Renowned interdisciplinary artist Ping Chong didn’t use the word “pioneer” Friday to describe his body of work, but as he detailed several of his shows from the latter half of a 50-year career, one could have said what he’s done for theater since the 1970s was indeed pioneering.
He told a crowd during a lunchtime lecture in the Nafe Katter Theatre that changes in the arts world started happening just before he came of age, beginning with visual artists who started to question why paintings had to hang on a wall and why they had to be confined to a frame.
American theater, he said, was slow to change, slow to move itself off the stage and consider different ways to tell stories with dance and puppets, perhaps on a rooftop or beside a lake.
But once inventiveness took hold, “there were all kinds of wild, adventurous ideas,” he said. “It was a time of very exciting experimentation.”
Chong, who was in the middle of a three-day residency in the dramatic arts department in the School of Fine Arts that wraps Saturday, started out wanting to be a visual artist and later developed a fraught relationship with film – he loved it, but as an Asian American he would have broken a Hollywood ceiling and, he said, he didn’t have the right disposition to do that.
Then life took a different direction.
An almost New York City native – Chong was born in Toronto and moved to New York as an infant – he took a dance class with performance artist Meredith Monk, yet rebuffed her first invitation to attend an afterhours personal workshop.
He agreed after a second invite, and “if I hadn’t walked into her workshop that night I wouldn’t be here. They call that fate,” he said.
Chong – whose long list of awards and honors includes a USA Artist Fellowship, two BESSIE awards, two OBIE awards, and a 2014 National Medal of Arts presented by President Barack Obama – was among the first theater directors to begin using projection screens, sound, puppetry, lighting, and more to convey his stories. In one show, he re-edited a circa-1950s monster movie and incorporated it into the performance.
In his 1991 “Deshima,” he sat the audience in a mobile box, pulling a curtain around them and piping in music before literally moving them to another part of the performance space and planting them in 16th century Japan.
Then, in his 2014 “Collidescope: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America,” he told the story of Black Americans through a series of vignettes as put on by aliens from outer space.
“Whatever you decide to put in front of people who are watching is theater,” he said.
With influence from his family, who worked in the New York Chinese opera scene, Chong said he expected shows to have a certain pageantry that traditional plays oftentimes don’t.
“I was never going to do naturalism,” he said. “Naturalism killed the imagination.”
Michael Chybowski, UConn associate professor of lighting, said Chong is mostly interested in creating theater as an experience rather than as a narrative, which manifests itself into a final product that is different from theater that would have been seen 300 years ago.
Chong’s visit to UConn has been years in the making, Chybowski explained.
The two worked together in 1989, when Chybowski was recruited to work for theater company Ping Chong and Company and toured the former Yugoslavia with the show “Angels of Swedenborg.” Then in 2011, the show was resurrected for performances at Williams College in Massachusetts and the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa in New York City.
They kept in touch, and just over three years ago, Chybowski began the work of bringing him to UConn, which started with a masterclass Thursday that discussed the elements of staging and using space and images and continued with the lecture Friday along with an evening masterclass on movement and sound. A third masterclass Saturday afternoon will discuss scenes and rehearsals.
Chybowski said students from various theatrical disciplines have been participating, with even designers taking on performance roles.
“Our theater students are going to take away an inspirational story in Ping himself and the expansive outlook that he has,” Chybowski said. “They’re also going to learn it’s possible to look at performance or theater in more than one way.”
Chong noted in his lecture Friday that his theater company is under new leadership as he steps aside and heads into retirement. Only, he’s not fading away.
He said his latest project continues the ongoing series of works under the same title, “Undesirable Elements,” in which he brings a handful of average people onto a stage to tell their story. The show is done in a documentary style and has detailed the experiences of transgender people, Black Americans, and Muslim Americans, among others.
This latest show will feature five Ukrainians, two of them American-born, telling their stories.
“It’s not all about the war, but how much do you know about why Russians are there,” Chong said, noting that history dates to the mid-1700s.
The show will debut in early May in New York City.