US Artistic Ambassador to China: Ping Pong Productions’ Alison Friedman

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US Artistic Ambassador to China: Ping Pong Productions’ Alison Friedman

Check out the full article on the Asia Pacific Arts site at this link. 

Alison Friedman (in between Top Secret cast member James Gleason and LA Theatre Works’ Susan Loewenberg) at a post-performance discussion in Shanghai in 2011. Photo courtesy of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center and Ping Pong Productions.

Even The New York Times sometimes falls prey to American journalism’s tendency to twist stories about China to fixate on dramatic tales of government corruption and censorship.

In November 2011, L.A. Theatre Works collaborated with Ping Pong Productions to bring Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons’ American historical drama, Top Secret: The Battle for The Pentagon Papers, to China for two weeks. The plan was to have post-production discussions with Chinese audiences about the complex issues of journalism and politics that the Nixon-era play raises, but the panel scheduled for after the Peking University show was canceled last minute.

It was an eye-catching premise that everyone from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorkerjumped on: Ping Pong Productions’ founding director Alison Friedman receiving a last-minute text message canceling the discussion because of “unforeseen consequences spreading beyond the theater.”

But this was only part of the story. Although she was grateful for the articles and the publicity, Friedman admits to being disappointed that some of the articles focused so much on the censorship — with the implication that they were lucky that the “skittish cultural czars” of China allowed a political show into their country in the first place.

“Certainly, [the talk after the Peking University performance] was canceled, but it was one cancelation in a very successful tour that did go ahead,” Friedman explains. “We had tremendous support on the Chinese side to do the play. We had nine discussions planned, and only two were canceled. After seven of the shows, and at a number of off-site classroom discussions, we had unbelievably open, intelligent, and substantive conversations.”

These are exactly the types of misconceptions that Friedman hopes to clarify with her work at Ping Pong Productions, a producing and consulting organization that aims to develop cultural diplomacy through the arts.

“People in the audience understood that this wasn’t a pro-America, anti-China kind of play, that it was a way to use the arts to create a discussion that keeps going and going,” she says. “After one of the first shows, a Chinese woman stood up and said, ‘I’m law student in Australia, and I learned more about America’s judiciary system tonight than in all the legal briefs I’ve read in the last two years of law school.’ And that gave us chills, because it shows the power of theater — that it can show something that is otherwise very hard to discuss.”


An audience member at a post-performance discussion in Shanghai. Photos courtesy of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center and Ping Pong Productions.

Ping Pong Productions and L.A. Theatre Works also invited journalists and lawyers from both China and the US to be on these discussion panels. Questions included: Have you as a journalist ever chosen not to publish something because you felt it endangered national security? Whose responsibility is it to determine whether or not to publish? What are the implications? They talked at length about WikiLeaks. They even invited Mickey Kantor, the former US Trade Representative during the Clinton-Gore years who helped China get into the World Trade Organization, to one of the post-production panels, to talk about whether he ever had to come down on journalists during his time in the US government.

In fact, many would be surprised to hear that there was no censorship of the play — neither from the Chinese government, nor self-censorship by playwright Geoffrey Cowan, who updated his two-decade-old play for the China run. According to Friedman, the only major change was an addition of history that was more relevant for a Chinese audience. The original 1991 script didn’t mention that one of the reasons Nixon was so nervous about the Pentagon Papers being published was that he and Kissinger were about to go to China on their first historical tour; they were worried that if it looked like the US government didn’t have control over their own secrets, that China wouldn’t trust them and the China initiative would fall apart.

“Knock on wood, but none of my projects have ever had permit problems,” says Friedman. “Granted, mine aren’t controversial projects, but it’s a very ‘You don’t bother us; we won’t bother you’ environment. Yes, things are vetted and canceled, so it’s not that people are wrong about the censorship in China, but they’re sometimes wrong about the degree and severity of it. The government has way bigger fish to fry — poverty, North Korea, the environmental problems — to worry about every single dance or theater performance.”


