In 1984, Stan Lai (賴聲川) and his newly formed Performance Workshop Theatre (表演工作坊) began seven months of improvisational work that culminated in the March 1985 premiere of That Evening, We Performed Crosstalk (那一夜，我們說相聲), a production that made the company’s name and revolutionized theater in Taiwan.
When a recording of the play was released later that year, it sold a million copies and the die was cast. Lai had brought xiangsheng (相聲), or crosstalk, a form of comedy developed in the Qing Dynasty featuring rapid-fire, complex banter between two (or more) performers and usually performed with an exaggerated Beijing accent, to a new audience that quickly became infatuated with it.
Although several well-known crosstalk actors had come to Taiwan with the retreating Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government, by the 1970s the genre appeared to have died out here. Lai has a couple of theories as to why his company’s productions have been so popular.
“There is not much comedy in Chinese society or literature. It’s not in our blood as Chinese people, but Chinese people do have a good sense of humor. Chinese opera has comedians and comedy parts, but they are not the same as in Western theater, which has a long tradition of comedy from the Romans on … even Shakespeare knew how to write comedy,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “In Chinese culture there is only xiangsheng, but if you lose that there is a big hole left — and then we came along and filled that hole.”
Since 1985, Lai and company have produced four more crosstalk shows and two revivals. However, the last new production was Total Woman (這一夜，Women說相聲) in 2005. Fans have been impatiently waiting ever since.
Their prayers will be answered on March 18 when Crosstalk Travelers (那一夜，在旅途中說相聲) opens for a 13-show run at the National Theater as part of the Taiwan International Festival of Arts 2011.
“The whole thing was not meant to be a series, but people demanded it … I kept saying, ‘We’re a theater group, not a xiangsheng group.’ Each time it gets more difficult. It’s such a unique form, because we created a form of xiangsheng that is a whole evening, based on a whole theme instead of short pieces … To get me going you need a big enough topic. I would love to write short ones, but we have to be able to tie them together,” Lai said.
“It’s not easy, that’s why it takes four years, six years,” Lai said. “I’m not an autobiographical writer, you can’t find me in my work. But this time I put my own travel memories in. One [character] is a backpacker, one is a six-star traveler, they’re trapped on an island. Basically they both are lost.”
Crosstalk Travelers stars Performance Workshop stalwart Feng Yi-kang (馮翊綱) and Chu Chung-heng (屈中恆).
“Feng Yi-kang now has his own crosstalk group, he’s very good at this. Chu Chung-heng has been in four straight productions of mine … and he’s a fan of our xiangsheng … He’s a wonderful actor,” Lai said. “You need more acting than xiangsheng in this. Here they have very specific characters and they’re coming from very specific places.”
This show is the second time Lai and TV producer Wang Wei-chung (王偉忠) have collaborated; the first was The Village (寶島一村) in 2008, and Lai said Wang has brought a lot to the production.
“Wang is listed as an ‘artistic adviser,’ but really is he is the ‘cussing coach.’ He has such a command of cuss words, he’s like a dialogue coach,” Lai said.