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Alison Friedman (Photo by Joel Wintermantle)

Offscript: Theatre Architecture, ‘Disgraced’ in China

On this week’s podcast, we interview Alison Friedman of Ping Pong Productions, which regularly takes American productions to China. Plus the editors discuss Hedy Weiss, ‘Julius Caesar,’ and the history of theatre architecture.

Every other week, the editors of American Theatre curate a free-ranging discussion about the lively arts in our Offscript podcast.

On this week’s episode, editors Rob Weinert-Kendt and Diep Tran are joined by Joshua Dachs, the founder of theatre planning and design firm Fisher Dachs Associates. They discuss the recent controversies around the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar and theatre critic Hedy Weiss, and what each case says about free speech and censorship. Then Dachs talks about his essay about the cyclical history of theatre design, which anchors AT‘s July/Aug. ’17 theme issue about theatre architecture.

Next Rob interviews Alison Friedman, founder of Ping Pong Productions, which facilitates artistic sharing between the United States and Beijing. She discusses how she got into producing theatre in China—and bringing Chinese theatre to the West—as well as Ping Pong’s recent production of Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, which toured China. Some interview snippets below:

On the Chinese audience’s reception to Disgraced.
Yes, we’re reading in the paper that China is cracking down on Western thought in the universities. Yes, we’re reading that things are getting more conservative. And we could have easily booked a three-month tour, there was so much interest in this production. We had to turn away schools because we had a month of time to make it all happen. I think what resonated most with a lot of these venues and these audiences was the play’s grappling with cultural identity and who gets to choose and what do you give up. The internal struggle and the struggle with outer forces of cultural identity really resonated with people.

I think that’s obviously a universal issue, but in a place like China that’s so ancient and modernizing so quickly, and has always had international influences, even more so now than ever before. A lot of these young people…who are trying to go abroad in America for college, they were thinking: How am I going to perceived when I get to America, and what will my issues be? How do I preserve my authentic self in another context?

On censorship in China:
There are three explicit laws on the books about what’s not allowed onstage: nudity is not allowed, self-mutilation is not allowed, and explicit criticisms of the Communist Party and the government are not allowed. Everything else is gray area and subject to interpretation. So as you know, the tour of The Pentagon Papers in 2011 and 2013, which is all about freedom of the press, independent judiciary, all of that, the Ministry of Culture gave us all the performance permits. It was the first American theatre company ever to perform at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing—it was very much aboveboard. Now that was also very much about America. If we brought a play that was pointing fingers at China, it would have been a harder process.

Download the episode here. Subscribe via RSSiTunesGoogle Play, or Stitcher.


Our guest Joshua recommends two productions at Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Shana Cooper’s production of Julius Caesar (running through Oct. 29) and Mary Zimmerman’s production of The Odyssey (through Oct. 14).

Rob recommends this HowlRound article by Jessica Wallenfels about the intersection of theatre and rock music (not just because it quotes Rob’s article about rock bands doing musicals).

And Diep recommends the work of YouTube sensation Randy Rainbow, who combines politics and musical theatre to create videos that will make you laugh. In today’s crazy times, laughing (and showtunes) may be the best medicine. Check out Randy’s Broadway-inspired medley about covfefe below.

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