Your Guide to Theatre Education
Ping Chong + Company
In this series, David Dudley looks at the different models of theater education around the country through interviews, with the hopes that a new student will have an easier time finding the model that works for them.
Ping Chong is an internationally acclaimed theatre artist and pioneer in the use of media in the theater. Since 1972, he has created over one hundred works for the stage, which have been presented at major festivals and theatres worldwide. He is the recipient of the 2014 National Medal of Arts.
Sara Zatz is the Associate Director of Ping Chong + Company, where she oversees community-engaged programs and training and is the lead collaborative artist with Ping Chong on the interview-based Undesirable Elements series. She has spoken and presented workshops on community-engaged theater at many conferences and universities.
David: When were Ping Chong + Company’s educational programs started? When did you join?
Ping Chong: Formally, our school-based programs started in 2008 and our first “official” training institute for adults was held in 2011. But I’ve been doing master classes, workshops, and university residencies for decades.
Sara Zatz: I’ve been with Ping Chong + Company since 2002. In 2007 we got a major grant to expand our community engagement programs. At that time, we looked for a way to codify our training practices. We started by piloting our school-based programs in New York, and then took a fair amount of time to conceptualize the formal training institute for artists, cultural workers, and community organizers. I have overseen the development and implementation of those programs, and serve as the co-facilitator on the summer training institutes.
David: What do Ping Chong + Company’s workshops offer potential students?
Ping: In the Summer Intensive, our goals are to share our methodology specifically for our interview-based community work, known as the Undesirable Elements series, but also to look at that work in the context of my larger body of work, which has always incorporated interview, historical text, and documentary material, well before the dawn of the Undesirable Elements series.
Sara: To that end, in our Summer Intensive we offer a very clear breakdown of and engagement with our process creating interview-based theatre with community members. We offer training in and practice with conducting interviews and developing script components based on the Undesirable Elements process. We have in-depth conversations about building relationships with community organizations and individuals, and we offer guidance on mindfully engaging in community work with clear intentions and transparency. Participants also take a master class with Ping Chong on devised performance, embedded in the context of the week. Also, in addition to our regular Summer Intensive, we have offered specific training workshops in the Undesirable Elements/community engagement methodology focused around a specific theme of social justice or activism. So, for example, in 2012, in partnership with the Ms. Foundation for Women, we created a training intensive for non-arts organizations to learn to make performance work, with local community members, in their field of child sexual abuse prevention.
The guiding principles of the company are grounded in treating people as human beings with a story to tell. Everyone has a story, whether they recognize it or not.
David: What makes Ping Chong + Company’s workshops different from others?
Ping Chong: We always try to start with a shared meal. Food is something that brings people together, and in the Undesirable Elements series, we always do a potluck with the cast members after the first rehearsal where people bring dishes from their cultural background. I like to re-create that with the training institute—it’s a great way to get to know people.
Sara: One thing we prioritize is one-on-one access to the facilitators. We set up “office hours,” where individual participants can schedule time to meet with Ping, me, or one of the other facilitators to ask for guidance on a personal project, or to check in about a specific issue that’s come up in the workshop.
David: What are the guiding principles of the company?
Ping: The guiding principles of the company are grounded in treating people as human beings with a story to tell. Everyone has a story, whether they recognize it or not. I learn from the participants in my workshops, just as much as they learn from me. Sometimes during a master class when participants work with material from my past pieces, they’ll see or create things that I never thought about at the time of the original making.
Sara: Our organizational mission is to create theatrical works addressing the important cultural and civic issues of our times, striving to reach the widest audiences with the greatest level of artistic innovation and social integrity. What we try to bring to the process of creating work is a spirit of collaboration, of listening, and of mentorship. I learned the specific process of making Undesirable Elements productions from Ping, and now I am teaching that process to others. We try to be very self-aware about who we are as facilitators and artists. That includes both the knowledge and experience we bring into the room, but also how our individual backgrounds and privileges might limit our perspectives, too.
David: Following that, what's working?
Sara: I am always amazed at how quickly people grasp the principles of the Undesirable Elements process. Over the course of just a few days, participants learn a very specific form. By the last two days, the group is divided into small ensembles to make final pieces. I have cried, every single time, at the final showing. To me, it reveals what an incredible form and process Ping created way back in 1992, that we can replicate it in such a short, intensive space, with a great deal of compassion and risk-taking from the participants, who build trust and go deep very quickly. I find it incredibly moving.
David: What kinds of challenges have you faced? How do you intend to approach them in future?
Ping: Well, the biggest challenge we face as an organization is how to create and offer a compelling training program that is financially accessible for artists, but that is also sustainable for the organization. We try to offer scholarships/financial aid when possible. The first three Summer Training Institutes were held at Amherst College, which was a lovely, bucolic setting, but meant that all of Ping Chong + Company had to re-locate to Amherst for the week, which brought extra logistical challenges, and the training participants stayed in dorms. In 2015, and again this year, we will be at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Queens. We can’t offer housing to participants here, but it means we have many more people who can come from NY City (or stay with friends here) and don’t have the additional housing and travel costs.
Sara: From a pedagogy point of view, the biggest challenge is that the nature of the one-week intensive is such that it does not feel ethical to do one to two days of training and then send the participants out to “practice” with community members. So, most of the practice is the participants interviewing each other and building work together. It has always led to deep connections and an intense creative process, but it does not truly mirror our “in real life” practice when it comes to community engagement work. We have spent time thinking about ways to change this—perhaps offering a longer intensive; offering a part one and part two; or bringing in participants from community organizations or past productions that we already have relationships with who are willing to engage in a learning process with the participants.
David: Who do you feel is the ideal candidate? Who are you trying to bring into Ping Chong + Company?
Sara: We typically look for people who already have some experience with a combination of community engaged work, interview-based practice, or ensemble-oriented work, and who are open to learning a new process. We hope that participants will come in to the training with at least a project idea in terms of how they wish to apply the work. We look for a balance of artistic experiences—it is great to have some people who may have a lot of theatre experience but little experience in community settings alongside people with a lot of community work, who may not have much theatre experience. We are also intentionally looking to build a group of participants representing diverse geographic, cultural, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds, age ranges, and gender identities.
David: What do you hope your graduates/ trainees do, once they move on?
Ping: I hope people go out and make work that means something to them, that contributes to conversations about building a better society.
Sara: It’s not our goal that our trainees go out and make mini Undesirable Elements exactly in our style. In fact, we don’t really want them to do that—then we’d be out of business. More, it’s about sharing our set of tools to empower people to pursue the work that they want to make, and to build meaningful relationships in communities.
David: Any changes planned for the future?
Sara: Every year we collect evaluations from the Summer Intensive participants, and we evolve the curriculum based on feedback. We have no major changes planned for the future, other than looking for institutional partners and funders that will help us sustain the institute long-term. We’ll be back at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center this summer, August 9-14th, 2016, at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center.
Ping: Also, in 2015 we piloted a new training program, called DevisingHub. Many people had asked about training opportunities that were grounded less in the interview-based Undesirable Elements form, and more in a general ensemble devising practice. Ryan Conarro, who is with Ping Chong + Company on a TCG Leadership One-on-One Fellowship, led the first incarnation. We had ten participants meeting two times per week for ten weeks, culminating in a works-in-progress sharing. It was nice to explore training from a different perspective with that workshop, and we hope to offer that again in the future.
David: Success stories?
Ping: Well, a number of our training institute participants, or participants in my other workshops and master classes, have become collaborating artists with Ping Chong + Company, and contributed to Undesirable Elements projects or other works. That seems like a good outcome!
Sara: Our participants have gone on to create some fantastic projects based in interview and community engagement. One example that comes to mind is Sandra Delgado, who joined us in 2013 during her TCG Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship. She is currently creating an interactive theatre piece, La Habana, which incorporates interviews with Caribbean Latino immigrants that came to Chicago in the 1960s.
I am particularly proud of the outcome of the training institute that we did for organizations working in the field of prevention of child sexual abuse. That training led to three theatre productions in New York, Minnesota, and Oregon, featuring survivors of abuse telling their true stories, as well as stories of advocates. Another production is in development in Mexico City, based on a training residency that we did there.
We have a blog about our work “in the field” and we have had numerous past participants contribute entries about their experiences taking the training and how it has influenced them. We also have a Facebook page for training institute alumni where people can share their projects. It’s a fantastic network of passionate artists, and it’s exciting to see where people go with the experience.