Meet Carolina Performing Arts’ New Director, Alison Friedman

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We chat with Alison about growing up in D.C., her work in Hong Kong and making her mark in Chapel Hill

Photo courtesy of UNC-Chapel Hill.

Interview by Jessica Stringer, Chapel Hill Magazine Editor

When do you move back to the United States?
Sept. 1. First I fly to D.C. [where] I’ll be with my parents for probably about a week or so. And then we’ll drive down to Carolina. I haven’t figured out housing yet. It’s typhoon season in Hong Kong, so there are some perfect days coming up to huddle up in a cozy cafe somewhere and just do a deep dive on real estate links.

I read that you completed an arts management fellowship program at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Growing up in the city, did you ever attend any performances at venues like that one?
Totally. I was really lucky to be able to do some projects with the [Kennedy Center] as a high school student. One was when my high school choir teacher, Rickey Payton, got a bunch of [us] students to sing backup for Jessye Norman in the Kennedy Center Honors awards the year she was honoring Sidney Poitier. It was absolutely one of the most phenomenal things to witness how that entire production happened.

How did you think growing up in D.C. and having those early exposures to the arts affected your career path?
I went to Sidwell Friends, which is a private school, and what a lot of Rickey’s programs did was try to get private school kids and public school kids to do collaborations together. It was essentially using the arts to build bridges, and that’s what my entire career has been about. So I think seeds were definitely planted. And then I also had opportunities to do summer programs and to study abroad in college. Any time I traveled, to be able to see what local arts practices were, was crucial in getting an insight beyond the surface. All of those really influenced the trajectory of my career, which is using the arts to build bridges and bring people together.

How were you involved in the arts in college?
My major was comparative literature [in the Chinese language]. I always loved writing poetry as a kid, and I knew that China had this ancient history of literature, one of the oldest literature canons in the world that was still around today. And then [for] extracurriculars, I did dance and theater and music; Brown University had a West African dance program that I was very involved in, and I did a lot of school plays. And then I had opportunities to study abroad in China. In 2002, when I graduated, I went to Beijing on a Fulbright fellowship to research performance in China … and I never left.

Wow, so accepting the position and returning to the U.S. is a big change for you after all these years. What was it about the role that attracted you?
So many things. I think what’s so exciting about CPA is both what it does and where it is in its evolution. In 15 years, which really is not a very long time, it’s built this phenomenal reputation nationally, even internationally – people are aware of the work that Emil [Kang] and the team have done. [CPA is] known for doing work that’s not about one-off wonders, where some [group or artist] comes in and then leaves; instead [CPA is] really invested in process, in artistic residencies and engagement. So already, the mission of CPA is in alignment with the kind of work that I’m interested in. And what’s really exciting about where it is, is at 15 years, it’s no longer a startup. And it’s not yet a calcified institution. We’re at this moment where we get to ask and then together answer the question, what’s next?

Will you jump right into planning the current season, or the one after that?
I won’t touch the existing season, because they’ve done an amazing job planning it; [I’ll be] looking at where we can augment opportunities. My favorite exercise coming into any situation or in reviewing anything is your basic add, subtract, keep. So what do you keep that’s working? What do we need to add, and what’s maybe not working anymore [that] we need to get rid of. Actually, that’s how I used to do all post-production reflections with teams.

So what have you heard about Chapel Hill and the area that excites you about moving here?
I love the outdoors, being on hikes or in the water. And I’m excited by how much accessibility there is. [You drive] in one direction, you can be at the beach; you go in the other direction, there are lakes and mountains and hiking trails. My aunt and uncle actually live in Durham, so my cousins grew up in the area. The two longest times that I’ve spent [here] were both with the American Dance Festival. I went myself in 2002, right after graduating [college], and then in 2011, I brought a Chinese modern dance company to perform in the festival. So I’m definitely new, but not 100% a stranger. I’ve been amazed how many people say they know somebody in the area, and every single person I talked to has raved about quality of life there. Nobody said ‘Chapel Hill?’ Surprising numbers of people from different walks of life, from different countries and backgrounds, [have] all said, ‘Oh, yeah, we know about North Carolina. We know about Chapel Hill.’

