Undesirable Elements began in the Fall of 1992 in a dimly lit gallery, scattered spotlights and seven people in a circle. Audience members gathered at Artists Space in Lower Manhattan to witness a live performance to go with a visual arts installation created by Ping Chong called A Facility for The Channeling and Containment of Undesirable Elements.
The performance invited a diverse group of participants (Cochise Anderson, Eva Gasteazoro, Emerald Trinket Monsod, Hiromi Sakamoto, Tania Salmen, Regine Anna Seckinger and Olga Kyrychenko Shuhan) to share their life experiences, challenging who may be perceived as “undesirable elements” in an age of Reaganomics and neoliberalism. An inspired audience member watching the piece wanted to bring it to their hometown in Cleveland. Rather than touring the piece, Ping Chong created a new work with local participants, thus catalyzing a now longstanding form of interview-based theater that has become an essential platform of Ping Chong and Company’s work.
“The process is deceptively simple.” says Ping Chong in his artist statement for Undesirable Elements. “I interview people within a community who come from different cultures — broadly defined. I ask them about where they are from, the history of their cultures, their experiences living in the community where we are making the piece. From these interviews I weave a performance text that the individuals perform as an ensemble.”
Undesirable Elements are structured with three levels of impact in mind, all fostering a greater understanding between individuals and communities. Associate Director Sara Zatz, who is a long-time lead artistic collaborator on Undesirable Elements, describes the process as “dropping a stone in a lake, and then you get the ripples.” The first level of impact, and often the most intimate, is building the connection between cast members in the rehearsal process. This is fostered by being in community through shared stories, identities, and experiences. The second level is the cast publicly sharing their stories to an audience and having that audience connecting with and learning from their stories. Lastly, and the most important level in sustaining Undesirable Elements over time, is its impact. Audience members go back to their own communities to share experiencing an Undesirable Elements production and its resonance.
“Undesirable Elements exists as an open framework that can be brought to any community, and be tailored to suit the needs and issues facing that community. Each production is made with a local host organization, a theater, museum, university, arts center, or community organization, with local participants testifying to their real lives and experiences” says Zatz, emphasizing the community partnerships created with an Undesirable Elements production. “It is a deeply collaborative process, one that requires the establishment of significant trust, and constantly seeks to balance artistic vision with the need to honor the authentic voices and stories of the participants.”
The script is always performed by the interviewees themselves, and they retain a final right of review and approval. Most have never before spoken publicly about their life experiences; many have never before performed on stage. The cumulative long-term impact of this experience is often where the final resonance lies with any Undesirable Elements production, as the original participants and audience members bring Undesirable Elements and its effect to their own communities.
The Undesirable Elements series is an expansive geographic endeavor, with productions in New York, Seattle, Rotterdam, Tokyo, Chicago, Wisconsin, Berlin, and more. The Undesirable Elements form evolved from shared geographic experiences in its early work to shared lived experiences with the catalyzing Children of War in 2002, highlighting youth’s experiences of civil turmoil and domestic trauma from countries around the world. From there, the Undesirable Elements series continued centering communities with diverse geographies, ages, races, socio-economic statuses, and ultimately stories. For example, 2018’s Undesirable Elements/Dearborn, centering Arab American Muslim women in in Dearborn, Michigan, managed to use the intersection of place, race, gender, and religion as the anchor of its performance.
The Undesirable Elements project has had over 60 productions nationally and internationally, ranging beyond its titular theme to uplifting common identities. Its methodology strives to always be in partnership with communities and to invite collaboration with artists and team members to utilize for their own practice and communities. As such, a training model was created so that other people, artists and non-artists alike, can bring its pedagogy to their communities. Out of the Undesirable Elements series was born the Secret Histories arts education program, an in-school residency through Ping Chong and Company where the company brings the Undesirable Elements methods to New York City students and young audiences. The company has also created videos, toolkits, and workshops to expand the impact of the work beyond theatrical settings.
Edwin Aguila, an interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn and cast member of Generation NYZ says about the Undesirable Elements process that it “created a new family for me, but it was the hearts of the people that we touched that gave me the reassurance that performing is what I want to do for the rest of my life. People coming up to us after the shows and thanking us, it just meant that they really listened to us be in a vulnerable spot on stage.” And perhaps that is the secret of Undesirable Elements as a whole, its ability to create vulnerable, brave space for both cast and audience.
Alisa Solomon ends her introduction to Undesirable Elements: Real People, Real Lives, Real Theater by saying that UE “present[s] Americans who are neither to be despised and feared nor to be superficially celebrated. But to be attended to, recognized, and heard.” And in being heard, Undesirable Elements is designed to transform for the needs of a community. And in moments where it is harder to stand in truth, it is these theater forms we can lean on for those that come after us.