Voices Of Live: Claudia Norman, Co-Founder Of The Generators

Stephanie Berger
– Claudia Norman
Claudia Norman with Eddie Palmiery

Claudia Norman has more than 25 years of experience producing festivals and performing arts projects, but she often defines her work as that of a “cultural translator” or a “cultural matchmaker.” Norman was born and raised in Mexico City, but operates out of New York, where she has lived since her studies at NYU, meaning she has a deep understanding of both U.S. and Mexican culture. 

She is the executive founder of the Celebrate Mexico Now Festival; the curator and producer of La Casita at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors in New York; has produced concerts for Yo-Yo Ma and Chavela Vargas; co-produces and co-curates the CDMX Festival and Rebel Spirit series at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and, most recently, has founded The Generators, a full-service arts and entertainment company with offices in Texas, California, New Mexico and New York.

 The five founders of The Generators – Norman, Leigh Ann Hahn, Anne Kogan, Tom Frouge, and Isabel Soffer – have more than 100 years of combined experience in event production and the performing and visual arts. Formed in January 2020, The Generators are already working on a film in Iran, a livestream in Mexico City, and Indian dance master Bijayini Satpathy.

A core mission of The Generators is to incorporate the diverse cultural perspective of its principals into all levels of performing arts spaces, grassroots institutions and corporate clients. Pollstar spoke with Norman to learn more about her experience in the industry and The Generators.

So who hires The Generators?

We are a full-service arts and entertainment company. We have a lot of experience with producing and presenting festivals, public arts events, films, culinary events, workshops, etc. And yes, we can do it with a female touch, but at the center of our work is a cultural lens and we think that is what sets us apart.

And with all of this depth of experience from the five of us we can help our clients identify shortcuts and we can design projects with that approach [of operating with high efficiency]. And because we have this depth of knowledge from regional to international, we can navigate between grassroots events to corporate level events and we cover a huge range. So those are pretty much the services we are offering. 

So you have been doing this work for years independently, what made you want to join a collective?

You know, with the arts and entertainment industry in this new scenario, I think we are now trying to figure out the reopening. The industry needs to reactivate and I think, based on the conversations we started having informally – this whole thing started very organically, we just started out just checking in with each other, sharing our views, projections and thoughts – and eventually we thought this might be the time to come together. We see this period as a blank canvas, we are going into a new beginning where cultural diversity is now at the center of all of these conversations, so we thought it would be good to jump forward together. And there was the convenience that we are all based in the U.S. and we all have experience in different regions internationally, and the entire world is going through this same uncertainty. 

So do you have salaried staff to produce events or do you utilize contractors?

The ideal scenario is we work with the existing team of our clients. Most of our clients are corporations or cultural institutions with staff, so we guide their staff on how to get things done. We bring the model to follow and the strategy to make it happen. That’s basically the way we’ve been operating, for the few small projects we have done. If they don’t have a team we can put a team together, but we try to work with existing resources our clients have, to maximize those. …

But our Rolodex is huge, basically, after all these years working with so many people. And technology allows us to reach lots of people. So, the bottom line is that we are full-service company, we deliver a final product, we recommend the right process and the right people to get things done.

So why is diversity such a big part of The Generators?

Each member of The Generators has experienced the benefit of cultural diversity in our personal lives and this diversity has been the biggest point of access for our company. Corporations are looking for more practices, cultural diversity is at the center of all conversations at the national level.

Has being a woman from Mexico presented challenges during your time in the entertainment industry?

It’s been a part of my encouragement to keep going. Yes, sometimes you walk into a room, the fact that I’m an immigrant female from Latin America, sometimes people are like “what is this” but I have always been very confident in what I have to offer in those conversations. When I walk into that room, it is because I am bringing something to offer and, probably, a potential solution to their problems.

