Cowan’s ‘Top Secret’ debuts at Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts

NCPA Beijing.JPG

At the invitation of TSChina2013.jpgBeijng’s National Centre for the Performing Arts and sponsored in part by the U.S. Embassy in Beijingand the U.S. Department of StateL.A. Theatre Works (LATW) returns to China in June, 2013 with CCLP director Geoffrey Cowan’s riveting historical drama, Top Secret: The Battle for The Pentagon Papers. LATW toured China with Top Secret in 2011, playing to sold out houses of Chinese professionals and students.

USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy has produced a series of educational conversations around these performances.

L.A. Theatre Works will be the first American theater company to perform at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, China’s leading performing arts center (“The Egg”). Additional tour venues include the Tianjin Grand Theater as well as major venues in Hangzhou, Suzhou, Chongqing and Fuling.

Due to its historic debut on June 4, 2013 the play is receiving national press reviews noting the significance of the content in juxtaposition with the location.

According to The Atlantic:

The play is scheduled for a three-night run at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in June, the first time any American play has appeared inside the grande dame of Chinese music and theater. It’s also set for performances in Tianjin, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Fuling, and Chongqing.

According to The New York Times:

Even more surprising is the fact that the play is back again in China, and this time it is being performed in Beijing at the National Center for the Performing Arts, which, just west of Tiananmen Square, is the most prestigious venue of its kind in China.

Notably, the play is receiving positive reviews from audiences attending the performances via China’s social media site Weibo. The following excerpts are translations from the site following the performances in the provinces of Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Tianjin.


“I watched the play Top Secret from Los Angeles Theater Works. There were only 13 actors and the stage property could not be simpler. However, it contains profound messages that are worth thinking.”

“It’s my first time to watch a play in English. I was able to skip the script screen and catch with the pace of the performance (since the script didn’t follow the performance). The plot was compact and full of humor. The actors from those familiar TV series were terrific. It surprised me that I could watch it on the first floor even though my ticket was on the second.”


“Yesterday, the artists from Los Angeles Theater Works gave us an amazing play, Top Secret: The Battle for The Pentagon Papers. It allowed the audience of Tianjin to have an opportunity to closely experience the American politics, media, law and culture. After the performance, the director, producing director and the actors answered the questions from the audience. The interaction was friendly and of high standard. It was impressive that the beautiful lady from the theater spoke perfect Chinese.”

The play concludes it’s run on June 10, 2013 at the Fuling Grand Theatre in Chongqing.

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers in China is produced by L.A. Theatre Works and Ping Pong Productions (, whose mission is to promote cultural diplomacy through the performing arts.

Sponsors include the United States Embassy Beijing, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs-US Department of State including the Arts Envoy Program, Ford FoundationChina Southern Airlines Los Angeles Office and Marriott Hotels and Resorts, including the Imperial Mansion, Beijing-Marriott Executive Apartments; Renaissance Tianjin Lakeview Hotel; and JW Marriott Hotel Chongqing.

Top Secret attracts global media attention

The recent tour of Top Secret in China has received attention from media outlets all over the world. Below are links to the coverage:

Chinese Allow Play on Pentagon Papers, but Not a Talk About It
The New York Times
December 2, 2011

Pentagon Papers still causing controversy 40 years on (in China)
Los Angeles Times
December 3, 2011

The Pentagon Papers, the Press, and Beijing
New Yorker
December 9, 2011

In Beijing, you just can’t chat about things “Top Secret”
Shanghai Scrap, Bloomberg
December 3, 2011

American Play Center on Free Speech Tours China

Voice of America News
December 5, 2011

STL Students Attended a Performance of “Top Secret”
Peking University School of Transnational Law
November 30, 2011

PKU cancels talk after free speech play

Global Times
December 4, 2011

Le pari (in)sense d’une troupe de theatre americaine en Chine
Le Monde
December 9, 2011

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.

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers Opens at New York Theatre Workshop

On March 9, Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, the documentary play by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons opened at New York Theatre Workshop’s Fourth Street Theater.

Reportedly, Washington Post reporter George Wilson, who played a key role in protecting the Post against the Justice Department’s efforts to enjoin publication, was at the opening.  Wilson is the latest of several Pentagon Papers participants attending the NYTW production.  At a March 7 preview, Linda Amster, a New York Times researcher who worked on that paper’s Pentagon Papers series borrowed the microphone during the post-show discussion (audio available here) to share her memories of the dramatic and passion-filled weeks she spent working on the project.  On Tuesday, March 16, Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND analyst who leaked the Papers to the Times and the Post will share his perspective in a post-show discussion sponsored by the Columbia Journalism Review.

