‘Top Secret’ Plays Out in China

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‘Top Secret’ Plays Out in China

Check out the full Wall Street Journal article at this link. 

With a title like “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” one might expect a bumpy road to the stage in China, where government manipulation and press freedom remain sensitive topics. But when L.A. Theatre Works toured the country for the play’s debut run in 2011, it performed to full houses in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. Discussions between the audience and a panel of American journalists and lawyers followed most performances, arranged through production company Ping Pong Productions.

What was building up to a resounding success hit a snag during a performance at Peking University, when Ping Pong founder and director Alison Friedman received a text message during the second act warning of “unforeseen consequences” if the post-performance discussion were to continue as planned. The abrupt cancellation made international headlines.

But the show goes on. Ping Pong and L.A. Theatre Works last week kicked off another tour of “Top Secret,” including three nights beginning Tuesday at Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts—also known as the Egg for its oval shape.

How did an American docudrama about the struggle between press and state make it to one of China’s top performance venues? The answer, Ms. Friedman told the Journal, is all in the money. Edited excerpts follow.

The Wall Street Journal: “Pentagon Papers” discusses press freedom, state manipulation, the struggle for information—all sensitive topics in China. What were you thinking when you decided to bring it here?

Ms. Friedman: Our mission is cultural diplomacy. We do performing-art exchange—but not just any art. It’s got to show another side or aspect of a country, or a culture that is maybe a little unexpected or a little unknown. The power of the arts is to do that, it’s to show nuance, it’s to show diversity, it’s to show something that you don’t see, say, in the press or on television or through commerce like buying Starbucks or Nike products.

What first appealed to me about the docudrama was not that it was some extreme topic, but that it showed a side of American history that, frankly, a lot of Americans don’t understand, let alone Chinese.

It showed America in all of its complex messiness. It was not a pro-freedom-of-the-press, pro-America, anticensorship play. It showed just how complex that whole issue was, and it showed it very clearly. My hesitation was commercial. The venues need to make money.

Did you have to approach state bureaucracy first, or did you directly approach the venues?

In China, you definitely do the venues first. Every show needs a performance permit that’s approved by the Ministry of Culture, but that goes through the venues, or through an independent agency that provides that service. But that has to happen after you’ve got a show booked. So it’s really risky, because it’s really chicken-and-egg. You get a whole tour booked, the dates are set, the contracts are signed, but until you get that permit, the show might not happen.

So it’s very touch-and-go, very nail-biting up until the minute you get the permit. Depending on who you’re working with and in which city, the permits can take anywhere from one month to six months to get. And yet venues often don’t make decisions about what plays they want to do until very late.

Technically you’re not supposed to advertise unless you have the permit, so then that makes it very risky for ticket sales, because you can’t start selling tickets until you have the permit, but you can’t get the permit until you have the contract, and you can’t get the contract until…it just starts backing up and up and up.

Why not shoot for the National Center for the Performing Arts right away?

We did reach out to the NCPA in 2011, and they were sort of interested, but they were worried that, commercially, it wasn’t viable. I don’t think at that time they expressed any concern over the content. It was simply they didn’t think they could make it happen.

Are the logistics different this time?

Sometimes, working with larger institutions in China is worse, as it is in any country, because you’re dealing with a bigger bureaucracy, and sometimes it’s better because it’s a smoother process. That’s how it’s been with them this time. The permit came through so quickly. Everything’s been very clear, the communication’s been very good. Knock on wood, so far things are great.

Coming back to that canceled talk in 2011, what happened there?

The second act had just started. The text said that they wanted to avoid any unexpected or any uncontrolled results. Basically, they didn’t know what kind of conversation would happen, and what they said afterwards to me was that “Well, Bei Da [Peking University] students are very smart. They ask very difficult questions, and we just didn’t know what direction the conversation would go in, and we thought it would be safer not to have it.”

Generally speaking, universities in China are a little more conservative. It’s the opposite of the States. In the States, universities are the sites of crazy open thinking and in China they are too, and therefore the administration gets a little more nervous sometimes with more public things.

The day after the canceled talk, [Geoffrey Cowan, “Top Secret’s” playwright] gave his lecture at the law school to a room of 200 to 300 students. The most open, nuanced, sophisticated conversation about the press and the government and the relations therein, with both China and the U.S., that I’ve ever been privy to. And it was an all-Chinese audience. Unfortunately the press wasn’t there that day, so they didn’t write about that one.

Are you planning any discussions this time around?

We’re not. The difference between 2011 and 2013 is this year we’re in Hangzhou, Suzhou, Tianjin, Beijing, Chongqing and Fuling. So we’re in six different cities. All are big, prestigious, mainstream venues. Because we’ve been here before, it’s a much higher-profile tour, it’s much more mainstream, it’s much more visible, and so we’re still doing discussions, but we’re going to do them with partners in classrooms.

What’s your take on the media coverage of the cancellation?

This is a hard one, because I’m never going to bite the hand that feeds me. We were thrilled for the coverage, we were thrilled for the attention and the amazing articles…but I wish they had also been there the next day at Geoff’s lecture at the law school and to witness the polar opposite of the night before. The takeaway from the very dramatic headline was “Oh, more censorship in China,” and that really wasn’t our experience in 2011.

I understand these newspapers and magazines need dramatic headlines. It’s back to the same issue China is dealing with, you’ve got to sell, you got to push product. It was a dramatic event, and I get that. That’s story-worthy. But I guess it’s back on us to tell the other stories that happened.