Getting back to the role you’re leaving, how long have you been in your position as artistic director for performing arts for the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong?
Just under four years. I came at the end of 2017.

What was that like?
The West Kowloon Cultural District is unique because it’s one of the largest arts and cultural developments in the world. There’s 100 acres of land right on Victoria Harbour where it’s been designated to be a cultural district. So we’re building five performing arts centers, two museums, a huge outdoor public park space, and then a bunch of commercial real estate that I’m not involved in. We opened the first performing arts venue, a big Chinese opera house, in January 2019. I came at the end of 2017, and that first year was really [spent] planning the opening seasons with my teams. But it was also a lot of construction, making sure that the architects and actually, at that point, the engineers, were delivering what they said they would, so the stage, the acoustics, the equipment, the seating, the bathrooms and the accessibility. And then in June 2019, we opened our second venue called Freespace, which is a big black box theater.

We invited [artists] like Wayne McGregor from the U.K. and [Ryuichi] Sakamoto, who’s a really well-known Japanese musician based in New York. And then, the protests in Hong Kong started, which disrupted a lot of our planning … and then the whole thing shut down because of COVID-19. So my job as an artistic director these last four years has been very different than what a usual artistic director’s job would be – working with your programming team to come up with the artistic vision and identity of a building and then curate a season of performances, workshops and community engagement activities that deliver that vision and mission for your community.

How did the pandemic affect your work?
Hong Kong had a much more fortunate experience than a lot of places. Hong Kong is a city of 7 million people, and so on Jan. 29, 2020, the government shut all the theaters, all the gymnasiums, public swimming pools, libraries – anything that was a public space was shut down. Hong Kong had gone through SARS, so the city respondedso rapidly. Everybody wears masks. And so the cases really didn’t get incredibly out of control. … Actually, I’m proud to say that West Kowloon [was] the first organization in Hong Kong to go digital as a response to COVID. Theaters shut Jan. 29, and on Feb. 7, we were livestreaming three shows a week for six weeks [at cafe restaurants that had theaters].

Like lots of places, we were experimenting with different things. One of the programs that a local theater director launched was really, I thought, beautifully relevant to what was going on. Even though the theaters were shut, we were still allowed to use them as long as there was no public. He created these portraits of 30 different Hong Kong theater, film and TV stars, who were [one at a time] brought into the theater, facing the audience in pitch black, and then they just banged on the house lights. They were confronted with this empty theater, and they had a few minutes to improvise their response. The film is shot from behind them. And it was so raw, so relevant, and it was also the moment where we realized digital could help introduce artists to other audiences who weren’t in Hong Kong. That was one of the examples of using the time and the digital space to make relevant work.

What food from Hong Kong are you going to miss most?
I’m going to miss spicy Sichuan and Hunan food, two of the spiciest cuisines. I’m hoping that [Chapel Hill will] have good Southern spices. But I’m excited to learn about the right kind of North Carolina barbecue. 

Favorite city or town: Oh, that’s too hard. I’m hoping it will be Chapel Hill.

Favorite food: Anything spicy or gummy candy. One of my favorite things when traveling is trying gummy candy in different countries.

Book you’ve finished recently: “Educated” by Tara Westover.

Favorite unexpected city for the arts: Vilnius, Lithuania. It’s a gorgeous city, and it has a phenomenal dance festival. And [also] D.C. I think people think of it as a politics city. Between all the theaters, all of the Smithsonian’s 19 different museums and galleries and a ton of festivals in the summer, I think it’s actually a surprisingly artsy city.

Favorite visual artists: Hilma af Klint, Wu Guanzhong and Gordon Parks.

Favorite museum: Growing up, I loved going to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C. I think my new favorite is getting to finally go see the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Three dream dinner party guests: For a night of the mind rooted in relevance: Bayard Rustin, Muriel Rukeyser and Sun Zi (Sun Tzu). For hearing another history: Wu Zetian, Hypatia of Alexandria and Pauli Murray. And for the best dinner party of the decade: Dolly Parton, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Oumi Janta.

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Chapel Hill Mag Intern

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