Responding to the opening, theater critics found the play an informative rendering of events that continue to resonate today, with Peter Santilli for the Associated Press writing that although “[i]t has been nearly 40 years since the story played out in the national media, [] the perennial struggle by the press to illuminate government secrets never seems to get old.”  The New York Times’s Charles Isherwood agreed that Top Secret provided an “intelligent and informative” dramatization of a “historic chapter in 20th-century journalism” that “continues to resonate today, as the desire of the government to keep its secrets and the responsibility of the press to monitor its workings come into frequent conflict,” although he took issue with both the presentation of the play as a radio drama and with its focus on the Washington Post‘s perspective.

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.

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers Performance and Discussion Celebrating Leroy Aarons

The Sunday, March 7 performance of Top Secret was followed by a panel discussion honoring the late Leroy Aarons, a Washington Post reporter and bureau chief and founder of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) who was also one of the co-creators of Top Secret.

Click below to hear the audio from Sunday’s post-show discussion.

Audio: Top Secret 03.07.10 Caldwell, Kaiser, Miller, Alba Panel Discussion

Oriol R. Gutierrez Jr. of the NLGJA posted this reflection on Sunday’s performance and discussion, including the following reflections on Leroy Aarons and on Sunday’s event:

Leroy Aarons, the late founder of NLGJA, was a man of many talents. He fused his interest in the theater with his expertise as a news man by co-authoring the play “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers” with Geoffrey Cowan, who most recently was dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

Originally a radio play on NPR, it has been adapted for the stage at LA Theatre Works. In collaboration with New York Theatre Works in the East Village of Manhattan, it is making its first off-Broadway run through March 28.

A special sold-out matinee performance was held on Sunday, March 7, in honor of Roy. Joshua Boneh, Roy’s partner, was in attendance, as were many of Roy’s family, friends, colleagues and admirers.

A panel discussion was held after the performance to discuss Roy’s legacy. Esteemed journalist and author Charles Kaiser, one of the founding members of the New York chapter of NLGJA, was one of the panelists.

. . .

Wonderful acting made sure a good time, as they say, was had by all, capped off by a gathering at a local wine bar after the performance for those in attendance.

I strongly encourage NLGJA members to see this play. It’s a testament to Roy’s talents, but it’s much more than that. It’s a reminder of the important role that the news industry plays in our democracy.

Sunday’s post-show discussion at NYTW featured several people with distinct perspectives on Leroy Aarons and his work.  Earl Caldwell, a renowned former New York Times journalist and contemporary of Aarons, is currently the Scripps Howard endowed professor of journalism at Hampton University and host of the “Caldwell Chronicle” radio program.  Caldwell, who was the first black journalist to write a regular column in a major daily newspaper, also played a unique role in journalistic history, when his refusal to disclose the sources his New York Times reporting on the Black Panthers was one of three cases considered by the Supreme Court in Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972).

Also on the panel was Charles Kaiser, Author, Full Court Press and Founder and Former President, NLGJA NY Chapter.  Kaiser is a renowned commentator on gay issues in the media.

Also participating in the discussion was Rebecca Miller, who acted in the Golden Globe nominated 2009 Lifetime movie Prayers for Bobby.  Prayers for Bobby was based on a book by Aarons which told the true story of a religious, suburban mother struggling to accept her son after she finds out he is gay.  Miller described the numerous emails and letters the cast of the film recieved from teenagers and families across America who received help from the film in working on issues within their own families and community.

Monica Alba, a recent USC graduate, also spoke, describing the impact of a USC journalism course Aarons designed to introduce journalism students there about reporting on sexuality and gender identity.

**Note: In the post-show discussion Sunday, an audience member spoke about a July, 1967 article Aarons wrote for the Post about events in Plainfield, NJ that month that included riots and the death of a policeman.  Click here for access to that article, in which Aarons describes the successful efforts of Donald McDonald, a black NJ government employee, to stave off further violence.

Pentagon Papers Publication as Protest and the Changed Spirit Today

Panelists at two recent TOP SECRET TALKS events reflected on how the events depicted in Top Secret required what they saw as acts of courage by the Washington Post leaders depicted in the show, commenting that perhaps this same courage was less common among the press and the public today.  Tracing this theme back to the originator of the leaked Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, and the process by which he decided to leak the Papers perhaps helps explain the changing times.  What do you think?

UPDATE: Audio Recording of 2.28.2010 and 3.2.2010 Discussions Now Available:

Audio: Top Secret 02.28.10 Schell Panel Discussion

Audio: Top Secret 03.02.10 Panel Discussion with Top Secret Cast

Following the Feb. 28th performance, brothers Orville and Jonathan Schell drew on their deep knowledge of journalism to reflect on the unique story told in the show. First, Jonathan Schell noted that, to him, the Post‘s publication of the Papers resulted from decisions by a series of courageous individuals starting with the front line reporters:  When faced with the possibility that the Post would decline to publish the Papers story, senior reporter Chal Roberts threatened to resign.  This threat inspired a similar one from editor Ben Bradlee, and both threats were communicated to the Post‘s publisher Katharine Graham, which Schell saw as helping to catalyze her own display of courage in ordering the paper to publish.

