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Alison Friedman and Ping Pong Productions: Linking China and the world through arts

The office of Ping Pong Productions, a nonprofit producing and consulting organization with a unique mission of “bringing China and the world together through the performing arts”, is located in an apartment building in a quiet neighborhood in East Beijing. It is a rather low-key set up for an organization that was solely responsible for bringing two hugely successful American plays to the stage of the Chinese National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), the only two so far.

Naturally, my first question was “how many people are there in the company”? And the answer I was given was rather startling. “We have four people working full-time and two working part-time,” Alison smiled. “We are a power team.”

Alison M. Friedman, founding director of Ping Pong Productions. Photo: Courtesy of Alison

Alison, who has the grace of a dancer about her, which she is but only humbly refers to herself as a ProAm, impressed me with her bubbly personality and the most infectious laughter which was a wonderful embellishment to our very pleasant talk about her work with Ping Pong Productions.

As an expat, Alison has been living in China for 12 years. But her love affair with China goes back even further. She first came to China in 2000 on a study-abroad program which took her to two different cities. And in 2001, she came back on a summer internship during which she met the Living Dance Studio, an experience that inspired her to return to China after graudating. In 2002, after graduating from Brown University, Alison returned as a Fulbright Scholar studying Modern Dance in China. And this time, she stayed on.

In the few years after her graduation, Alison built a solid portfolio as an international director and manager in the world of performing arts, working with an assortment of organizations from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C to Parnassus Productions, the production company of the Oscar- and Grammy-Award winning Tan Dun, a renowned Chinese composer/conductor. In 2009, driven by her sheer love for the performing arts and for the country that she had made her second home, she founded Ping Pong Productions, thus started her adventure as a much-needed cultural ambassador and intermediary for the performing arts between China and the world.

Curator for fledging artists

It was not difficult to deduct what the name “Ping Pong Productions” means if one is familiar with the history of the Sino-US relations. The name is a nod to Ping Pong diplomacy, the ice-breaking exchange of a bunch of Table Tennis players in the early 1970s that helped to thaw the frozen relationship between the two countries. “The mission of Ping Pong Productions is cultural diplomacy,” Alison explained. “We hope we could help bring China and the world together through the performing arts.”

Even though there are only four people in the team, the programs of Ping Pong Productions cover a wide range from producing and touring shows to management, planning and consulting. To put it simply, they help bring Chinese artists and their work abroad and vice versa. But it is not to be taken at the surface value as a quick look at their major projects in the past five years would reveal that Ping Pong Productions has a special focus on start-up artists.

“I am glad that you noticed,” Alison immediately responded when I pointed it out to her. “It’s really hard to be a young artist in any country. They need organizations like Ping Pong Productions to provide infrastructure and management support.”

Even though in the world’s eyes, China is a rich country, there are not many foundations or sponsorships or even government funding that support young companies to survive. That is the harsh reality in China for the budding artists.

“There is this quote from playwright Samuel Beckett that I really like, ‘Fail, fail again, and fail better’. That is how artists get better at what they do,” Alison continued. “One thing that is lacking now in China is that no one is funding processes. No one is giving money for residency, for workshops and for trial and error, to let the artists fail.”

“That requires a lot of faith because you might not end up getting a masterpiece,” Alison admitted. “But what you get is an environment. You can then foster innovation.”

As a non-profit organization with a mission, Ping Pong Productions really took these artists and projects under its wings. Two of its major partners, TAO Dance Theatre and Wang Chong, the avant-garde Chinese theatre director, both found support with Ping Pong Productions and both have thrived with its help.

A performance by TAO Dance Theatre. Photo:  by Lars Ake-Stomfelt

“Tao (Tao Ye, founder of the TAO Dance Theatre) is one of a kind. He is going to be the next master,” Alison enthused. “People really enjoy the strength of his voice. With Wang Chong as well, the audience are excited to see in his plays the issues the young Chinese are grappling with. They both show the audience something they don’t get from popular culture.”