Nixon (Thomas Virtue) and Kissinger (Peter van Norden) in Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers. Photos courtesy of Ping Pong Productions and L.A. Theatre Works.

The mission of Ping Pong Productions is cultural diplomacy. They aim to bring China and the world together through performing arts, and they work predominantly with theater, dance, and classical/jazz music. Friedman, who has lived and breathed performing arts in China for over a decade, started the organization because she saw that there was a lot of interest from American companies that wanted to tour in China — and Chinese companies that wanted to tour abroad — but the models that existed to facilitate these trips were all commercial booking agencies.

“To me, that was commerce, not cultural exchange,” says Friedman. “That was buying and selling a show that would often be a one-off. They’d come on tour, check the box, and think, ‘We’re done.’ So, I saw there was a need for this type of bridge that could use the performing arts as a way to show different aspects of the cultures. Certainly in the 21st century, the role of China on the international stage is key, and yet there are still so many misinterpretations and misunderstandings of China. And vice versa: within China, they have access to information about the West, but it also can be very one-sided.”

Friedman was raised in Washington D.C., and since she was young, she was interested in performing arts (“I was one of those kids that did dance, music, and theater my whole life”) and language (“I liked how different language constructs may make you think a different way about the world”).

“Growing up, I always loved doing things that would bring groups together,” says Friedman. “When I was 13, I started a diversity committee in our middle school, because I thought there were issues that weren’t being discussed. D.C. is such an international city, but people tend to stay in their own little pods, and I was always so interested in why that was. How do you create things that bring people together, or at least understand each other better?”

Friedman points to arts as a way for people to see and learn a culture’s humanity, as opposed to being stuck with artificial stereotypes and caricatures.

“People like to say that dance is a universal language, that music is a universal language, but I totally disagree,” says Friedman. “There are elements that are true — that arts can bring people together regardless of their culture and background — however, a lot of art is a language just like a spoken language. It’s got a historical context and a cultural context, and if you don’t understand the signs and meanings behind the performances, how are you going to understand or appreciate the language?”

She believes in the importance of pairing these theater, music, and dance tours with discussions and lectures; providing extensive program notes and behind-the-scenes essays that audiences can literally take home with them; uploading scripts online in Chinese, so universities can use it for their curriculums – anything that fosters more opportunities for cross-cultural understandings, way after the curtain falls.

“The Mark Morris Dance Group may be well-respected in America, but no one’s heard of him in China,” Freidman states, as an example. “So it requires a lot of contextualization. And this is a multi-layered process. You do it one year with a medium audience and come back a few years later, hopefully with a bigger audience.”

Case in point: Top Secret: The Battle for The Pentagon Papers is returning to China this year, but whereas in 2011, the production ran in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing, their 2013 run will take them to nine different cities in China, including Chongqing, Suzhou and Tianjin. In addition, three of the performances will take place in the National Centre of Performing Arts, the famed venue next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing known as The Egg.


Mark Morris in China. Photo courtesy of Ping Pong Productions and the Guangzhou Opera House.


A lot of Friedman’s job as a producer and consultant is managing expectations. Sometimes it’s telling Chinese companies that American venues can’t afford to fly over a cast of 800 people, no matter how beautiful their fan dance extravaganza is, but maybe they can bring over a cast of eight. Sometimes it’s recommending that American folk productions try for smaller, second-tier cities in China as opposed to your standard Shanghai and Beijing tour. Sometimes it’s giving American actors a heads up that, in a lot of theaters in China, people still answer their cell phones in the middle of performances – so be prepared and, just as importantly, don’t be insulted.

Sometimes it’s advising that people not come to China at all.

“A lot of people want to come to China, and my question is: Why? Why should China watch your art?” says Friedman. “I know that that highest concentration of billionaires is in China, but they’re not necessarily giving money to the arts.”

