I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Ping Chong is a theatrical and visual artist and the Artistic Director of The Fiji Theater Company. In 1985, his season at La MaMa ETC included Nosferatu and a revival of an earlier work Nuit Blanche. He recently completed a guest artist residency at MIT’s Committee for the Visual Arts. Ping Chong’s next work, Kind Ness will open at La MaMa ETC this May.
Pablo Vela was teaching French literature when he was asked to direct his first play, Camus’s Caligula. Not finding a translation to his liking, he did his own and in the process saw the whole play. “I knew the characters, I saw the costumes, the sets. It was a very bizarre experience, and I discovered I had this skill, which is putting on shows, directing plays.”
Pablo Vela first performed in a Ping Chong work, Humbolt’s Current in 1977.
Allen Frame Pablo and Ping, you both collaborate, as directors, with your actors and you both work towards historical world views. Is the similarity coincidental?
Ping Chong I think it has to do with our cultural similarities in a funny way.
Pablo Vela My father’s Mexican, my mother isn’t. A large part of the time when I was growing up we lived in South Texas. It was very difficult being Mexican in South Texas, and being halfMexican was even more difficult. So it placed me outside looking in at what was happening. Which is what a director does. You’re outside of the work looking in and trying to understand what’s going on with the actors and what you’re doing.
PC We’ve talked about that similarity. There we were coming from our respective ghettos in America.
AF Ping, where are you from?
PC I grew up in Chinatown in New York. And it doesn’t matter that I grew up in New York because when you grow up in Chinatown, for all intents and purposes, you’re living in a ghetto—a world entirely self-enclosed, so the geography doesn’t change anything. I was aware of the fact that the world I was living in was very restricted, and I knew there was a much bigger world out there and much more information and things to be known about, and I had a desire to know it, and I assume Pablo, that may be somewhat the same with you.
PV Well, in the Middle West when I was a kid there was nothing. There was no theater. There were just the movies. There was no such thing as a bad movie for me. Any movie was by definition wonderful, and I went to as many as I possibly could.
PC I spent my whole childhood at the movies.
PV So that was really an escape. You see this whole other world out there and you want to be a part of it in the worst way. As far as any exposure to theater, zero. No exposure to music other than pop music—radio music … . and of course, Mexican music which is wonderful. On the radio in those days, they played what they called “race records.” That was terrific.
PC What do you mean by “race records”?
PV Well, it’s black music, what we call soul now. It evolved into Motown and all kinds of things. Wonderful singers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe who was one of my idols, and very much a part of my world. I played her on the jukebox, heard her on the radio. She lived in San Antonio.
PC How old were you when you left Texas?
PV Seventeen or 18. I knew I wanted to get out in the worst way, and I knew I wanted to come to New York. Classic.
PC The time when I really left Chinatown was when I went to high school on 57th St. That was like going to the big city. And that’s when I was 18, and actually, that’s kind of late. Maybe that has something to do with this way of looking at the world in our work, and seeing it always as an outsider or as the other.
PV There’s also that need to create a world which you can control and which is an extension of yourself, in which you’re calling the shots, which doesn’t happen in real life. One of the great discoveries for me when I started directing was that you see your imagination out there in three dimensions. You can actually walk around it, walk upon stage and walk into it. You visualize these things, they’re in your head, and suddenly there they are. So you can, in a sense, look at your mind and find out a lot about yourself.
AF As I think about it, there’s a difference in the political perspectives in your work. The politics of Pablo’s Ozone Cabaret, for instance, are topical, and the perspective on the past serves an apprehensive view of the future—the theme of an “endangered species.” With Ping’s work I get more of a sweeping historical perspective. In Nuit Blanche for instance, there’s an epic progression from the 19th through the 20th century, even when the theme is as topical as Central American politics.
PC The thing that’s interesting about Nuit Blanche is how amazingly more topical it is now. The press never noticed the political aspect of the piece back when we first did it. It really upset me. And it’s quite interesting that now people see it quite clearly as a political piece. Originally they had no idea it was about human history or how history worked.
