Saturday, March 26, 2016


U.S. World Theatre Day Message 2016 by Ping Chong
Many years ago I was at a retreat for artists and scholars in Italy. Almost every day, my collaborator and I would leave the luxurious confines of the estate to experience the town below. The scholars preferred to stay in, scribbling away in their rooms until dinner, mystified as to why we wanted to leave paradise. What they didn’t realize was that artists, and theatre artists most of all, need to engage, to connect with the world around them. 
When I scan the world around me now, the word that comes to mind is “displacement." Our century and the last have seen the displacement of peoples and cultures on an unprecedented scale and with often tragic consequences. The root causes are well known: war, racism, poverty, environmental degradation, the desire for personal freedom, the dream of a better life. My own family history includes elements of these. But this mixing of world culturesamplified today the rapacious communications revolution—has also yielded some interesting, cultural hybrids. I have come to see my life and art as a testament to both the challenges and opportunities inherent in these often unplanned global exchanges. And I have come to believe in the power of theatre to enrich lives, heal communities and to build bridges where none existed before. 
My family is from the Cantonese opera. In the old days, Chinese opera companies would travel on “Red Boats” to bring theatre to riverfront villages. They would leave their homes and brave the occasional pirate attack in order to bring theatre to otherwise isolated communities. Later my own family expanded their touring range and came to the United States to perform for homesick Chinese immigrants. They tried to build a cultural bridge across the Pacific but were expelled by immigration laws that explicitly targeted the Chinese, much as some in the United States and Europe are now proposing that Syrians or Muslims or Mexicans should be excluded. My family went to Canada, where they struggled and where I was born. When the immigration laws were finally loosened we came back to settle in New York’s Chinatown, then a Cantonese village within the global metropolis. I have called New York home ever since. I never saw my parents perform. They gave up the theatre to open coffee shops in Chinatown, to make a better life for their family. But when the opera troupes came to town, we would go. I didn’t see a Western play until I was in high school. When I discovered the wider world of global culture, I was a sponge, an ambassador, an evangelist for cross-pollination, cultural collision and connection. These have been the recurring themes in my work, and life. 
My work has sought, always, to engage the world: in ideas, in collaborative creation, and in the shared performance experience. My aesthetic influences, beyond my family legacy and the specific American moment (the 60s) that I came of age in, include Japanese, Italian, and Hollywood film, Asian puppetry, the avant-garde—the whole world, really. For me, it is about honoring lives lived, cultural traditions and finding the most expressive form to convey the subject at hand. As the scientists tell us, all islands connect underwater. 
In my 44 years as a theatre practitioner, and no less, a curious human being, I have had the good fortune and privilege to have created and toured work throughout the world. In the East West Quartet, Blindness, andCollidescope I have sought to reckon with the history of cultural collisions that have brought us to the world we live in now. Through the Undesirable Elements series, my collaborators and I have introduced dozens of communities to their least heard membersand often shared those stories with the world beyond.
The very act of theatre-making is a fundamentally utopian act. Creating ensemble is creating community in the rehearsal room; performance is creating community in public. Artists and audiences share collective human experience, contact, curiosity, and today perhaps more urgently than ever, connection. In this time of profound discord and disconnection, of grave injustice around the world (and the resistance to same) and of economic and ecological imbalance, how do we in the theatre, we foot soldiers of conscience, help to shepherd in a new century of hope, compassion, and reconnection? By doing what we do best. By turning our investigative lens on the issues of our time, by using our art to create safe spaces to discuss and resolve conflict and by providing the saving grace of humor, empathy, and understanding in the face of all obstacles. What we do, what we can do, is more urgently needed than ever before.
Ping Chong is an internationally acclaimed artist and pioneer in the use of media in the theatre. His theatrical works bring his unique artistic vision to bear on major historical issues of our times, and focus on bringing unheard voices and under-represented stories to the stage. Encompassing puppetry, dance, documentary theater, and other experimental theater forms, his works have explored a wide variety of subjects from a hidden genocide in Africa to class struggles in America to modernization in China to the experiences of Muslim youth in post -9/11 America. Throughout, the common thread has been a unifying commitment to artistic innovation and social responsibility. Since 1972, Chong has created over 100 productions which have been presented at major festivals and theatres including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Lincoln Center Festival, La MaMa, the RomaEuropa Festival, the Singapore Festival, the Tokyo International Festival and many others. In 1992, he created the first Undesirable Elements production, a series of community-based oral history projects, working with real people to explore issues of culture and identity.The Undesirable Elements program now includes a youth programs in NY Public Schools and a training institute for artists and activists. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a USA Artist Fellowship, two BESSIE awards, two OBIE awards, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and a 2014 National Medal of Arts.