Ping Pong Productions has brought TAO Dance Theatre to 30 countries on five continents within a short span of four years. And it is in the process of taking Wang Chong on an international tour. “We’ve had such success with Tao and Wang, and we want to continue to find young artists of that caliber who need help and work with them.”

Power of performing arts

Unlike the many commercial organizations that just buy and sell shows, Ping Pong exists mainly to serve its mission. “There is nothing wrong with what they do. But they are not curators,” Alison pointed out. “Although we do need to consider the market and the sellability of a show, it is not our primary concern.”

With that in mind, Alison facilitated the staging of two American shows- Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers by the LA Theatre Works, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Tim Robbins’ theatre company The Actors’ Gang- at China’s most renowned platform for the performing arts: the NCPA in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Both shows ended up receiving great reviews from the Chinese media and rave responses from the Chinese audience. They also caught the attention of media like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

Yet what was not mentioned was that Top Secret, the hugely successful show was first rejected by the Chinese side for fear of bleak ticket sales. It only managed to make it to the NCPA the second time around by virtue of the success of its first tour in China in 2011 which was completely sold out. And that paved the way for A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, which did six shows in Beijing and four in Shanghai this June. Even tickets for the added rows were sold out.

“What I liked about Top Secret is it deals with a very complicated issue and presented in a way that shows complexity. It is not black and white, right or wrong. It raises questions but doesn’t give answers. And that is the power of the performing arts.”

“Both of these plays were very low-tech, very basic, very simple,” Alison went on. “It’s all about the power of the story and the power of the actors.”

In the same spirit, Alison and her Ping Pong Productions team brought two different productions by the Chinese National Theatre company to the US, one of which, a play called Green Snake, was staged in March at the Kennedy Center’s International Theatre Festival and the other one, Richard III, participated in a big Chinese Festival at New York University Skirball Center for the Arts.

“I am glad that I could feel the evolution (in the western perception of Chinese performing arts),” Alison announced happily. “In the past, the attitude felt like ‘oh we don’t care about if it’s good or not, we just want something from China’. But now the attitude and standards are changing.”

Commenting on the standard of her selections, Alison said, “We are not just choosing great art. We are also choosing art that we believe shows a surprising or less-understood side of the country or culture. We like to support the art that could surprise the audience and help them better understand the people and the country where it came from or help them understand themselves or their own country better.”

Alison at the NCPA press conference with Tim Robbins, director of A Midsummer Night's Dream, who is known in China mostly for his role in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Photo: by Gao Shang

Besides these big programs, Ping Pong Productions also runs programs like American Cultural Center Tours (ACCT) which centers around universities in China. “We try to bring high-quality professional performers from the US to perform in Chinese universities. And we are trying to make them into institutional programs to maximize its impact.”

“I think the Americans learn more about China through the ACCT program than the Chinese students learnt about America because they get to go to a lot of different places. They go back to America basically spreading the good word about everything they have seen, which is great because it is getting the top-level cultural influencers in the US to come and see a more real China. ”

Going Global

Alison mostly brushed off the troubles they had to go through to do all of this, like having to convince the Chinese to spend the money on the art and to get the Americans to work in a different way in China. “It’s not easy, it’s really hard!” This was not meant to be a complaint as Alison followed the statement with another bout of her trademark laughter. “But it was totally worth it.”

She continued. “America doesn’t have a cultural ministry to support the exchange. A lot of the times it is the companies that have to fundraise to bring the American art to China. That is one of the reasons why there have been only two American-produced theatre shows at the NCPA. In the long-term, I hope Ping Pong will be a bit like the British Council. We will try and build an institution, a marriage, so to speak. We are not interested in one-off wonders.”

And the vision of Ping Pong Productions does not end with just America and China. “We are speaking with organizations in countries like Korea and Brazil about setting up similar programs,” Alison revealed. “We will continue to look for great art that shows sides of cultures and countries that surprise people. It is one of the best ways to bring China and the world together, through the performing arts.”


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