AF Pablo, I was impressed by your staging of The Ozone Cabaret—the warm and personal, cumulative impact from performer to performer. In Ping’s work the impact for me finally rests with a single symbolic image. such as the stunning, sacrificial cow in Nuit Blanche, a non-verbal image.
PC My background is in the visual arts and film and what I’ve always liked best in films is when things speak for themselves visually. I think I’ve continued that into my theater work a great deal—of using, whenever possible, a visual means of communication as opposed to a verbal one when it’s absolutely appropriate to do so. It’s a balancing of the elements, a different kind of balancing than in traditional theater.
AF Ping, your work makes use of technology. Pablo’s seems to avoid it. Some of the constructions in the Cabaret have a deliberate naive charm, whereas in Ping’s work, although you have costumes or masks that suggest an earlier era, there’s a very strong technological thrust—projections, sophisticated recorded sound, etc.
PC To me, they are two sides of a contemporary issue; the secular and technological, and its relationship to the spiritual or the primal. It’s part of the issue I’m dealing with in my work—the 20th-century dilemma of being spiritually disconnected. I feel that the technical means themselves have a resonance—to the audience, just because they’re there. That is how visual elements speak. It’s not so much the visual aspect as the gestalt of the medium itself. If you use slides or electronic sound or recorded sound as opposed to a live person speaking with no microphone, let’s say, it’s an entire world we’re talking about then, metaphysically. So I’m always playing the technical and the spiritual against each other because I feel that’s a major metaphysical problem to be dealt with in the 20th century.
PV Your show in the I. M. Pei building at MIT …
PC That’s exactly what it’s about. At MIT I was asked to create anything I wanted, and I decided to do a purely visual project, an installation. I divided the gallery space into two floors, a duplex. The floor/ceiling cut across the room at eye level and one stood looking in. The upper room is five feet off the ground, with a door and an exit sign. It’s a totally modern gallery space, and I left it, but you still saw the studs on the bottom where the siding had not been put in. I added other elements, like huge plates with sockets on the floor so it suggests a modern archetypal work space rather than a private home. And there were elements that suggested it was still under construction, or something was about to be moved in, such as dollies and two huge cable sockets plugged into one of the downstage plates and going out the door. It was lit by four huge industrial lamps that came down much closer to the floor than would be normal.
The lower floor is a pond with water lilies and duckweed and a stone well in the middle of the pond completely overgrown with grass. Lit all the way around the perimeter of the lower room is moss, which grows along a stone ledge. Above that and on all three sides of the wall are very shallow shelves, about three inches wide that hold 1800 little tablets that are almost like Gothic windows. The shelves are vermilion red and the tablets are shellacked with a mustard color. This image came from a room in the Forbidden Palace in Peking which contains Buddhist tablets. I didn’t put the Buddhist image on them because I didn’t want to make specific the culture. Some of the shelves were covered with black chintz and royal blue silk and the downstage right-hand shelves had strands of black hair laid out with binding all the way in even increments. And then there were little Chinese drinking cups, like wine cups lined upon part of those shelves too, and in the water there were five enamel basins with various herbs and strange kinds of organic things floating on the top of the pond. You heard water trickling the whole time. And the lights were all set up on computers so that the room below could go completely dark and the room above light up. The light changes between the two rooms to a cycle which lasts 15 minutes. The project’s called Kind Ness. I was interested in the technological and the primal and their relationship to meditation.
AF Ping, it’s interesting to me that Nosferatu evolved from your original idea into something quite different because of the improvisational work the actors did, the shifts they brought to it.
PC The results were very much in line with my own philosophy and thinking, even though it was a surprise to me the way it turned out, because the whole Nosferatu idea goes back a long way for me, even before I started to do theater, still, the results were consistent with everything I’ve done. If you see Nuit Blanche next to Nosferatu which was five years later you can still see the consistency, even though certainly there are some differences. The original ideas I was interested in are still there—the issue of man and his other. Originally, the idea was, what if a vampire were just like us. The only difference being their eating habits. What happens then? It’s always this thing of the mirror—of your other, of man and his other.
