LATW Presents: Top Secret China

This short documentary on the tour of TOP SECRET in China gives a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to take this play, with its themes of freedom of the press, to three cities in China – and at the reaction of the audience and the Chinese government.

Top Secret attracts global media attention

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Cowan’s play on press freedom completes tour in China

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, a docu-drama co-written by CCLP director Geoffrey Cowan and the late Leroy Aarons, was performed in China in November and December 2011. The L.A. Theatre Works production was performed in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. The tour was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Top Secret was last presented during a successful Off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop in 2010.

This China production of Top Secret was directed by award-winning director Stephen Sachs. The cast included well known actors from stage, screen, and television including Henry Clarke, JD Cullum, James Gleason, Nicholas Hormann, Amy Pietz, Russell Soder, Josh Stamberg, Peter Van Norden, Steve Vinovich and Tom Virtue.

In conjunction with performances, CCLP presented post-performance discussions with Cowan and other special guests in partnership with China’s leading law and journalism schools. This provided a valuable opportunity to contextualize the content of the play, which is authentically American, within Chinese society.

In addition to the performances and discussions, Cowan delivered the prestigious F.Y. Chang lecture, a joint program of Peking University Law School, Tsinghua University Law School and the Harvard University Law School East Asian Legal Studies Program.

Links to coverage:
Voice of America
New York Times
Los Angeles Times

Tour Details

November 21 – 26, 2011 / Shanghai
Seven performances in the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center’s Annual International Contemporary Theatre Festival
Panel discussions with Cowan and NYU Shanghai public interest law professors and Fudan University School of Journalism.
One performance at the Peking University (PKU) School of Transnational Law as part of the celebrations in honor of PKU Shenzhen’s 10th Anniversary;
Panel discussions, lectures, and workshops with bilingual law students, law professors, and local community led by law school Dean Jeffrey Lehman and Cowan.

November 29 – 30, 2011 / Guangzhou
Two performances at Sun Yat-Sen University
Panel discussions with Cowan about the role of journalists and journalism in society

December 1 – 5, 2011 / Beijing
Four performances at the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture’s Annual International Theater and Dance Festival
Panel discussions and lectures at the Comparative Law Program at Renmin University of China Law School; Peking University; Tsinghua University
Panel discussions with the American Bar Association.

NPR on Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers

NPR’s Margot Adler filed this report on the current New York Theatre Workshop production of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers.  Download the audio here.

Adler quotes from the March 3, 2010 post-show discussion with David Rudenstine, Todd Gitlin, and Steve Wasserman, in which these scholars contrasted the historical context in which the play takes place with the different political climate that exists today.

Listen to Nixon’s Response to the Pentagon Papers’ Publication at National Security Archive Blog

Nate Jones at the National Security Archive Blog just put up this post that includes the audio of the June 14, 1971 tape from President Nixon’s White House recording system in which Nixon responds to the New York Times‘s publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Included in this tape is H.R. Haldeman’s memorable quote – a quote that is included in Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, in which Haldeman notes that even though the content of the Pentagon Papers may be “gobbledygook” to the public

. . . out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants [them] to do even though it’s wrong. And the president can be wrong.

Jones notes that

In time for Sunshine Week, the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America” (which relied upon National Security Archive documents) has re-raised the issues of government secrecy, national security, and which types of information the American public has the right to know.

We’d add that Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers does the same.

Huffington Post calls Top Secret: Battle for the Pentagon Papers an “Important Stage Documentary”

In this review on the Huffington Post, David Finkle contextualizes the current New York Theatre Workshop peformance of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers within the recent ascent of staged documentaries, noting:

. . . we’re living in the age of the stage documentary. . . . The intent behind these stage documentaries is to inform audiences on the truth behind significant events while appearing to be more entertaining than actual newsroom accounts.

About Top Secret, Finkle highlights several “nuggets” found in the show that “the concerned citizen doesn’t want to be without,” including:

. . . [the] story of how The Washington Post, under the command of publisher Katharine Graham (Kathryn Meisle) and editor Ben Bradlee (Peter Strauss), sought successfully to obtain a copy of the purloined artifact and to publish its contents after The New York Times had been stopped by court order.

. . .

[the story of] a court case won as the direct result of the astonishing memory of Post reporter George Wilson (Matt McGrath) . . . [and] Bradlee’s determination to get his hands on the Pentagon Papers and to publish as much of it as he and staff warranted vital for readers’ enlightenment.

Although noting that Post editor Bradlee supported publication in part, of course, protect the public’s right to know, Finkle is also finds informative the play’s dramatization of Bradlee’s other compelling motivation: to defeat the “humiliation of being scooped by The New York Times on what was essentially a Washington story.”

As Finkle says:

He was going to find a way to right the imbalance, and he did. In other words, in his campaign there’s the element of “boys with their toys.” Intriguingly, that’s not too far removed from the king-of-the-mountain games being played by Nixon and his coterie in the Oval Office. And just maybe those apparently unavoidable male inclinations explain why the situations leading to the Pentagon Papers disclosures served in no way as a deterrent in, say, the George W. Bush administration, where men at their power maneuvers thought little or nothing of lying as a means to justify their long-planned ends.

While applauding it for raising these important questions and modern day resonances, Finkle claims that documentary theater is not really “theater.”  As he puts it: “Although billed as plays, these theatrical entries aren’t that. They’re news reports outfitted with theatrical accoutrements. . . ”

What do you think?  Is a documentary play based on real events and transcripts, with actors portraying real people, not really a “play”?  Why or why not?

Finkle notes The Exonerated as another recent documentary “play” in this genre.  Exonerated creators Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen will join Top Secret playwright Geoffrey Cowan and Tectonic Theater Project member and co-creator of The Laramie Project Greg Pierotti for a talkback following the Friday, March 12 performance of Top Secret. Perhaps they can explore this question.