Before Ping Chong’s talk in this week’s Stamps speaker series, we were reminded of how influential and highly lauded of a figure he is in the art community, having been recently awarded the National Medal of the Arts by Obama himself. Ping Chong is a seminal figure in American contemporary theater, having created over 90 productions in the span of his career. He was born in Toronto but was raised in New York City’s Chinatown. He then attended the School of Visual Arts and the Pratt Institute for filmmaking and fine arts respectively, and as he admitted in his presentation, did not expect to end up working in theatre. He started working with Meredith Monk in 1969, first stepping foot into the world of experimental theater. After collaborating with her he went on to found his own theatre company, now known as Ping Chong & Company.
The presentation began by showing a what I estimate to be a 15 minute long video about the cast members of Beyond Sacred and exactly how the project was put together. It was interesting to get to know each of the cast members, and get glimpses of their personal stories in preparation for the show on Saturday. What was even more interesting was seeing the way that that Ping Chong was able to take real people, and weave their stories together into an inspiring production. Hearing the cast members speak so highly of his skill and delicacy as a director was extremely inspiring. Watching this video only made me more excited to attend Beyond Sacred and witness the performance for myself. The video is on youtube and I have attached it to the end of the this blog post for your viewing pleasure.
Beyond Sacred is part of his widely known Undesirable Elements series. He first began this series in 1992 to explore the experiences and identity of various communities, particularly those who identify as outsiders. All of the works in this series follow the same format, which is seated cast members, usually real people belonging to that specific community that he had interviewed and hand selected, reading a script off binders to a rich soundscape and supplementary projections. This format is highly adaptable to the needs of different communities and relatively quick to produce, while also allowing non-actors who might be uncomfortable with memorizing script or blocking preform and share their stories.
When Ping Chong finally began his talk, he wasted no time quickly dived into describing one of his more recent productions, Collidescope: Adventures in Pre-and Post-Racial America. The main plot of the production is that a group of aliens came across the Earth and confused as to why humans were killing each other over race, and summarily set off trying to find answers. An interesting look into race and class in America, Ping Chong adapts the production for each location it is performed at, bringing in a local event to be discussed by the aliens.
The production also showcases his unique skill in blending theater performance, video projections and soundscape into a singular production. He talked briefly about how in the past, traditional theater often ignored the use of sound, instead purely focusing on the script as a text. He, instead, enjoys using a rich and dynamic soundscape to further the immersive environment of this works. He also talked about how he cast people across all races and genders to play each and every role, to further drive home the absurdity of racial divides when we are all one human race.
Finally, we were given a brief peek into what Ping Chong has coming up in his undesirable elements series. He talked shortly about a project he is working on about the history and peoples of the state of Alaska.
While I find Ping Chong’s insight into specific piece to be fascinating, I only wish he had talked longer, having only taken the mic for around twenty minutes after the video about Beyond Sacred was finished. I’m not entirely sure Ping Chong knew exactly what the format of the Stamps Speaker Series was, and I wish all of the students and community members in attendance could have gotten a better insight into his works and creative process.
The Penny Stamps Speaker series will return March 9th with Andrew Logan, and will continue for the rest of the semester with new talks every Thursday at 5:10 in the Michigan Theater. All of the talks in the series are free to the public and and you can check out the full schedule here.
The video mentioned earlier is linked below.