Theatre in Historic Places: NIGHTWALK IN THE CHINESE GARDEN at The Huntington

When Stan Lai has an idea for a new play, people take notice.

By: Sep. 12, 2018
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Theatre in Historic Places is a special series by Los Angeles Senior Editor Ellen Dostal featuring theatre, music, and other arts performances in historic venues around Southern California.

Theatre in Historic Places: NIGHTWALK IN THE CHINESE GARDEN at The Huntington
Chenxue Luo of the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe as the Maiden/Opera Singer.
Photo by Angel Origgi. Courtesy of CalArts Center for New Performance.

When writer/director Stan Lai has an idea for a new play, people take notice. He is the most celebrated Chinese language playwright and director in the world and his body of work - which to date includes 35 original plays - has redefined how we think about the art form itself. With such well-known works as Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, his epic, eight-hour A Dream Like a Dream, and That Evening, We Performed Crosstalk, he has continued to study the human condition with great thoughtfulness while inspiring countless theatremakers around the world to reach beyond the familiar.

Now, he brings a breathtaking new play to the Huntington Library's Chinese Garden, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, Liu Fang Yuan. NIGHTWALK IN THE CHINESE GARDEN has been developed specifically for this garden, in a collaboration between the Huntington and CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP), and will be performed at night by a cast of International and American artists beginning September 21st. CNP is the professional producing arm of California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

Aubree Lynn is the scenic designer for NIGHTWALK and has been working with Stan Lai on the production since CNP first began workshopping the piece in 2016. Her extensive background in site-based context has been the perfect preparation for the grand setting of this first-ever production in the Huntington's Chinese Garden.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Stan and Aubree, who generously shared their approach to the work, and what goes into creating the beautiful moments that make up this particular play.

Theatre in Historic Places: NIGHTWALK IN THE CHINESE GARDEN at The Huntington
Stan Lai, courtesy of the artist.

Stan Lai: Inspiration Sparks an Idea
In 1988, I directed six plays of Samuel Beckett [Footfalls: Beckett in the Ancient Chinese Garden, by Samuel Beckett, translated by Stan Lai, 1988] in the Chinese Garden in Taiwan. We brought the audience in to a candlelit garden at dusk and they saw these very meditative works. It stuck in my mind because the experience was so special and, even though it was a project I did a long time ago, I've always wanted to do it again if the right situation came up. And now, the timing was right, the Chinese Garden at the Huntington was here, and everything suddenly came together.

We're not doing something that is normal for the Huntington, nor is it normal for theatre, nor is it normal for Los Angeles. CNP was a big catalyst because the artistic director, Travis Preston, and I had a dialogue about doing something together creatively and it just so happened that we had friends who were also on the board of the Huntington. They suggested we look at the new pavilions being constructed in the Chinese Garden and see what might be performed there.

So I visited it and I had an idea. I saw the whole garden as a stage for something quite elaborate but I kept it to myself because it was so complicated. I never thought it would happen...and then, it did. It started in a workshop production two years ago that let everyone, most significantly the Huntington, see what we were trying to accomplish and how unique it was. There is a pavilion at the north end of the lake where concerts are sometimes held and bringing a Chinese musician into that pavilion is magical to begin with but, to tailor make a performance for the whole garden? It had never been done before. I'm very happy I was able to do it because it really befits the majesty of the garden at night. People never get to see the garden at night and it is incredible.

Combining Intimacy and Grandeur
What is wonderful about the Huntington is that it is a grand backdrop but it is also intimate. You break it down into the little pagodas and pavilions and they are incredibly intimate and wonderful stations for the scenes in this play. A piece like this really comes from the garden itself. I'm writing it but all of my inspiration comes from the way everything is laid out, the way it has been designed, and then most importantly, the vibes of the place and how it feels. So the garden becomes one of the writers of the play because it inspires the way I use each space.

I've been in lots of gardens in China and there is nothing like the Huntington. All of the gardens are built by Chinese craftsmen but the vision for the Huntington Chinese Garden is of pagodas and pavilions around a lake, whereas in China it's more residential. There are a lot of houses and then there are gardens. They're beautiful but it is very different.

Theatre in Historic Places: NIGHTWALK IN THE CHINESE GARDEN at The Huntington
A 2016 workshop performance of NIGHTWALK IN THE CHINESE GARDEN.
Photo by Steve Gunther. CalArts Center for New Performance.

Characters Come To Life
I felt strongly that if I was going to do this piece it wasn't going to be about something I had done previously in China that I would replicate here. It would be about California and about Los Angeles. With The Peony Pavilion [Tang Xianzu's 16th-century Chinese musical drama about love, death, and resurrection] as one of the inspirations, I started working with the actors from CNP to make the story accessible to a modern audience in America. At the same time, I transferred that story to a version that happens in California in the 1920s.

The reason was to tie in the Huntington. We're doing this at the Huntington and, in fact, Mr. Huntington is a character in the play. And the most famous painting in the gallery, The Blue Boy, is also a very important prop you'll see in the Chinese Garden. We put a lot of seemingly incongruous things together and it all becomes very dreamlike. The story is told with many layers. We also have one of the premier Chinese flute players coming to perform and we have a great guitarist on the California side. It will be a little like having dueling musicians!

An Intimate Audience Experience
The audience will be divided into two groups and one will go clockwise around the garden while the other goes counter clockwise. Then everyone will gather together for larger scenes. So the experience is different depending upon where you start because you're seeing the story in a different sequence. How you enter the key house will decide your whole evening. It's a very avant-garde way of displaying the piece. In other words, it's random how you experience the scenes. To me, that is a statement for the Huntington's Chinese Garden today - that it is timeless but, at the same time, it is so quintessentially Chinese. It opens itself up to all these new possibilities, like sprinkling in the story from California, which is very exciting. I think it will be fun for audiences to compare their experience afterward.

Defying Description
I've found that it's really hard for people to visualize this piece because it is something you don't see very often. People talk about NIGHTWALK as being site-specific or immersive theatre but I'm not sure that really clicks for anyone who hasn't seen it. Some immersive pieces, like Punchdrunk's Sleep No More in New York, create an environment and then let you go in and roam on your own. What you see is random. For me, as a playwright and a director, that's interesting but it is hard to control, and you're not supposed to control it. What I'm doing is extremely controlled. The audience will be led by a guide, station to station, so everything is going to unfold in a calculated way, which is what happens in a normal theater, except it is spread out into the garden.

The Huntington is incredible because they have been willing to take this step and produce not just a performance in the garden but to create a piece that is tailor-made for the garden, and that involves a lot of work for them because 1). they're never open at night, and 2). there are so many things we as theatre people would like to install in the garden but we also want to be very careful because we respect the garden so much. We look for that fine line where we can put in, for instance, lighting and sound, and then make it so unobtrusive that the audience doesn't really notice it and the garden is not affected.

Every Corner is Special
When you spend time in the garden, you realize that every corner has its own unique quality. There are nine different places I use for scenes and each one is different. I try to use them in the most creative way possible, as you will see. They all have their own special quality and there is a reason why a particular scene is placed in a certain location. The scene takes on the essence of the place itself.

Beauty in Art
What artists strive for is beauty but beauty is interpreted in so many different ways, particularly in this day and age. For me, beauty is not something external. In the theatre it's not about creating beautiful pictures, but about creating beautiful moments, and those moments can be incredibly sad or suffering or happy. They can be complicated or use a lot of resources to build up to a moment that ends up being very simple. There is no set definition of what beauty is but, to me, it means you are connected to the world, to humanity, in a deeper sense, and if we are able to create that kind of beauty, that is transformative. I think that is what makes theatergoing worth it for the audience and for us as artists to make it.

Theatre in Historic Places: NIGHTWALK IN THE CHINESE GARDEN at The Huntington
Aubree Lynn

Aubree Lynn: The Garden as Inspiration
The one thing I have really enjoyed about working with Stan is that this project has been born out of a love for the garden. It's the garden that is inspiring and leading the work. In some ways, that makes the first part of my job easy because the site is always a core consideration for what is being developed in the rehearsal room.

Right now we're working in a dark, cold, black box theatre in the early stages of development, as was the case during the workshop, so we always have to keep the garden bold in our minds and also at our fingertips. We have photographs and measurements and a lot of details to help us orient in the room. Each of the pavilions is taped out on the floor with photos of each view looking in every direction so when you're in a pavilion you can, in your mind, place yourself there.

