Founder and Creative Director of Ping Pong Productions
Member of Forbes NonProfit Council
A leading expert on contemporary performing arts and the developing arts market in China
A former arts management fellow at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.
Artistic Director at the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in Hong Kong
Founder and Creative Director of Ping Pong Productions
Member of Forbes NonProfit Council
A leading expert on contemporary performing arts and the developing arts market in China
A former arts management fellow at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.
Artistic Director at the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in Hong Kong
Alison FRIEDMAN is currently the 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, and has worked with renowned artists across Asia, Europe, Australia, South America, and the United States.
Alison Friedman has been named Executive and Artistic Director for Carolina Performing Arts. Friedman, an internationally recognized performing arts executive and producer, will join Carolina in October to lead CPA in its 17th season. Alison will direct the organizational framework for the arts at Carolina, working with both academic and non-academic units to identify new opportunities for students, faculty, staff, and community members to engage with and experience the arts.
In her current role, Alison leads the dance, theater, music, and Chinese opera (xiqu) teams at Xiqu Centre and Freespace, the first two performing arts venues to open in West Kowloon Cultural District. She also oversees program planning for Xiqu Centre and Freespace and future venues being built in the district, including performances, workshops, and outreach events. As acting executive director, Alison led all aspects of production including budgeting, fundraising, administration, and human resources, in addition to her regular duties. Her accomplishments include launching an annual indoor-outdoor jazz festival that reached tens of thousands in its inaugural two years, developing an intergenerational program designed for Hong Kong’s underserved elderly population and their families and caregivers, and spearheading Hong Kong’s first digital programming in response to COVID-19 theater closures in January 2020.
Prior to her work in West Kowloon, Alison was the founder and executive, and creative director of Ping Pong Productions, a pioneering non-profit performing arts exchange organization based in Beijing that presented more than 250 performance and outreach events annually across five continents. She also has completed an arts management fellowship program at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Alison’s professional experience in performing arts includes leadership roles with Oscar and Grammy-winner Tan Dun’s company Parnassus Productions and the Beijing Modern Dance Company. A former Fulbright Fellowship recipient, Alison graduated magna cum laude from Brown University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Like your donors, you want as much of your nonprofit‘s funds to go directly to the cause it supports. However, you also know that there are a lot of administrative and operational costs involved in your organization, and those can add up. So how do the most successful nonprofit organizations manage to keep their overhead to a minimum without sacrificing productivity?
Some experts suggest calculating your overhead ratio by dividing administrative and fundraising costs by your nonprofit’s total expenses. And while that can be a helpful reference point, there are plenty of savvy ways to keep expenses well below that ratio. Not only do these entail finding cheaper tech solutions, but you can also invest in certain ways that will cut other expenses down the line.
We talked to fiveleaders from Forbes Nonprofit Council who take a scrappy, business-centric approach to their operations. Here’s how you can adopt some of their strategies for your nonprofit.
1. Look For Low-Cost IT Options
One of the biggest efficiencies on an overhead level could come on the IT side. There are so many low-cost, web-based software packages to look at. We use combinations of Smartsheet, WorkFlowy, 15Five and others to keepcosts down. Many nonprofits are using Google Apps and getting free licenses for Salesforce.com. There are also nonprofits that provide tech services to other organizations. – Charles Eaton, Creating IT Futures Foundation.
2. Don’t Overwork Your Team
People are the biggest asset in any organization. To keepoverhead lean, prioritize paying your people first. They work for your organization because they believe in its mission, but no one should be a martyr or you’ll lose talent to other sectors. Develop systems that promote efficiency so your team isn’t overworked. Solicit in-kind donations, and engage your board for services that can be outsourced. – Alison M. Friedman, Ping Pong Productions, Inc.
3. Reward Innovation
To keepoverheadcosts low, it’s important to create a culture that rewards innovation and encourages employees to be scrappy. If you have to spend money, make sure it goes far, and communicate that value to your employees. – Scott Bailey, MassChallenge.
4. Maintain A Clear Business Methodology
“Nonprofit” is simply a tax status, not a way to do business. You need to instill throughout your organization that you are running a business that needs to pay its bills and retain a surplus of some sort to build reserves for a rainy day. After all, no money, no mission. Financial transparency with board and staff will help everyone understand where and how much of your funding is going to various aspects of your nonprofit business. I’ve found that the more your internal stakeholders understand the reality of the finances of your enterprise, the better stewards of donor dollars they become. – Jack Kosakowski, Junior Achievement USA.
5. Invest In Community Leaders
Human capital is the biggest contributor to overhead and typically the hardest area to fund. Build a cadre of excellent volunteers and supporters for a lean operational team — it can have the most significant administrative benefit on the bottom line. I recommend finding contractors and community leaders who can contribute services and time pro bono, or source contractors, interns and students to get creative with labor needs. – Kari Keefe, Think Big Foundation.
Through her performing arts organization Ping Pong Productions, Alison Friedman aims to develop long-term cultural exchanges between the United States and China — not through commercial-driven, one-off tours, but by facilitating discussions and collaborations between two complex world powers.
Even The New York Times sometimes falls prey to American journalism’s tendency to twist stories about China to fixate on dramatic tales of government corruption and censorship.
In November 2011, L.A. Theatre Works collaborated with Ping Pong Productions to bring Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons’ American historical drama, Top Secret: The Battle for The Pentagon Papers, to China for two weeks. The plan was to have post-production discussions with Chinese audiences about the complex issues of journalism and politics that the Nixon-era play raises, but the panel scheduled for after the Peking University show was canceled last minute.
It was an eye-catching premise that everyone from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorkerjumped on: Ping Pong Productions’ founding director Alison Friedman receiving a last-minute text message canceling the discussion because of “unforeseen consequences spreading beyond the theater.”
