left behind by a director requires even more techniques, and actually is quite difficult."
-- "The Stars Come Out to See a Show that Astonishes the Soul," Sohu Entertainment, Feb 2, 2010
"The Village throws out all fancy devices and seeks to create a simple reality. The play unfolds in sequence from 1949 to 2007, adhering to traditional Chinese aesthetic habits. The play deals with the lives of 3 very plain households in a veteran’s dependant village. No effort is made to create conflict; much of the play is simple happenings from everyday life, simple but not without interest…the actors perform very naturally without exaggeration. What moves the audience is precisely this simplicity and realism. Grandma Qian and Mrs. Zhu, one speaks Tianjin dialect, one speaks Taiwanese, they can’t understand each other’s dialect but they still manage to converse. Through much ado Grandma Qian teaches Mrs. Zhu how to make Tianjin buns. A bun can hold so much homesickness and images of cultural homogenation, yet the narrative unfolds in such a natural way. This technique of not showing technique is truly masterful.
…In the end, Lao Zhao reappears, though he has already passed away. He reads the letter he wrote for his son over 40 years ago. The letter expresses his wish that the next generation not have to go through such hardship and division. The father and son converse through the chasm of life and death in a scene with deep emotional power that moves us to tears."
--Wang Chunyu, “After the Opulence, True Purity,” Beijing Times, Feb 8, 2010
World Premiere: 12/5/2008, National Theater, Taipei
Toured Cities: Tainan, Chiayi, Taichung, Singapore, Kaohsiung, Chungli, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Donguan, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Nanjing, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Macao, Shenyang, Changsha, Hefei, Hong Kong
Total number of performances: 288
Total tickets sold: 435,000+