She continues, “People think it’s an untapped market, and they can go in there and get some of the new China pie, but there’s a difference between an ‘untapped market’ and an ‘undeveloped market.’ ‘Untapped market’ means the market is there and ready, and it hasn’t been tapped yet; an ‘undeveloped market’ means it’s not there yet. For a lot of art forms, China is still an undeveloped market, and you have to invest a lot of time, money, and effort into building it.”

If you had asked Friedman ten years ago, she would have never imagined she’d remain in China this long – let alone be rooting her life and career there – but she is becoming one of the go-to builders of the Chinese performing arts scene.

“When I first started working for the Beijing Modern Dance Company, my mother would say, ‘Why don’t you come home?There are millions of dance companies you could work for in the US. Why do you have to be so far away?’” Friedman remembers.“And my answer was, ‘That’s the point.’ There are millions of contemporary dance companies in America. There were five in China. I’m working with a group of like-minded people with a shared vision to build something that didn’t exist before, and that’s so satisfying and so exciting.”


Alison Friedman with the Beijing Modern Dance Company in Paris in 2006. Photo courtesy of Alison Friedman.

Her investments are gradually paying off, and she feels a sense of progress. In addition to bringing Mark Morris Dance Group to China, she continues to collaborate with TAO Dance Theatre and L.A. Theatre Works. Leading up to London’s 2012 Olympics, she coordinated the making of a film, featuring public song and dance events across Beijing, which was screened in London’s Trafalgar Square along with a film from Rio di Janeiro as part of the London Cultural Olympiad. (Olympics cities: past, present, and future.) Also in 2012, she helped bring Gao Yanjinzi, the artistic director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company, to work with students at Brown University as part of the “Year of China at Brown.” Her Ping Pong Productions team, based in Beijing, is quickly expanding and will begin staffing their new Chicago office this year. And last fall, they were awarded a grant to manage the American Cultural Center Tours (ACCT), a new initiative from the US Embassy in Beijing to bring American performing artists to tour 12 American cultural centers in universities across China.

Friedman is now used to the chaos that sometimes comes with working in China, and in fact, quite enjoys it.

Now, she looks fondly at one of the first projects that she was in charge of organizing, back in 2006. She had just started working for the Beijing Modern Dance Company, and a European performing arts network called IETM was partnering with a Chinese government group to organize a conference and mini-festival in Beijing at the same time. Eight different dance companies were coming to perform at a location that used to be a state-run venue, a place that was not used to having performances.

“During my first meeting with the venue’s head technician, he said, ‘Can you not move lights around too much? Because it’s going to be a real pain for me to move them back,’” remembers Friedman. “And I was shocked,because if you know anything about dance, every group has its own lighting plot, so you have to completely change it for each group. So I said, ‘Not only are we going change very single light for every single performance, that’s your job as the lighting technician of the theater!’”

It was a learning experience for Friedman: “I realized that’s what it meant that he used to work in a state-run theater — that he got paid no matter what, so it didn’t really matter what he did all day. They were hosting eight companies that were paying their way to come over, and he didn’t want to do the lights for them?”

Now, she knows how to handle these types of situations.

“I have a patented four-question method in China,” Friedman says. “You have to ask for everything four times.”

She explains: “The first time you ask, the answer is ‘mei ban fa (沒辦法)/ It’s not possible.’ The second time you ask, it’s ‘tai ma fan (太麻煩)/ It’s too troublesome.’ The third time, it’s ‘yi hui er zai shuo (一會兒再說)/ We’ll talk about it later.’ And the fourth time, the answer is, ‘OK OK OK OK.'”

“The length of time between each question can be from a few minutes, to a few months, to a few years,” she continues. “So you have to start early. It’s not foolproof, but generally speaking, patient persistence pays off.”

“Unless the first answer you get is ‘mei wen ti (沒問題)/ No problem,'” she jokes. “Then, you’re in trouble. Then, they just want to get rid of you.”