But this was only part of the story. Although she was grateful for the articles and the publicity, Friedman admits to being disappointed that some of the articles focused so much on the censorship — with the implication that they were lucky that the “skittish cultural czars” of China allowed a political show into their country in the first place.
“Certainly, [the talk after the Peking University performance] was canceled, but it was one cancelation in a very successful tour that did go ahead,” Friedman explains. “We had tremendous support on the Chinese side to do the play. We had nine discussions planned, and only two were canceled. After seven of the shows, and at a number of off-site classroom discussions, we had unbelievably open, intelligent, and substantive conversations.”
These are exactly the types of misconceptions that Friedman hopes to clarify with her work at Ping Pong Productions, a producing and consulting organization that aims to develop cultural diplomacy through the arts.
“People in the audience understood that this wasn’t a pro-America, anti-China kind of play, that it was a way to use the arts to create a discussion that keeps going and going,” she says. “After one of the first shows, a Chinese woman stood up and said, ‘I’m law student in Australia, and I learned more about America’s judiciary system tonight than in all the legal briefs I’ve read in the last two years of law school.’ And that gave us chills, because it shows the power of theater — that it can show something that is otherwise very hard to discuss.”
Ping Pong Productions and L.A. Theatre Works also invited journalists and lawyers from both China and the US to be on these discussion panels. Questions included: Have you as a journalist ever chosen not to publish something because you felt it endangered national security? Whose responsibility is it to determine whether or not to publish? What are the implications? They talked at length about WikiLeaks. They even invited Mickey Kantor, the former US Trade Representative during the Clinton-Gore years who helped China get into the World Trade Organization, to one of the post-production panels, to talk about whether he ever had to come down on journalists during his time in the US government.
In fact, many would be surprised to hear that there was no censorship of the play — neither from the Chinese government, nor self-censorship by playwright Geoffrey Cowan, who updated his two-decade-old play for the China run. According to Friedman, the only major change was an addition of history that was more relevant for a Chinese audience. The original 1991 script didn’t mention that one of the reasons Nixon was so nervous about the Pentagon Papers being published was that he and Kissinger were about to go to China on their first historical tour; they were worried that if it looked like the US government didn’t have control over their own secrets, that China wouldn’t trust them and the China initiative would fall apart.
“Knock on wood, but none of my projects have ever had permit problems,” says Friedman. “Granted, mine aren’t controversial projects, but it’s a very ‘You don’t bother us; we won’t bother you’ environment. Yes, things are vetted and canceled, so it’s not that people are wrong about the censorship in China, but they’re sometimes wrong about the degree and severity of it. The government has way bigger fish to fry — poverty, North Korea, the environmental problems — to worry about every single dance or theater performance.”
The mission of Ping Pong Productions is cultural diplomacy. They aim to bring China and the world together through performing arts, and they work predominantly with theater, dance, and classical/jazz music. Friedman, who has lived and breathed performing arts in China for over a decade, started the organization because she saw that there was a lot of interest from American companies that wanted to tour in China — and Chinese companies that wanted to tour abroad — but the models that existed to facilitate these trips were all commercial booking agencies.
“To me, that was commerce, not cultural exchange,” says Friedman. “That was buying and selling a show that would often be a one-off. They’d come on tour, check the box, and think, ‘We’re done.’ So, I saw there was a need for this type of bridge that could use the performing arts as a way to show different aspects of the cultures. Certainly in the 21st century, the role of China on the international stage is key, and yet there are still so many misinterpretations and misunderstandings of China. And vice versa: within China, they have access to information about the West, but it also can be very one-sided.”
Friedman was raised in Washington D.C., and since she was young, she was interested in performing arts (“I was one of those kids that did dance, music, and theater my whole life”) and language (“I liked how different language constructs may make you think a different way about the world”).
“Growing up, I always loved doing things that would bring groups together,” says Friedman. “When I was 13, I started a diversity committee in our middle school, because I thought there were issues that weren’t being discussed. D.C. is such an international city, but people tend to stay in their own little pods, and I was always so interested in why that was. How do you create things that bring people together, or at least understand each other better?”
Friedman points to arts as a way for people to see and learn a culture’s humanity, as opposed to being stuck with artificial stereotypes and caricatures.
“People like to say that dance is a universal language, that music is a universal language, but I totally disagree,” says Friedman. “There are elements that are true — that arts can bring people together regardless of their culture and background — however, a lot of art is a language just like a spoken language. It’s got a historical context and a cultural context, and if you don’t understand the signs and meanings behind the performances, how are you going to understand or appreciate the language?”
She believes in the importance of pairing these theater, music, and dance tours with discussions and lectures; providing extensive program notes and behind-the-scenes essays that audiences can literally take home with them; uploading scripts online in Chinese, so universities can use it for their curriculums – anything that fosters more opportunities for cross-cultural understandings, way after the curtain falls.
“The Mark Morris Dance Group may be well-respected in America, but no one’s heard of him in China,” Freidman states, as an example. “So it requires a lot of contextualization. And this is a multi-layered process. You do it one year with a medium audience and come back a few years later, hopefully with a bigger audience.”
Case in point: Top Secret: The Battle for The Pentagon Papers is returning to China this year, but whereas in 2011, the production ran in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing, their 2013 run will take them to nine different cities in China, including Chongqing, Suzhou and Tianjin. In addition, three of the performances will take place in the National Centre of Performing Arts, the famed venue next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing known as The Egg.
A lot of Friedman’s job as a producer and consultant is managing expectations. Sometimes it’s telling Chinese companies that American venues can’t afford to fly over a cast of 800 people, no matter how beautiful their fan dance extravaganza is, but maybe they can bring over a cast of eight. Sometimes it’s recommending that American folk productions try for smaller, second-tier cities in China as opposed to your standard Shanghai and Beijing tour. Sometimes it’s giving American actors a heads up that, in a lot of theaters in China, people still answer their cell phones in the middle of performances – so be prepared and, just as importantly, don’t be insulted.
Sometimes it’s advising that people not come to China at all.
“A lot of people want to come to China, and my question is: Why? Why should China watch your art?” says Friedman. “I know that that highest concentration of billionaires is in China, but they’re not necessarily giving money to the arts.”
She continues, “People think it’s an untapped market, and they can go in there and get some of the new China pie, but there’s a difference between an ‘untapped market’ and an ‘undeveloped market.’ ‘Untapped market’ means the market is there and ready, and it hasn’t been tapped yet; an ‘undeveloped market’ means it’s not there yet. For a lot of art forms, China is still an undeveloped market, and you have to invest a lot of time, money, and effort into building it.”
If you had asked Friedman ten years ago, she would have never imagined she’d remain in China this long – let alone be rooting her life and career there – but she is becoming one of the go-to builders of the Chinese performing arts scene.
“When I first started working for the Beijing Modern Dance Company, my mother would say, ‘Why don’t you come home?There are millions of dance companies you could work for in the US. Why do you have to be so far away?’” Friedman remembers.“And my answer was, ‘That’s the point.’ There are millions of contemporary dance companies in America. There were five in China. I’m working with a group of like-minded people with a shared vision to build something that didn’t exist before, and that’s so satisfying and so exciting.”
Her investments are gradually paying off, and she feels a sense of progress. In addition to bringing Mark Morris Dance Group to China, she continues to collaborate with TAO Dance Theatre and L.A. Theatre Works. Leading up to London’s 2012 Olympics, she coordinated the making of a film, featuring public song and dance events across Beijing, which was screened in London’s Trafalgar Square along with a film from Rio di Janeiro as part of the London Cultural Olympiad. (Olympics cities: past, present, and future.) Also in 2012, she helped bring Gao Yanjinzi, the artistic director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company, to work with students at Brown University as part of the “Year of China at Brown.” Her Ping Pong Productions team, based in Beijing, is quickly expanding and will begin staffing their new Chicago office this year. And last fall, they were awarded a grant to manage the American Cultural Center Tours (ACCT), a new initiative from the US Embassy in Beijing to bring American performing artists to tour 12 American cultural centers in universities across China.
Friedman is now used to the chaos that sometimes comes with working in China, and in fact, quite enjoys it.
Now, she looks fondly at one of the first projects that she was in charge of organizing, back in 2006. She had just started working for the Beijing Modern Dance Company, and a European performing arts network called IETM was partnering with a Chinese government group to organize a conference and mini-festival in Beijing at the same time. Eight different dance companies were coming to perform at a location that used to be a state-run venue, a place that was not used to having performances.
“During my first meeting with the venue’s head technician, he said, ‘Can you not move lights around too much? Because it’s going to be a real pain for me to move them back,’” remembers Friedman. “And I was shocked,because if you know anything about dance, every group has its own lighting plot, so you have to completely change it for each group. So I said, ‘Not only are we going change very single light for every single performance, that’s your job as the lighting technician of the theater!’”
It was a learning experience for Friedman: “I realized that’s what it meant that he used to work in a state-run theater — that he got paid no matter what, so it didn’t really matter what he did all day. They were hosting eight companies that were paying their way to come over, and he didn’t want to do the lights for them?”
Now, she knows how to handle these types of situations.
“I have a patented four-question method in China,” Friedman says. “You have to ask for everything four times.”
She explains: “The first time you ask, the answer is ‘mei ban fa (沒辦法)/ It’s not possible.’ The second time you ask, it’s ‘tai ma fan (太麻煩)/ It’s too troublesome.’ The third time, it’s ‘yi hui er zai shuo (一會兒再說)/ We’ll talk about it later.’ And the fourth time, the answer is, ‘OK OK OK OK.'”
“The length of time between each question can be from a few minutes, to a few months, to a few years,” she continues. “So you have to start early. It’s not foolproof, but generally speaking, patient persistence pays off.”
“Unless the first answer you get is ‘mei wen ti (沒問題)/ No problem,'” she jokes. “Then, you’re in trouble. Then, they just want to get rid of you.”
Alison Friedman will be giving a talk at the USC US-China Institute – “China’s Performing Arts in the 21st Century: A Marriage of Tradition and Modernity, East and West” — on Wednesday, February 13, 2013. For more information on the event, click here.
For more information on Alison Friedman and her projects, go to Ping Pong Productions’ official website.
Asia has always held an exotic allure for Westerners, intrigued with its cultural, spiritual and artistic traditions so foreign from their own.
But the inscrutable can be intimidating, the unfamiliar, inaccessible. So, in giving the 2015 Ringling International Arts Festival an Asian theme in order to coincide with the opening of its new Center for Asian Art next February, is the Ringling Museum taking a calculated risk that curiosity will win out over circumspection?
“People can be scared of Asia,” admits Stanford Makishi, formerly deputy director of the Asian Cultural Council, who assisted the Ringling’s director of performance, Dwight Currie, with the curation of the seventh annual festival. “They think there’s something so ‘other’ about it. Because there are very few platforms for the performing arts of Asia in the U.S., very little has made it into the American mainstream, so people are a little afraid of it. But it’s only because they don’t know what it is. So this is an opportunity, really.”
Makishi, who assisted with previous RIAF curations as executive director of the Baryshnikov Arts Center (which partnered with the Ringling on the festival until last year) and who is now vice president for programming at City Center New York, said there is nothing “jarringly foreign” about this year’s artists. While many found their inspiration in Asian art forms unfamiliar to most Westerners, their own work is treading in new territory. Currie, who says “RIAF has always been for the adventurous,” believes that, other than the geographical grouping, this year’s performances are no more – and possibly less – unconventional than the productions in RIAF’s past.
“We all have notions of what anyone else’s culture is, and that was on our minds because that was NOT what we wanted to present,” Currie says. “We weren’t looking for the quintessential Asian art, or for people who could stand as representative of their culture or country. Yes, how they express themselves is informed by their heritage and background and training, but these artists are responding to their lives, times and places with creativity, just as the artists did last year and the year before that. It’s not Asian art; it’s art from Asia.”
As such, it is a diverse bill of fare. From the storytelling of Phare, a Cambodian circus that integrates dance, circus arts and music, to the lively music of the Orkes Sinten Remen, which transforms Indonesian folk music on traditional instruments into what can sometimes sound like American pop, the artists were selected, in part, because of their appeal and accessibility to Sarasota audiences.
“We didn’t want to bring anything that was particularly gritty or dealt with difficult subject matter because we didn’t want to challenge audiences to that degree,” says Makishi. “Bringing in something like that would be almost confrontational and that is not something we wanted to do. We wanted to pique people’s interest and make them curious about art making from that part of the world.”
Makishi, an Asian American born in Hawaii, says he underwent his own journey of discovering Asian performance art belatedly, only as his career as a professional ballet dancer was coming to a close. Like many American contemporary dance aficionados, he had been “interested primarily in what was coming from Europe.”
“I was just as close-minded as the next person,” he admits. “But eventually, more out of curiosity and artistic evolution than because of my roots, I began to see work from Asia and realized, ‘Oh look, it’s not that different.’ I thought it would be so much from another sensibility that I wouldn’t get it. But I realized it is fascinating and beautiful and not so hard as I’d imagined.”
Two of the artists in this year’s festival are also Americans of mixed Asian heritage. Jen Shyu, a musician/singer/composer who will present “Solo Rites: Seven Breaths,” was born to a Taiwanese father and a mother from East Timor who moved to the U.S. as students. Tom Lee, whose “Shank’s Mare” integrates traditional Japanese puppetry with video and live music, grew up in Hawaii, the son of a Chinese-American father and a mother from upstate New York. For both, an exploration of their roots combined with their own cross-cultural backgrounds to feed their work, which is neither entirely historic nor without genealogy.
Shyu was not exposed to the musical traditions of her ancestry as a child. In fact, she was raised on a steady diet of Western classical music; her father used to make her mix tapes of Chopin’s complete etudes. It wasn’t until she was out of college and trying to discover her own artistic voice that she began to explore her background, traveling throughout Asia and experiencing many of its ancient music and dance rituals and ceremonies. That included performances in Java that lasted for up to 24 hours, with the audience coming and going throughout, eating, drinking, talking and even bringing pillows and blankets so they could fall asleep when they felt the need.
“There is no separation between ritual and performance, it’s all just being part of the community,” she says. “There are spiritual elements to a presentation, it’s not just about entertainment. It’s a totally different aesthetic and the standard of what is good, what you want from that particular tradition, is totally different. But that’s what makes our world so endlessly fascinating.”
Her own work incorporates some of these elements, but she also tries to ease the potential discomfort of non-Asian audiences by, for example, breaking the “fourth wall” to speak in English, or printing the lyrics to songs sung in foreign languages in English in the performance program. At one point in “Seven Breaths,” she teaches (in English) a number of Korean exclamations used to encourage the performer, as in the pansori (musical storytelling) tradition; at another, she goes into the audience with a stick of bamboo, inviting members to touch it to release their worries, much as a village channeler in Korea might do.
In her program notes, Shyu quotes Garin Nugroho, the director of “Seven Breaths,” as saying that the lines between tradition and modernity are so blurry, that it is best not to try to define ancient vs. modern, but rather to unite them. That, says Shyu, is her intention.
“What is beautiful is that everyone can learn about each other through my piece and that’s the whole point of doing what I do,” she says. “It’s the same intercultural experience we have every day in America and I think it’s important, because there’s still so much tension around that.”
Likewise, Lee’s work is a blend of his own background as an American puppeteer and his relationship over the past decade with Javanese master puppeteer Koryu Nishikawa V, an expert in the art of kuruma ningyo style or “cart puppetry,” where one puppeteer performs the job of three through use of a rolling cart. At the festival, Lee will present a portion of “Shank’s Mare,” a work in which each artist contributed a story about a character on a life’s journey; the two tales gradually intersect.
“Basically, the piece kind of mirrors this challenge for traditional artists, the fact that they’re living in the modern world and it’s very difficult these days to attract a contemporary artist to traditional work and to attract disciples to carry on the traditions,” says Lee. “Koryushan once said to me, ‘I’m in a certain sort of box I can’t step out of freely because of the history and tradition, but you have the freedom to take it and find new ways.’ ”
Because puppets were involved, “pushing in a new direction on both sides” was easier, Lee says.
“The wonderful thing about puppets is that we relate to them as a mirror of our human emotions,” he says. “Whether they’re Japanese or American puppets, something clicks in our brains and we infer emotions upon them, much like kids playing with dolls. What I hope people will see is both the traditional puppetry forms by a master, but also puppets made here that use that style and design but are free from some of the cultural demands and forms.”
Knowing that the work would be seen by a global audience, Lee chose to use very little text and a mix of Western and Japanese music he believes will resonate with audiences from both traditions. And while the visual storytelling may be more ambiguous and open-ended than a straightforward Western narrative – “You get the gift and also the challenge of not having everything explained to you” – the story line mirrors his own cross-cultural experience of “feeling a part of two worlds.”
Alison Friedman, founder of the Beijing-based Ping Pong Productions, which is bringing Tao Dance Theatre to RIAF, believes the entire conversation about a dichotomy between East and West is “an outdated, 20th-century binary that we all need to get over,” and one that can prevent a full experience and appreciation of unfamiliar work.
“The most difficult thing for Western audiences to embrace in Eastern performing arts is the concept in their own head that there’s somehow a difference between East and West,” Friedman says. “If they can get over their own internal block and go into any performance with an open mind — even a performance by an artist from their own backyard — they are more likely to have an engaging and moving experience.”
China’s creative artsare enjoying a new springtime, and it’s busting out all over, both at home and abroad. But what will it take for it to really take root in the US, NIU YUE reports from New York.
“The performing arts industry in China is now entering its best stage of development,” Lyu Yuzhong, deputy director of the Ministry of Cultural and Art, said recently. “Our leaders and government value culture and artistic inheritance tremendously.”
With box office revenues in the performing arts reaching $2.54 billion in 2015, a 9 percent increase over the previous year, “China now is one of the biggest performing arts markets in the world”, according to Pan Yan, general secretary of the China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA). “But the number is not significant given the size of the country and its population,” Pan added. “There’s a lot of room for improvement.” And that means outreach, in China and beyond.
International commercial performances have gradually become the pillar of performing arts exports from China. In 2014, about 5,100 overseas commercial performances by Chinese in more than 260 cities across the globe drew audiences numbering 11 million.
Among the performing arts exported by China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG) in 2014, acrobatic shows accounted for 57 percent, singing and dancing programs 16 percent and musical concerts 10 percent. Peking Opera was just 2 percent.“Even when innovation and new things emerge, traditional performing arts still dominate the market,” said Winston Wang, deputy director of cultural exchange division of China Performing Arts Agency (CPAA). Wang used an analogy: It’s difficult and impractical to ask foreigners, who are bread eaters, to change their habits and eat Chinese buns. “What we can do is promote exquisite and authentic buns to the world so the elite of Western mainstream society can have a change in diet,” he said.
Cultural differences can sometimes seem like an impenetrable barrier for Chinese practitioners in the performing arts industry. “For any performing arts offering from overseas, the first challenge is: Will the material fit the tastes of the local audience?” said Zhou Wei, president of Weiber Consulting, a New York-based marketing and public relations firm with experience working in Chinese and Asian markets. “To be really competitive in the US market, the Chinese side needs to understanding consumers’ behavior and desires,” Zhou added.
From what she has seen, many times an arts group will assume that their performances will be welcomed by local audiences, and just come to the US and present without doing any decent market research in advance. The results can be disappointing, as audiences don’t always take to those cultural differences, she explained.
Cathy Barbash, who has been involved with Sino-US performing arts exchanges for more than 30 years, said the challenge for China’s performing arts will be to find and encourage (as opposed to purposely develop) projects and programs that are so universal that they can meet domestic imperatives without becoming didactic simulacra of Chinese culture, and, thereby, also attract the interest of the international marketplace.
“The Chinese side should be willing to learn to compromise, to make changes to fit the needs of this market,” Zhou said. “Many Chinese performances look reasonable by Chinese standards, but if we put them on stages in the US, many things need to be adapted.”
“Chinese performing artists are the new kids on the block in the US. So how to understand the market, how to bring the right content and context and how to package it to come in line with the local audiences’ preferences – these are important lessons they need to learn,” Zhou said.
Zhou gave an example that she thinks serves as a model for success: the multi-cultural modern dance performance Pearl presented at Lincoln Center last August.
Inspired by the life of American writer Pearl S. Buck, the first woman to win both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, known for her books about China.
The production was produced by Beijing-based Legend River Entertainment, along with Zhenjiang Media Group, but it was developed and created in the US by Academy Award-winning choreographer Daniel Ezralow, with a score by Japanese composer Jun Miyake and an international company of 30 dancers.
“The production was created based on a story about an American who grew up in China, which was already a cultural bridge between East and West,” Zhou said. “The Chinese producer hired a strong US developing team, who fully understood American audiences’ tastes and had the skills to make the show a success in such a competitive corner of the performing arts.”
The New York Times praised the work as “an ambitious dance-theater work a rare breed in both form and content.”
Last April, the International Conference for the Promotion of Chinese Cultural Products hosted by the Department for External Cultural Relations, Ministry of Culture of China and conducted by China Association of Performing Arts was held in Enshi, Hubei province. At the conference, David Fraher, president and CEO of Arts Midwest, a non-profit performing arts agency that has been arranging projects with Chinese groups since 1999, gave a few pointers to Chinese performing arts groups on exporting their acts overseas. Fraher said agencies like his Arts Midwest were willing to introduce outstanding Chinese performing arts to the US. But because of cultural differences, the productions they preferred were those that are clear and simple and rich in artistic content, rather than grand sweeping narratives or shows that require complex technical support.
The scale of the production is a primary consideration for foreign partners, Fraher said. The cost for a tour of a large-scale performance is usually too high to comply with local groups’ “cost-benefit rules” and can only happen if the government underwrites it. As a rule of thumb, he suggested a tour company of no more than 35 members would be best for both sides to work with.
To enter the US market, Fraher recommended assembling a professional international planning team and give it all the time it needs. Completely translated product information for overseas partners is also important, including program descriptions, artists’ backgrounds, technical requirements, trailers and video clips. That kind of information allows US-side partners to fully understand the production, which helps them publicize and promote to potential target audiences before and during the tour.
If it’s possible for the artists to share their artistic experiences and thoughts with audiences and conduct workshops and seminars with local talent, all the better for cultivating the overseas market, Fraher added.
“Diversity is key,” said Alison M. Friedman, founding director of Beijing-based Ping Pong Productions, which specializes in cultural diplomacy. “The more diversity of individual artists there is, the more fruitful and flourishing and sustainable China’s arts market will be. The more flourishing China’s arts market becomes, the more likely there will be strong and unique works of art to travel internationally.”
On another front, Friedman said Ping Pong Productions also works at training professional arts producers.
“China’s artists are incredibly talented, but without professional producers to be the managers, organizational brains, and bridges to the rest of China’s growing market and out into the world, those talented artists will stay talented but locked in their own little studios,” she said.
“So the next stage is not just to keep encouraging diverse individual artistic voices to flourish in China, but also to develop the producers and infrastructure to support those artists to reach more and more audiences, both in China and the rest of the world,” she said.
According to many US experts, “presenter” agencies are the best way into the US market.They represent artists searching for an agent, companies searching for performers and facilitate exchanges between artists and audiences.
The Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), the largest organizing body of performing arts presenters in the US, held its annual conference in New York City in January. Attending this year was a Chinese delegation consisting of more than 50 managers and directors of 10 national troupes and seven provincial troupes and ensembles, including the China National Peking Opera Company, China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater, the China National Symphony Orchestra, the China National Opera House, as well as booking agents, venue reps and presenters from across China.
The Chinese delegation not only exhibited their productions in booths, but also invited American arts alliances, booking companies and presenters to attend a promotional seminar on Chinese performing arts and discuss building marketing channels for international cooperation.
Wang, who attended the APAP conference, thought the opportunities for China’s performing arts were still limited, so the number of deals reached by the two sides was relatively small. Wang suggests that because the conference is an occasion for closing deals rather than reaching deals, the Chinese delegation should have been better prepared.
Wang said for most of the delegation, it was their first time to attend the conference. “They had language difficulties and few contacts, so the productivity was quite low. Before coming overseas to a conference like APAP, we should have a planning meeting at home to coordinate a strategy, make appointments with high-level potential partners in the US, and then attend the conference as a group. That would help us break into the circle faster.”
Friedman said a big part of her job is educating US presenters about the diversity of contemporary Chinese art and presenters in the US, much like presenters in China, are worried their audiences aren’t open to certain international art forms.
But “I’ve found the opposite is true,” she said. “Audiences are open and ready, but you need to communicate very clearly what it is you’re bringing.”
Productions like Peking Opera megastar Zhang Huoding’s performance last September at Lincoln Center, the concert Rediscover Chinese Music at Kennedy Center last December and the January production of the dance drama Dragon Boat Racing at Lincoln Center, all won enthusiastic receptions from US audiences. The last performance of Dragon Boat Racing was sold out.
‘It indicates the performance quality has improved, marketing methods have grown more mature and getting closer to Western audiences’ tastes,’ said Winston Wang, deputy director of cultural exchange division of China Performing Arts Agency (CPAA). ‘There has been a great increase in the number of China’s performing arts products exported in the past few years.’
Wang’s group used to dominate the market, but with China’s administration being simplified and power and decision-making percolating down to lower levels, it is no longer performing arts’ only door to the outside world.
Many organizations and companies, whether government operated or private, have been evolving in the industry, with more performing arts troupes assigned overseas, ‘which is a good sign’, Wang said.
‘The exchange has expanded a lot in both number and range,’ said Zhou Wei, president of Weiber Consulting, a New York-based marketing and public relations firm with experience working in Chinese and Asian markets.
The company’s recent projects include bringing the National Ballet of China to perform at the 2015 Lincoln Center Festival and producing the New York Philharmonic Chinese New Year’s celebration concert.
‘But it’s a fact that no matter what level the performance is, it cannot survive without government support. Dragon Boat Racing had support from the Guangdong provincial government and The Legend of Mulan from the Hong Kong (SAR) government,’ Zhou said.
She said that to supplement government help, Chinese producers are looking for overseas partners.
In 2014, China National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra (CNCPAO) made its North America debut in major concert venues in Chicago, Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.
They did it with the help and guidance of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which had previously collaborated with the CNCPAO on China tours. ‘Such exchanges and cooperation between orchestras, dance companies and arts festivals of the two countries are common,’ Zhou said.
Alison Friedman speaks about the state of the arts in China at the Paulson Institute’s Contemporary China Speakers Series on January 21, 2016.
When Alison Friedman founded Ping Pong Productions in 2010, her goal was “to bring China and the world together through the performing arts.” After half a decade of touring Chinese performances across the world and bringing global productions to Chinese cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai, Friedman has become a true insider in China’s performing arts world.
The breaking up of the state-managed economic model has led to a rapid commercialization of China’s performing arts, Friedman told a crowd gathered at the Paulson Institute’s Contemporary China Speakers Series on the University of Chicago campus. Such commercialization has caused massive change in the Chinese arts world.
Cities have been building modern theaters and symphony halls, Friedman said, but a lack of government and philanthropic financial support means that the arts are mostly reliant on box office sales. As a result, venues are only willing to host big-name stars, meaning independent artists are forced to rely on touring internationally, depriving the Chinese people of homegrown performances.
The artists that Friedman helps perform in China are bucking that trend. On one 2014 tour, 90% of each audience stayed after the show for a post-show discussion. Recently, an independent Chinese dance troupe sold out a week’s worth of shows in Beijing, their first major performances in China. “The problem in China isn’t the performer or the audience,” said Friedman, “it’s the infrastructure that links the two.”
Fortunately for China’s independent performers, government censorship of the arts doesn’t seem to be a significant barrier. As Friedman put it, “the [censorship] pendulum swings, but the general view from above is ‘If you don’t bother us, we wont bother you.’ The government usually doesn’t think that performance arts can create a revolution.”
In Friedman’s experience, the performing arts can actually be an effective vehicle to talk about issues that typically cant be tackled head-on in Chinese society. The Ministry of Culture, she noted, generally understands that “the best way to bring attention to something is to censor it.”
More international audiences have seen the works of Chinese performing artists, thanks to the efforts of Ping Pong Productions. The Beijing-based art management company has been exposing young Chinese artists to oversea viewers through tours, collaborations and teaching residencies.
Founder and director Alison Friedman says her experience navigating the rapidly evolving Chinese performing arts world has been exciting.