Treading Lightly
In every conversation, we talk about having a very light footprint in terms of our technical needs because we want the audience to be suspended in the magic of the performers and the performance, and completely enraptured with the beauty of the garden without seeing truss or cables or anything that would disturb the visual impact.

Less is More
When your desire is to tell an elaborate story with very little, you encounter a lot of challenges. There is this process that has been happening over and over again in rehearsal where we put everything in then we take it all out, piece by piece, because, at the end of the day, having less will give us more room to tell the story. Sometimes I joke about my aesthetic because it is quite minimal and I think part of that is working in site-based context where, if you're doing it right, it sort of looks like nothing. I always make this joke: It's nothing, but it's the most examined shade of nothing because we consider everything we put into the audience's point of view and we consider everything we leave out. It is a true challenge but it is absolutely fulfilling and exciting.

It's All In The Timing
One of the big things we will always come up against is the issue of timing because we do need each of the two groups to arrive to their scene on time, the performers to ensure that that scene happens on time, and everyone to meet again at what is our six o'clock position for a shared scene before they switch positions. During our previous workshop, CNP took to the greater CalArts campus to rehearse the timing. I had measured each of the paths and we put markers throughout the campus using the hallways and moving outside onto the lawns with the same square footage and linear footage for the paths.

It was really illuminating and not just from a timing standpoint. When I suspended the idea that it was a rehearsal and actually watched the scene unfold on the campus, I immediately saw how site-specific the play was. I could see what was missing. It felt like we were doing the scene without a performer present. That was one of the ways in which I knew scenes were inspired by the garden, that it was both the springboard and the container for the performance.

Working Together to Create a Whole
At the core of this multi-institutional partnership there is a cultural exchange unfolding and that is always a space for growth for everyone involved in the process. Performance, overall, and theatre, in particular, has a long history of being a snapshot of contemporary culture. For me, NIGHTWALK is a snapshot of the experience of the contemporary artist. We're working with multiple institutions, each with its own objectives, regulations, and values. I'm working with many internationally renowned artists and we're constantly negotiating our aesthetics and our interests.

Because this is largely a devised process, we have many conversations about the use of a word or a sentence, and we pick them apart to get at the meaning in different contexts, both culturally and personally. Every day the script is being adapted and it has pliability in response to those exchanges It really is a cultural negotiation that ends up being filtered through Stan's brilliance.

Theatre in Historic Places: NIGHTWALK IN THE CHINESE GARDEN at The Huntington
The Garden of Flowing Fragrance at The Huntington. Photo by Martha Benedict.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Personal Growth
I feel so lucky to be able to grow my vocabulary in terms of processes and also in terms of aesthetic. I knew very little about Chinese architecture and history, about the metaphor embedded in the slightest details of the garden and also in the set pieces we're bringing in. But, thanks to the generosity of our collaborators and Stan and our assistant director, every day I am learning something new. And, when I return to the garden, I see it differently because I now have a frame of reference for what I'm looking at and I can begin to understand the larger context. The process has allowed me to have a tiny wisp of understanding and I will never be able to walk through the garden again and see just a rock.

For example, prior to this production, I never spent enough time on the bridges. I used them more as hallways to transport from one moment to the next and, because of this experience, I have really come to consider each of them as their own individual place for contemplation. Now, when I'm over the water, I feel like I can see everything in the garden and I begin to really appreciate the pavilions. I'm hoping that the audience will also feel that sense of spaciousness and what is essentially an uninhibited horizon where you can get a bird's eye view.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Following the opening of Stan Lai's NIGHTWALK IN THE CHINESE GARDEN, Lai flies to Athens for the Voices of the World: the Continents of Contemporary Playwriting at Analogio Theatre Festival in Athens Greece, which is showcasing his work. The Shanghai-based playwright then returns to China to help organize the sixth annual Wuzhen Theater Festival, co-founded with fellow artists Chen Xianghong, Huang Lei, and Meng Jinghui.

NIGHTWALK IN THE CHINESE GARDEN at The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens runs Sept. 21 - Oct. 26, 2018. For more information about The Huntington, visit