Alison Friedman Talks Performing Arts in China at Paulson Institute

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.

24445117531_0f3543cb9a_oCities 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.”