Orville Schell noted several structural factors that made it harder for reporters today to exercise such independent acts of protest. Citing what he called the failure of the competitive market in journalism, Orville Schell noted that a resignation threat from most journalists today would ring false.  Few papers today have a single person (like Graham) at the helm to whom a reporter, even one making a resignation threat could appeal, since the chain of command at most papers is now more diffuse.

In addition to these structural factors, however, Orville cited a decline a certain spirit of protest, wondering if perhaps young people, including younger reporters, have replaced the hope necessary for courage with a cynicism that you can’t really change anything. Noting what he perceived as a lack of critical interrogation by the media of the lead up to the Iraq War, Jonathan Schell also wondered whether it was a “feistiness” or “protest spirit” unique to the Vietnam era that allowed the events surrounding the Pentagon Papers publication to occur.

After the March 2 Top Secret performance, actor Peter Strauss, who plays Ben Bradlee in the show, expressed a similar feeling.  Strauss appeared on a panel along with other Top Secret cast members and NYTW casting director Jack Doulin.

After becoming familiar with the Post‘s story through his experiences in Top Secret, Strauss described feeling as if the press did a better job during the Pentagon Papers era challenging the government’s version of the lead-up to war.  Like the Schells, he saw the press today as having repeated the government’s version of events, rather than challenging that version, prior to the Iraq War.  In speaking about the contrasting approach of journalists, Strauss likened the courageous acts of the Post‘s journalists to the original act by Daniel Ellsberg in copying and distributing the Pentagon Papers in violation of his legal and other duties to his employers and the Defense Department.

This comment helpfully connected the threatened resignations and other decisive actions at the Post to the prior act of protest that gave journalists the opportunity to take action in the first place, Daniel Ellsberg’s illegal copying and distribution of the Pentagon Papers.  When Ellsberg pressured the reporters to whom he gave the Papers to promise they would use them:  Ellsberg was, in part, burdening the reporters to act as boldly as he did.  So what inspired Daniel Ellsberg?

In The Most Dangerous Man in America, a Pentagon Papers documentary now in theaters, Daniel Ellsberg explains that he did see his copying and distribution of the Papers as an act of protest, and traces his inspiration for that act to what he saw as personal acts of courage displayed by draft resisters.  Only after hearing one such activist describe how he was willing to go to jail to protest the war and stand up for his beliefs did Ellsberg come to grips with his own unease about the war, and begin to feel the spirit of protest deeply enough to violate the codes of secrecy that governed his career as a defense strategist.

Under this view of events, perhaps what is missing today is not merely a critical spirit of protest among journalists, but that same critical spirit among the larger public.  But Ellsberg and the Post journalists made choices to act in protest only when directly confronted with the opportunity to protest not just in the abstract, but regarding events and actions within their sphere of control.  At least under the version of events Ellsberg narrates in the current documentary, his act of protest was directly inspired by, not just a general spirit of protest, but actual acts of protest he saw in the larger public.  Without a draft, the American public –even those who may wish to protest aspects of the current war in theory — are not engaging in actual acts of individual protest today.  To those who wish to see more critical reporting from the press – what acts by the larger public might help inspire more activist reporting?

NYTW’s Top Secret Performance In Previews!

February 24th brought audiences the first preview performances of New York Theatre Workshop’s Spring 2010 presentation of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers.  Audiences young and old have been responding favorably to the opportunity to re-live or experience for the first time the human drama behind the publication of the Pentagon Papers.  The show features great performances from Larry Pine as Richard Nixon, Peter Strauss as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Kathryn Meisle as Post publisher Katharine Graham, Jack Gilpin as the Post‘s lawyer, and Matt McGrath as the Post‘s legendary reporter George Wilson, among many more.  James Gleason brings compelling emotion to the character of Judge Martin Peel, a composite of several judges who heard argument in the Pentagon Papers case.

Previews continue through March 7 and the show opens March 9 with performances scheduled through March 28.

Check out New York Theatre Workshop’s promotional video “How to Expose a Government Conspiracy” below to get in the mood, get your tickets here, and don’t forget to join us for one of the scheduled post-performance panel discussions!

Top Secret Cast in NYC: Preparing for First Preview Feb. 24!

The Top Secret cast, which includes Kathryn Meisle as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Peter Strauss as Post managing editor Ben Bradlee is now in their final rehearsals at New York Theatre Workshop, preparing for their first preview performance Feb. 24.

Check out the New York Times listing here and Playbill’s announcement here! More show information.  See you on opening night!