Truths and Misconceptions About China’s Performing Arts Scenes

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

Through her performing arts organization Ping Pong Productions, Alison Friedman aims to develop long-term cultural exchanges between the United States and China — not through commercial-driven, one-off tours, but by facilitating discussions and collaborations between two complex world powers.

by Ada Tseng

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 Yorker jumped 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.

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