AF Pablo, in Ozone Cabaret you had such a variety of outstanding performers, a lot of whom usually perform their own work.
PV Well, yes, I knew Danitra Vance and David Cale through BACA and I loved their work. I asked them to be in it. It was co-directed and designed by Julia Demaree; she did that “endangered species fashion show.” I had had the idea years ago of doing something that was going to be called Dead Star Disco. Every once in a while the disco music would stop and you would pay tribute to a dead star, not a dead star in the heavens, but people. And so that worked in with Endangered Species. You know, animals, the human race at the present time, and endangered species in the sense that the more special you are, the more endangered you are. So we worked on that idea, using recordings of artists like Alberta Hunter, Caruso. They were all dead, but the funny thing is that very few people got it. I thought we were being very obvious. The Cabaret started off with the recording of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy. I thought I was hitting people on the head, but it turned out I wasn’t, I was too subtle. Can you believe it?
PC That may be because sometimes the thing you’re using has other connotations, and they can possibly look at it in another way. I think that sometimes happens, don’t you?
PV Yeah but also a cabaret is an entertainment, so the audience is not looking for major or cosmic themes.
AF How did you start using the format of the cabaret?
PV I started doing cabarets at Goddard when I was teaching there: they were called Café Pablo. And I found I was very at home in that form. Also, I’m always in the cabarets as the emcee. That’s the director on stage, directing the timing and bringing people on and off, but when I directed other plays, it was very different. I don’t see how people do it, to direct a show and be in it at the same time. I don’t think I could do that, but in cabaret you’re the director and you’re onstage and you’re calling the shots. You’re opening doors for performers if the doors have to be opened or if they need to be closed, you close. You’re there to … .
PV Facilitate, to really take care of the performers and then by extension, you’re taking care of the audience, and audiences love to be taken care of. They love to feel that someone is looking after them and looking out for them. Then they can relax and have a good time because they know they’re safe, and you can be pretty outrageous if the audience knows that—that they’re not going to be violated in any way and that you have their interests at heart. Then anything can happen. The defenses are down, all the way. I feel very comfortable in that form. I have no explanation for that except maybe I like taking care of people.
AF Ping, you’ve worked with Meredith Monk for many years. How do you preserve your identity when you work that closely with somebody?
PC You shout and fight a lot. You do. Collaborations are never easy. You just have to stand your ground when you really have a point to make. It’s really that simple. If you do a collaboration, it has to be that way; otherwise, it’s not a collaboration. So we fight and scream a lot.
AF Have you used dance often in your work?
PC Yes. The piece I made right after Nosferatu and the piece after Nuit Blanche both were non-verbal and very choreographic. Whenever I do a text piece, the next one tends to be much more non-verbal.
AF Pablo, you’ve acted in Ping’s work. How is he different as a director from you? Or similar?
PV When I was teaching and directing at Goddard College, I directed plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Moliere, Cocteau, that kind of theater. Also an adaptation I wrote of Breakfast at Tiffany’s of all things, because I hated the movie so much. Guess who was in it. David Mamet. He was a student at the time; he played the narrator. I did these shows because I wanted to, but also because I was learning my craft. I was used to working in, let’s say, traditional theater. It’s just a way of working with actors that’s very different. But, talking about the similarities, since I started doing theater, I’ve been exposed to a lot of, in a positive sense, radioactive people, and I’ve become radioactive myself, so even though I’m using different methods, the results are very similar. I just happened to be at Goddard in the ’60s and the ’60s hit Goddard with a tremendous impact. Everybody came there, the Living Theater, San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Bread and Puppet Theater, you name it, they were around. I was there, by some fluke, in the middle of it.
AF Ping, what percentage of the people you work with continue from production to production?
PC In Nosferatu all the leads had worked with me more than once, And most of them had worked with me for at least four shows. So, they’re really part of the Fiji Company. As a matter of fact, there was only one person who had never worked with me before in the cast, in a minor role, the woman in red.
