Shows at West Kowloon Cultural District to push boundaries on what can be put on in Hong Kong
- Arts hub’s artistic director of performing arts says team is already making its mark with shows such as MDLSX about gender fluidity
- Whether something that crosses China’s ‘red line’ could be put on is unclear
When Alison Friedman was named artistic director of performing arts at the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) a year ago, the Cantonese opera sector vociferously objected because the American was not an expert in the traditional art form.
A year later, the powers that be at performers’ group Barwo – or the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong – have been appeased. The group is now playing a leading role in the December soft launch of the Xiqu Centre for Chinese opera, the first performing arts venue to be completed at the 40-hectare West Kowloon Cultural District.
The resolution suggests a deft hand in diplomacy honed over the 17 years Friedman spent working as a facilitator of cultural exchanges in China’s idiosyncratic and restrictive environment. A fluent Mandarin speaker, she first went to China in 2000 as an exchange student. She later founded Ping Pong Productions in Beijing in 2010, which presented a whopping 250 productions a year in China and elsewhere.
As the first artistic director in charge of Chinese opera, dance, theatre, music and outdoor performances at Asia’s most ambitious new cultural district, Friedman can expect to come face to face with many a delicate situation.
This week, Macau’s refusal to grant entry to local playwright Yan Pat-to, citing a risk to public security, highlights the changing environment faced by artists in the two Chinese Special Administrative Regions.
How, then, does Friedman draw the line for artistic freedom when, for example, people are warned not to cross the Chinese government’s “red line” on Hong Kong independence and self-determination, even though no local law bans such discussion?
Friedman says the buck stops with her. “So far, I get to determine my mission and there is no top-down directive,” she tells the South China Morning Post. “The fact that they created my job is a testament to the fact that WKCDA is artistic-led and that the artistic is at the heart of what we do here.”
She says that if someone wants to stage a play about Hong Kong independence in Freespace, the 450-seat black box theatre opening at the site in 2019, her first questions would be whether it has a good script and who the creative team were.
At the same time, she admits that the situation is uncertain. “I have never been told I can’t [stage a play about Hong Kong independence],” she says. But she would not give a firm answer on whether she can or not. “It will be interesting to see what comes out of the conversations that need to be had at every level of society. I am here to observe and learn,” she says.
Ironically, in her supposedly freer new home of Hong Kong, she thinks that self-censorship is more noticeable than in China.
“Unlike Hong Kong, China has a vetting process for the arts. Still, a lot of artists in [China] do not self-censor because they have nothing to lose. They have no funding. There is no equivalent to Hong Kong’s Arts Development Council or Home Affairs Bureau grants. And so they feel just utter, creative freedom,” she says.
“If they actively start criticising the government, then, of course they would have issues, or they will not be able to perform in major venues. But artists [in China] have had many years of experience in navigating those challenges. Here, I notice there is a lot of self-censorship.”
Self-imposed limitations in Hong Kong take many forms, and Friedman agrees that includes an unwillingness to present anything that may not sell at the box office.
Her team wants to push the boundaries as far as what can or cannot be shown in Hong Kong – the issue of Hong Kong independence aside – and they have already made their mark at the Hong Kong International Black Box Festival, which opened this month.
This is the first year that the authority has joined the festival’s founder, the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, as co-presenter of the event. The programme line-up includes MDLSX, a powerful exploration of the fluidity of gender performed by the androgenous Silvia Calderoni, who appears naked in some scenes; and Five Easy Pieces, by Swiss theatre director Milo Rau, which features child actors talking about a Belgian paedophile and murderer.
“Hong Kong Rep wanted to expand the festival and now we can share resources and mind power,” Friedman says. “Bobo Fung Wai-hang at HKRep worked with our head of theatre, Low Kee Hong, to come up with this fantastic list of top-quality groups. Together, it is easier to be brave and take that extra risk, to do something a bit provocative, a bit different. Many shows are sold out and there are standing ovations. Before, people would say we’d never do that here. We say, why not?”
The theatre team is also working on its first original Cantonese musical commission, called The Great Statesman.
“It will follow the Broadway model and have a preview season in the Freespace black box theatre in 2019 and then premier at the Xiqu Centre in 2020. The story is based on Cantonese opera, which is the only reason why we are putting it in the Xiqu Centre,” Friedman says.
Of the seven performing arts venues planned for the West Kowloon Arts District, only three have finishing dates: the Xiqu Centre, the Freespace black box theatre and the Lyric Theatre complex (2021). But Friedman says her team has already set up partnerships with musicians and will soon hire a head of music, even though none of the planned major music venues have a construction timeline yet.
The authority has also helped individual artists promote themselves internationally. For example, its former head of dance, Anna Chan Chung-ying, initiated a new professional network for dancers called the Asia Network for Dance (AND+). Talks are continuing with Hong Kong Ballet, the Hong Kong Dance Company and the City Contemporary Dance Company about taking up residencies in the Lyric Theatre complex.
Friedman says that she is driven by a lifelong belief in the ability of the arts to bring people together and generate understanding.
“At this moment of our world, it is most important to have empathy. Art can act as a bridge and help people see more nuances and different sides of things, and to reduce fear of the unknown,” she says.
At the same time, she wants people to think of the West Kowloon Cultural District as a fun place. When the Xiqu Centre opens at the end of the year, its smaller Tea House Theatre will feature abridged and updated opera performances accompanied by dim sum and tea for the audience.
“What greater date night [can you have] than watching a short Chinese opera performance with great tea and dim sum?” she says. “Art can be provocative and lead to conversation. As much as we need hard conversations, the anxiety level that people feel in this political climate means it is also important that they have fun here and enjoy themselves.”