Faculty, staff and students come to UNC’s Chapel Hill campus from all over the world, but it’s hard to imagine that too many came from farther away than Alison Friedman. The executive and artistic director for Carolina Performing Arts came to Orange County all the way from Hong Kong, about 8,300 miles away.
“China to Carolina is a long, long way, yes,” says Friedman with a laugh. “I’ve always loved how the arts can make surprising connections, show sides that don’t get through in the press, politics or commerce. That’s the driving force in the work I’ve done elsewhere, and to do that in the American South at a major research university is so thrilling. It builds on the purpose I have of using the arts to build bridges.”
A native of Washington, D.C., Friedman started out as a performer herself. She was a “hoofer,” a tap dancer in the professional youth ensemble Tappers With Attitude. She went on to Brown University, where she was in the Phi Beta Kappa honors society, and a Fulbright Fellowship. Prior to coming to Chapel Hill, Friedman spent 20 years in China, where she founded the non-profit Ping Pong Productions and programmed dance, theater, music and Chinese opera events in venues in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District.
Even from the other side of the world, Friedman knew CPA’s first executive director Emil Kang and was familiar with the series. Looking to get back to the Western hemisphere after two decades abroad, she came to UNC last fall in time to oversee CPA’s 2021-22 season.
Friedman and her staff are hard at work pulling together details for the fall 2022 season, which will be unveiled on July 26 (with tickets going on sale Aug. 9). CPA’s fall season will continue with a number of initiatives, including the “Creative Futures” and “Southern Futures” series. And one specific event that Friedman divulges is “Omar,” the acclaimed opera co-written by North Carolina native Rhiannon Giddens. Following its debut at this year’s Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., “Omar” will play at UNC next February as part of the spring 2023 schedule.
“Coming out of Covid, we’re still trying to figure everything out,” Friedman says. “A typical season for us is fall and spring along with the academic calendar. Summer is less active, but that’s when planning, venue renovation and equipment update happens. It’s also one of the busiest times for the marketing team. There’s never really any down time, just activity shifting to other things.”
Given the fact that many events and series are scheduled years in advance, Friedman inherited much of the schedule for last year as well as this upcoming fall season. It will probably be 2023-24 before the CPA schedule is fully hers, and she’s already working on innovative bookings featuring some unlikely collaborators.
“UNC is known for athletics and healthcare,” says Friedman. “The arts are the third pillar we’re looking to build up – not just CPA but also Ackland Art Museum, Playmakers Theater, different departments. Those are the jewels in the crown at UNC, and we’re doing a lot of partnerships on campus and with the community to keep the place humming with energy and creativity. It’s important to me to use the arts to build bridges. The performing arts have the ability to show ‘Yes, and.’ Like when the Olympics were coming to China, yes, you’d read about things like environmental problems in China every day. But that’s not the full story. ‘Yes, and’ is how you show broader complexity and nuance. Not to negate anything, just open up the story to a fuller picture. There are exciting opportunities for collaborations across campus here.”