AF How difficult is it to hold a group like that together?
PC I haven’t found it difficult.
PV We just did Quarry again.
PC And almost the entire original cast was in it.
PV Nine years later. It’s pretty amazing to think that’s possible and very encouraging. Coming back to it nine years later—so much had happened. There had been births, deaths, marriages, nine years more performing experience which really made a difference.
PC Yeah, I performed. I don’t perform very much anymore, and last year I did Nuit Blancheand Quarry, and it was the most satisfying performance I’d ever done. I was totally taken by surprise. When I walked out on stage I felt more present than I’d ever felt before.
PV When we went back to Nuit Blanche and did those scenes together, with several years between—
PC Five years.
PV —It was home free.
PC Yeah, we played better this time than we ever did.
PV A lot more levels and resonances and it’s easier somehow but much richer. I just know him so much better. And performing with you I knew where you were and I felt you knew where I was so we had a freedom to turn double flips and five years ago maybe we could do one flip but not it double.
AF What’s next?
PV I’m going to do a cabaret at BACA Downtown based on Max Beckmann’s painting. das MAX cabaret. I have no idea what it’s going to be about, none whatsoever. But I know it’s not going to be a 1930s cabaret.
PC Often, I do the same thing. With Nosferatu by the time I started rehearsal I had some idea what I was doing, but it is not uncommon for me to start working on it—this year with the new show I’m doing at La MaMa all I have is the title, which is Kind Ness. There’s enough resonance in that word to go in a lot of directions. Ironically, I have less time to put this together than I’ve ever had for any show I’ve opened in New York—four weeks.
AF How much time did you have for Nosferatu?
PC Eight, nine weeks. That’s all I ever have. Nosferatu was one of the more effortless shows for me. Nuit Blanche actually was quite difficult for a long time. And we had three months back in those days. Time is funny. How much time you have doesn’t necessarily make a better or worse show.
PV I remember when we did Humboldt’s Current. It was very informal. It was, like, “Let’s get together and do a show.” You’d use sheets for curtains and it would just happen. Ping, now don’t you think your way of working has become more sophisticated in terms of lighting, design, use of sound’?
PC It’s done in a more “professional” way. I don’t mean that qualitatively. It’s just the nature of it now. The earlier works were more like poems and the later work is more like poetic prose. Humboldt’s Current was prose, narrative, but it was lyrical, very poetic. Even though there was a narrative line, it evaporated at the same time it was happening. The early work was much more raw and awkward, and I have no problems with that. I really don’t care about perfection that much. You aim for it, but I don’t think it’s important in the end, and an awkward work can be just as much a living thing as a human being.
PV I like to see the seams in shows, to understand as a member of the audience how it’s put together and that nothing is being hidden from me. Audiences get so tense, wondering, “Am I supposed to see this or not?” looking for mistakes, but if you open it up and have the feeling—“I don’t care if you see the seams or that it’s hemmed by hand”—then, who cares? That’s part of it. Don’t worry about it, enjoy the show.
AF Ping, who are some artists you’re paying attention to?
PC I think a little bit of Cézanne, who brought structure into painting. I think we’re in a situation where we’ve recognized the death of the old structure and we have to find our way to a new structure. There’s so much experimental work that’s just lacking, lacking, lacking, and a lot of it has to do with not knowing how to make new structures.
PV I have a little story about something that happened yesterday. I was thinking about it in connection with cabaret as opening a door on the world we’re living in now, 1985, NYC. I was in the subway and I saw two theater posters displayed. I was with a friend and he said, “Look at those posters.” And I looked at them, and said, “What are you talking about?” A poster for La Cage Aux Folles was right next to a poster for As Is. And I had seen it and just didn’t register what that was. I thought, This is what I’d like cabaret to be, opening your eyes to what’s really there.
Allen Frame is a New York photographer whose productions can most often be seen at BACA. He is currently staying in London.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee