(re)Defining the Undesirable

by Julie Haverkate

in TCG Books

Post image for (re)Defining the Undesirable

TCG Books recently published Ping Chong’s Undesirable Elements: Real People, Real Lives, Real Theater. A community-specific theatre works series that examines the lives of those born into one culture but living in another, each Undesirable Elements production grows out of an extended residency, during which Ping Chong and his collaborators conduct interviews of community members and then create a script that explores both historical and personal narratives.

It’s an exciting time for Ping Chong & Company which is currently celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the UE series. Amidst all the happy activity – including a festival at La MaMa October 18 – November 4 – Ping found a few moments to speak with us.

Julie Haverkate: The Undesirable Elements project began in 1992 when you were invited by Artists Space in New York to make an installation called “A Facility for the Channeling and Containment of Undesirable Elements.” Up until that point, what did the phrase “undesirable elements” mean to you personally?

Ping Chong: I never thought of the term “undesirable elements” until I made the installation in 1992. It was not a term I used commonly, but the roots of it go back to my awareness of being “other” in America. When I created the installation, I was interested in intolerance and that was why I titled it “A Facility for the Channeling and Containment of Undesirable Elements.” What exactly was “undesirable” was left to the viewer to determine for themselves.

Julie Haverkate: How did this initial piece become the series as we know it today?

Ping Chong: The series became what it is today because it caught a cultural moment and developed a life of its own. The first performance was very under the radar – a tiny performance in the gallery at Artists Space. We did three performances there. It was an experiment. The audience at that performance was largely friends. Immediately after the first show my dear friend Mikki Wesson came up to me and said this show has legs and that it should be performed everywhere – which pretty much has come true. Chance played a big role as always. In the audience at Artist Space there was a Japanese gentleman. I didn’t know at the time, but he was the director of a festival in Tokyo. Three years later he would present the first international production in the Undesirable Elements series. It was called “Gaijin,” which translates as a harsh version of “foreigner” in Japanese. Also in the audience was the presenter from the Cleveland Performance Art Festival. He invited me to make the second iteration of the project – and away we went.

Julie Haverkate: This year marks the 20th Anniversary of Undesirable Elements, and you’re celebrating with a festival at La MaMa in NYC, as well as with events at Syracuse Stage and across the country. How do you see the series evolving over the next twenty years?

Ping Chong: Undesirable Elements is always about otherness, broadly defined. The first production looked at the phenomenon of cultural difference and similarity. It was about what separates us but also about what unites us as human beings. Later we began to think about opening the process to include other meanings of otherness such as disability or child sexual abuse, or community reconciliation as in the case of Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo at Syracuse Stage, which focuses on Congolese refugees living in Syracuse, NY. This thematic expansion grew out of the experience of making Children of War in 2002. We are currently embarking on a new piece with 651 Arts about the civil rights movement in Brooklyn called Movement 63. And my company will partner with child sexual abuse prevention organizations in Massachusetts, Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan and New York City to create Secret Survivors productions in their communities. The Undesirable Elements project has taken me and my collaborators to places we never expected. And we are not done yet.

Julie Haverkate: Are you currently working on a new piece, and if so, could you tell us a little bit about that that?

Ping Chong: I want to make a show about human trafficking. I have also always wanted to make a piece with New York City cab drivers, a community I see as a microcosm of difference. Undesirable Elements has taken me to places – geographic, psychic and spiritual – that I never imagined, and it continues to inspire me.

You can purchase your copy of Undesirable Elements: Real People, Real Lives, Real Theater here. Learn more about UE 92/12: 20th Anniversary Commemorative Performance at The Greene Space, NYC on Monday, November 26 at 7:00 PM here.

Ping Chong is an internationally acclaimed theatre director, playwright, and pioneer in the use of media in the theater. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, USA Artist Fellowship, two BESSIE awards and two OBIE awards, Mr. Chong’s work has been presented at major festivals and theatres around the world throughout his 40 year career. His adaptation of Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was presented at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in 2010. His puppet theater work Cathay: Three Tales of China was presented at Seattle Repertory Theatre, the Kennedy Center, New Victory, the Vienna Festival, The People’s Theater in Xi’an and the 2012 UNIMA Festival in Chengdu, China. In 1992, Ping Chong created the first work in the Undesirable Elements (UE) series of interview-based projects examining the lives of individuals living as “outsiders” in their communities, performed by the individuals themselves.  Since then, Ping Chong & Company (PCC) has created nearly 50 UE productions. Photo by Adam Nadel

Julie Haverkate is the Marketing Associate at Theatre Communications Group. Previously, she has worked at Meadow Brook Theatre (Rochester, MI), as well as in the literary offices of Electric Pear Productions and the Summer Play Festival in NYC. Julie has lectured and presented at conferences internationally, and her book, PARADE Diverges, was published by VDM. In addition to dramaturging every now and again, she also writes the blog Critical Confabulations and is a proud alumna of Florida State University (M.A. Theatre Studies ’08).