“For a long time, most Chinese dancing companies were supported and run by the government, but now as China’s entire infrastructure is changing, young artists are creating new works and experimenting with new styles,” she says at a recent seminar on performing arts at the Chinese Consulate in New York.
The company’s name is taken from the term “Ping Pong Diplomacy”, which was coined after a group of American table tennis players and journalists traveled to China in 1971 to smoothen then-strained diplomatic relations.
Ping Pong Productions is dedicated to helping medium- or small-sized Chinese organizations with fewer resources to go abroad.
“We have two main focuses: going out and bring in,” she says.
In the summer of 2012 Ping Pong Productions brought TAO Dance company, a small group of fewer than 10 dancers, to an audience of 18,000 at New York’s annual Lincoln Center Festival. TAO also performed at Sydney Opera House and Sadler’s Wells (UK), among other world-renowned dance theaters.
China generates 2 to 3 million performing-arts products every year, among the highest in the world. But many cultural groups, particularly medium- or small-sized organizations, continue to struggle both financially and in adapting to a modern management, Friedman says.
It’s not surprising that most young Chinese artists face financial difficulties, but Friedman remains positive about their future in and outside China and is determined to help them.
Friedman was previously the general manager for Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer Tan Dun’s company Parnassus Productions in New York, and a host on China Radio International.
She also served as international director of The Beijing Modern Dance Company and produced international performance festivals including the Sino-US dance festival Booking Dance Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games.
Friedman’s long-time dedication has impressed industry insiders.
Robert Nederlander Jr, a Broadway impresario and the third-generation of the Nederlander family that owns about one third of Broadway’s musical theaters says: “She is a visionary, and one of the very few individuals in the field who recognized the potential of Chinese performing arts and cultural exchanges.”
Friedman grew up playing piano and dancing. She studied comparative literature major at Brown University, where her love for the Chinese language and Chinese culture deepened.
In 2012, Friedman served as the project manager to liaise between the Beijing Olympic Development Association and the London Olympic Committee on the large-scale community dance project Big Dance Beijing, as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. She also coordinated with the US Embassy in Beijing and the US Consulate in Guangzhou to arrange an extensive dance workshop outreach program in communities throughout China.
In 2011, Ping Pong Productions participated in the “Booey Lehoo” Student Exchange Organization Concert & Arts week, a celebration of cultural exchanges and collaboration between China and the US. The program was planned in support of the US State Department’s “100,000 Strong Initiative”, a study exchange program announced by US President Barack Obama during his visit to China in November 2009.
Friedman’ team will continue working toward their goals. They are currently preparing for TAO Dance’s 2014 tour across the US.
“I’ll be thrilled to continue to see a better understanding between our people through performing arts,” she says.
SAGE Worldwide would like to Congratulation one of its exclusive speakers, Alison Friedman, on becoming the newest Public Intellectuals Program Fellow in the National Committee on United States-China Relations.
Friedman is Founder and Creative Director of Ping Pong Productions, whose aim is to bring China together with the world through the performing arts. One of the only foreigners regularly consulted by the Chinese Ministry of Culture for her expertise in China’s contemporary performing arts with a focus on contemporary dance, Friedman has worked to develop structures and channels in China to support both established and young independent performing artists. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese and political negotiations, Friedman has worked in the performing arts in China for more than a decade. She served as international director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company, general manager of Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun’s company Parnassus Productions, Inc., and as a producer and host on Chinese national radio and television programs.
As Director of Ping Pong Productions, Friedman works closely with Chinese and international governments and arts organizations to facilitate collaborations, tours, and lasting artistic relationships. Now with her nomination into the PIP she will, though a varied set of activities spread out over two-and-a-half years, have the opportunity to expand her knowledge of China by collaborating with fellow PIP members as well as specialists from a variety of fields.
The PIP is an enrichment opportunity intended to complement participants’ primary academic or professional positions. The PIP encourages it’s fellows to actively use their knowledge to inform policy and public opinion. The program offers unique opportunities for professional development, mentoring by senior scholars, networking, and exposure. As a new member, Friedman will gain access to senior policymakers and experts in both the United States and China, and to individuals and fields that can help her expand her current skills and experiences. Friedman and the other PIP fellows will all play a pivotal role helping to upgrading the quality of American public understanding of China by strengthening links among U.S. academics, policymakers, opinion leaders, and the public.
The office of Ping Pong Productions, a nonprofit producing and consulting organization with a unique mission of “bringing China and the world together through the performing arts”, is located in an apartment building in a quiet neighborhood in East Beijing. It is a rather low-key set up for an organization that was solely responsible for bringing two hugely successful American plays to the stage of the Chinese National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), the only two so far.
Naturally, my first question was “how many people are there in the company”? And the answer I was given was rather startling. “We have four people working full-time and two working part-time,” Alison smiled. “We are a power team.”
Alison, who has the grace of a dancer about her, which she is but only humbly refers to herself as a ProAm, impressed me with her bubbly personality and the most infectious laughter which was a wonderful embellishment to our very pleasant talk about her work with Ping Pong Productions.
As an expat, Alison has been living in China for 12 years. But her love affair with China goes back even further. She first came to China in 2000 on a study-abroad program which took her to two different cities. And in 2001, she came back on a summer internship during which she met the Living Dance Studio, an experience that inspired her to return to China after graudating. In 2002, after graduating from Brown University, Alison returned as a Fulbright Scholar studying Modern Dance in China. And this time, she stayed on.
In the few years after her graduation, Alison built a solid portfolio as an international director and manager in the world of performing arts, working with an assortment of organizations from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C to Parnassus Productions, the production company of the Oscar- and Grammy-Award winning Tan Dun, a renowned Chinese composer/conductor. In 2009, driven by her sheer love for the performing arts and for the country that she had made her second home, she founded Ping Pong Productions, thus started her adventure as a much-needed cultural ambassador and intermediary for the performing arts between China and the world.
