Arts and Humanities

Alison Friedman wants the arts to reconnect us

The Carolina Performing Arts director says live performance can instill joy, belonging and collective well-being.

Alison Friedman
“My career has been built around using the arts to build bridges between cultures, between people, to show us sides of each other that we don’t see through the press, through politics or through business,” said Friedman. “How do we see our shared humanity? The arts can do that like nothing else.” (Photo by Jen Hughey)

After nearly a year at the helm of Carolina Performing Arts, Alison Friedman is ready for some breathtaking, emotionally potent live performance. She thinks you are, too.

Friedman became the James and Susan Moeser Executive and Artistic Director at Carolina Performing Arts in October of 2021, just as the omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic further postponed in-person performances.

Before coming to Carolina, the Brown University graduate spent two decades working in Asia. Most recently she was artistic director for performing arts for the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in Hong Kong, one of the world’s largest arts and cultural developments. Before that she was founder and executive and creative director of Ping Pong Productions, a pioneering nonprofit performing arts exchange organization based in Beijing that presented more than 250 performance and outreach events annually across five continents.

The Well caught up with Friedman a few weeks before the first performance of the season.

What are you most excited about this fall?

Almost every production this fall is a reschedule from the last two years of COVID cancellations. It’s great to be able to honor those long-term CPA commitments to artists and partners. One thing that makes CPA so special is that it’s not about one-off wonders, but about ensuring that artists have relationships with students and faculty on campus and audiences across the community.

Now that we’re entering whatever this next phase of COVID is, there’s going to be a longer tail than people realize. Putting the pieces back together and helping people reconstruct their livelihoods is crucial. So being able to support artists in their own recovery, to come back and create a sense of normalcy, is exciting. There’s a sense this fall of coming back together and reconnecting.

The other thing we’ve done differently this fall is keep our ticket prices lower than in previous years. It’s about getting people back, recognizing that most people were hit economically these last couple of years and trying to make it accessible for everybody to have these great moments. And, as always, tickets for undergraduate and graduate students are $10, with discounts for faculty and staff.

How can the performing arts help us heal?

Given all we’ve been going through — the health pandemic, racial reckoning, political strife — people feel disconnected. We’re trying to put the pieces back together and figure out what’s next. The arts have a vital role to play in that.

The arts can connect us in many ways, two in particular: One, they allow spaces to have hard conversations in constructive ways. The arts can bring people together in a way that we see our shared humanity through these emotional performances. We can disagree, but we can still connect. The other role the arts can play in bringing us back together — in helping us process and purge all the grief of recent years — is through catharsis, through moments of shared joy in good music and dancing and laughing or crying and sharing all of that.

What events can audiences look forward to this season?

We have only announced the fall season. We’ll announce the spring season on Nov. 1. We have eight major productions this fall, and there will be nearly twice that in the spring, including plenty of classical music.

I’m really excited about our opening show with the Soul Rebels and special guest Big Freedia. The Soul Rebels are an eight-piece brass ensemble from New Orleans. And Big Freedia, who is on Beyoncé’s new album, works in a genre of New Orleans hip-hop called ‘bounce’. What better way to celebrate new beginnings — a kind of a phoenix rising from the ashes — than in grand New Orleans style? That is a city that knows what it means to make it through hardship and keep going. It’s going to be a wild party. This is another example of how we’re center-staging Southern culture through Southern Futures with our partners the College of Arts and Sciences, University Libraries and the Center for the Study of the American South.

I see that the fall lineup includes an interesting production of “Hamlet.”

‘Prince Hamlet’ is a new interpretation by this incredible company called Why Not Theatre. They call it a bilingual production — spoken English and American Sign Language. It’s a very contemporary take on a classic. One of the questions the production asks is: Who gets to tell these stories? And then coming this winter, PlayMakers (Repertory Company) is doing a ‘Hamlet’ production in a very different style. So this is a great moment on Carolina’s campus where two of the major arts institutions are looking at this classic in very different ways.

What else are you looking forward to?

Later in October, choreographer Bill T. Jones, a long-time partner of Carolina, will be back with a project that was scheduled for last January. It’s a partnership with 30 community members who will rehearse with him and then perform with the man himself and his dancers, sharing a stage with a living legend. The spirit or tagline of this production — in pursuit of the elusive “we” — encompasses what the whole fall season is about.

In December, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is coming back. They’re another longtime Carolina Performing Arts partner. They’ll be performing with the award-winning jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves.

The last highlight I’ll mention comes out of a new collaboration with three other major performing arts entities — Duke Arts, NC State LIVE and the American Dance Festival. We’re bringing Emanuel Gat Dance, an incredible Israeli company, to Memorial Hall on Dec. 7. The show, “LOVETRAIN2020,” is a choreographic ode to the 1980s, with 14 dancers and the music of Tears For Fears.

For that show, we’re offering $10 tickets not just to UNC students but to Duke and NC State students as well.

You came halfway across the world to take this job. What drew you here?

My career has been built around using the arts to build bridges between cultures, between people, to show us sides of each other that we don’t see through the press, through politics or through business. How do we see our shared humanity? The arts can do that like nothing else. In seeking a platform to continue this work, I realized there isn’t a more exciting place than America’s oldest public university — a major global public research university in the American South. In 10 months, I’ve met the most phenomenal students, who are deeply engaged and interested and talented and thoughtful. It’s thrilling to be here to partner across science and business and health and athletics and find ways for the arts to intersect with all of that and amplify and deepen research and student engagement.

Fall 2022

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