Acclaimed playwright takes audience on pilgrimage to Shangri-La

Shanghai culture vultures are in for a rare treat as one of the nation's best playwrights presents a special version of "Shangri-La Mon Amour" at the Theater Above.
Ti Gong

A scene from “Shangri-La Mon Amour”

Shanghai culture vultures are in for a rare treat as one of China’s greatest living playwrights presents a special version of “Shangri-La Mon Amour,” a Chinese musical, at the Theater Above in Xujiahui.

Stan Lai has been lauded and largely acknowledged throughout the world as “the best contemporary playwright in China.” The BBC hailed him as “the best Chinese-language playwright and theater director in the world.” The New York Times lavished praise on Lai's “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” (1986) as “the most popular contemporary play in China.”

Lai’s works manage to synthesize Western culture with that of the East since he was born and brought up in the United States.

When Lai finished his PhD degree in dramatic art in University of California, Berkeley and returned to Taiwan in 1983, the island city was undergoing revival of arts, which allowed Lai to express his natural talent.

Though Lai and his performance workshop don’t make it a mission, they want to create something for a contemporary Chinese audience and give them a theater of their own.

“If you live in Shanghai, you know it means Starbucks and lots of things that are global,” says Lai.

So it makes this musical a special and mixed one. On one hand, Lai doesn’t want to copy the Broadway style. But on the other hand, the musical isn't very traditional Chinese. Lai invites the audience to find out and see for themselves.

“Before I forget, please mention that we offer English subtitles,” says Lai. “We’d love foreign communities to have a way to access contemporary Chinese theater.”

Lai has continued to revive old works from his repertoire in recent years. “Shangri-La Mon Amour” is adapted from a version staged in 2000. It tells the story of reconnecting with the nature and inner peace.


Taiwan playwright Stan Lai

The musical follows the main protagonist Wang Yifan, a successful butterfly specimen merchant. Wang is feeling low after a divorce and a crisis in his career. After he loses everything, a child brings him to Shangri-La. 

The journey signifies a pilgrimage of his heart and soul, as Shangri-La has long been synonymous as a spiritual and sacred place. When Wang decides to stay in Shangri-La with the child, he discover that the kid is the ghost of his dead son.

“Many of my works are things that we don’t get a second chance to do,” says Lai. “But ‘Shangri-La Mon Amour’ speaks of its time 30 years ago and still does so now. With Theater Above, we could not just bring them back but make them better.”

Lai has practiced Buddhism for over 40 years. It's easy to spot the Eastern culture in his work.

Lai chose Shanghai to open his own theater in 2015 despite being mainly based in Taiwan. The 699-seat venue on the fifth floor of Metro City shopping mall is an attempt to bring theater back into people’s daily lives.

Lai hopes Theater Above is a model for the 21st century. He picks the location to take the formality and intimidation away from arts. So people can buy something, go to dinner and then see a show.

Next year, Theater Above will be a place not only for Lai’s work or productions associated with him, but also for other artists to present their works. 

As for the future, Theater Above has made a 30-episode sitcom called “Rich House Poor House” for Youku, which comes out in January.

Performance details

Date: December 8-12, 7:30pm

Tickets: 80-680 yuan

Venue: Theater Above

Address: 5/F, Metro City, 1111 Zhaojiabang Rd

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