Curator for fledging artists
It was not difficult to deduct what the name “Ping Pong Productions” means if one is familiar with the history of the Sino-US relations. The name is a nod to Ping Pong diplomacy, the ice-breaking exchange of a bunch of Table Tennis players in the early 1970s that helped to thaw the frozen relationship between the two countries. “The mission of Ping Pong Productions is cultural diplomacy,” Alison explained. “We hope we could help bring China and the world together through the performing arts.”
Even though there are only four people in the team, the programs of Ping Pong Productions cover a wide range from producing and touring shows to management, planning and consulting. To put it simply, they help bring Chinese artists and their work abroad and vice versa. But it is not to be taken at the surface value as a quick look at their major projects in the past five years would reveal that Ping Pong Productions has a special focus on start-up artists.
“I am glad that you noticed,” Alison immediately responded when I pointed it out to her. “It’s really hard to be a young artist in any country. They need organizations like Ping Pong Productions to provide infrastructure and management support.”
Even though in the world’s eyes, China is a rich country, there are not many foundations or sponsorships or even government funding that support young companies to survive. That is the harsh reality in China for the budding artists.
“There is this quote from playwright Samuel Beckett that I really like, ‘Fail, fail again, and fail better’. That is how artists get better at what they do,” Alison continued. “One thing that is lacking now in China is that no one is funding processes. No one is giving money for residency, for workshops and for trial and error, to let the artists fail.”
“That requires a lot of faith because you might not end up getting a masterpiece,” Alison admitted. “But what you get is an environment. You can then foster innovation.”
As a non-profit organization with a mission, Ping Pong Productions really took these artists and projects under its wings. Two of its major partners, TAO Dance Theatre and Wang Chong, the avant-garde Chinese theatre director, both found support with Ping Pong Productions and both have thrived with its help.
“Tao (Tao Ye, founder of the TAO Dance Theatre) is one of a kind. He is going to be the next master,” Alison enthused. “People really enjoy the strength of his voice. With Wang Chong as well, the audience are excited to see in his plays the issues the young Chinese are grappling with. They both show the audience something they don’t get from popular culture.”
Ping Pong Productions has brought TAO Dance Theatre to 30 countries on five continents within a short span of four years. And it is in the process of taking Wang Chong on an international tour. “We’ve had such success with Tao and Wang, and we want to continue to find young artists of that caliber who need help and work with them.”
Power of performing arts
Unlike the many commercial organizations that just buy and sell shows, Ping Pong exists mainly to serve its mission. “There is nothing wrong with what they do. But they are not curators,” Alison pointed out. “Although we do need to consider the market and the sellability of a show, it is not our primary concern.”
With that in mind, Alison facilitated the staging of two American shows- Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers by the LA Theatre Works, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Tim Robbins’ theatre company The Actors’ Gang- at China’s most renowned platform for the performing arts: the NCPA in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Both shows ended up receiving great reviews from the Chinese media and rave responses from the Chinese audience. They also caught the attention of media like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
Yet what was not mentioned was that Top Secret, the hugely successful show was first rejected by the Chinese side for fear of bleak ticket sales. It only managed to make it to the NCPA the second time around by virtue of the success of its first tour in China in 2011 which was completely sold out. And that paved the way for A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, which did six shows in Beijing and four in Shanghai this June. Even tickets for the added rows were sold out.
“What I liked about Top Secret is it deals with a very complicated issue and presented in a way that shows complexity. It is not black and white, right or wrong. It raises questions but doesn’t give answers. And that is the power of the performing arts.”
“Both of these plays were very low-tech, very basic, very simple,” Alison went on. “It’s all about the power of the story and the power of the actors.”
In the same spirit, Alison and her Ping Pong Productions team brought two different productions by the Chinese National Theatre company to the US, one of which, a play called Green Snake, was staged in March at the Kennedy Center’s International Theatre Festival and the other one, Richard III, participated in a big Chinese Festival at New York University Skirball Center for the Arts.
“I am glad that I could feel the evolution (in the western perception of Chinese performing arts),” Alison announced happily. “In the past, the attitude felt like ‘oh we don’t care about if it’s good or not, we just want something from China’. But now the attitude and standards are changing.”
Commenting on the standard of her selections, Alison said, “We are not just choosing great art. We are also choosing art that we believe shows a surprising or less-understood side of the country or culture. We like to support the art that could surprise the audience and help them better understand the people and the country where it came from or help them understand themselves or their own country better.
Besides these big programs, Ping Pong Productions also runs programs like American Cultural Center Tours (ACCT) which centers around universities in China. “We try to bring high-quality professional performers from the US to perform in Chinese universities. And we are trying to make them into institutional programs to maximize its impact.”
“I think the Americans learn more about China through the ACCT program than the Chinese students learnt about America because they get to go to a lot of different places. They go back to America basically spreading the good word about everything they have seen, which is great because it is getting the top-level cultural influencers in the US to come and see a more real China. ”
Alison mostly brushed off the troubles they had to go through to do all of this, like having to convince the Chinese to spend the money on the art and to get the Americans to work in a different way in China. “It’s not easy, it’s really hard!” This was not meant to be a complaint as Alison followed the statement with another bout of her trademark laughter. “But it was totally worth it.”
She continued. “America doesn’t have a cultural ministry to support the exchange. A lot of the times it is the companies that have to fundraise to bring the American art to China. That is one of the reasons why there have been only two American-produced theatre shows at the NCPA. In the long-term, I hope Ping Pong will be a bit like the British Council. We will try and build an institution, a marriage, so to speak. We are not interested in one-off wonders.”
And the vision of Ping Pong Productions does not end with just America and China. “We are speaking with organizations in countries like Korea and Brazil about setting up similar programs,” Alison revealed. “We will continue to look for great art that shows sides of cultures and countries that surprise people. It is one of the best ways to bring China and the world together, through the performing arts.”