It has been a challenge, but I’ve been always very fortunate that the way I’ve been approached in these conversations is that there is a need to listen to my voice. And, to me, that has been, as a female immigrant in this country, the greatest opportunity to develop my professional career. I moved here after growing up in Mexico City, but my I made my professional life in the U.S. So I call myself a cultural translator and a cultural matchmaker. When I get invited into a room, it is because they are trying to answer questions that, because of my cultural experience and by offering my language services, I can help them with. 

At the beginning of my career I was called by Elektra Records’ Mark Kamins. They had recently opened Warner Latin America and signed Cafe Tacvba. They had this song, “Chilanga banda,” it’s just heavy duty slang from Mexico City, and the entire industry was trying to translate this song’s deep, local slang, because it was a hit.  So I ended up working for Elektra and having conversations with Mark Kamins, this guy who discovered Madonna and was the A&R of Elektra, and I was consulting to help them understand, going line by line, translating the meaning of the song into New York slang. This is one example that I always remember, about how the industry is dealing with cultural nuances that Google Translate or someone from another other Spanish speaking country couldn’t translate.

Throughout my career I have realized there really is a lot of work to do to explain these nuances that you take for granted but that it really is necessary to explain all the time. At some points it is exhausting, I have to admit, every time I go into a room you have to explain all these nuances. But I prefer that, I really appreciate that, so that my work can enrich the potential and I can really bring content into the conversation. I think I’ve been very fortunate to have created a path where the work that I do and my cultural experience and my diversity has been needed in those rooms throughout the years.

What is one of the basic things you always have to explain in this work of cultural translation?

That a culture is impossible to define. It is complex, it has different angles to look at it from and these diverse cultures require a deep understanding that, if you are committed to talking [and learning] about cultural diversity, is not in the surface. You have to get deep into exactly what you are trying to reach. 

Let’s be specific: people say we are going to program one style of music from Mexico. Well, my first question is why you want to present music from Mexico to begin with. We ask these questions to force these corporations and organizations to answer them. What is the purpose of trying to do culturally diverse programs? Why are we actually doing this? That is question number one for me to create a program to help them achieve their goals. But we don’t just say “we’re going to have one group to reach out to the Mexicans, and one group to reach out the Argentinians, and this other group.”

For example: I brought a very well known tango company to the U.S. for one of my festivals and we decided to create a masterclass. We put the word out in Spanish, but it was amazing that we had 100 Koreans attend the class. Tango, it turns out, is not only for Argentinians, it happens that it is super popular and loved in Korea, Japan and in East Asia, just like jazz.

So to me that’s the No. 1, there are no linear ways to define culture. There are so many factors that go into [trying to program cultural content], how do you define it? Is it traditional? Is it contemporary? Is it folkloric? Is it indigenous? These all may happen to come from the same country, but what exactly you want to do and which audiences you want to reach. You can identify that, then you go in that direction. In my case, I curate and I bring contextualization all the time. And I think this is very important because, in the end, cultural diversity is education, we have to learn more, not just to attend a concert, but you have to learn so much about that music. My No. 1 recommendation for people trying to think about cultural diversity is that there is no way you can have one definition or a linear approach. 
You will see, in the end, all of the influences, as culture is global and diverse by nature. 

– Claudia Norman

Are the same conversations about diversity and female empowerment happening in Mexico?

I produce a festival called Celebrate Mexico Now, I did online this October. One of the conversations we had was a panel about racism. We had a scholar from the U.S. going through the lens of how racism is approached in the U.S. and we had a scholar from Mexico discussing how racism is approached in Mexico. And going into racism, we went into this patriarchal way our cultures operate. 

We know that Mexico was at the center of international attention with the Mujeres of Juárez, when in the border city they were killing women every day. This kept going and people started learning that this was not something new and it was not exclusive to Ciudad Juárez, it is happening everywhere. Kidnapping. Rape. Then, when you get into the history of this violence you realize it goes back to the Spanish and colonialism. And then you go back even to the Aztecs and you see it was all about the males. 

So five years ago, this new generation that is coming behind me, they started questioning all of this work of feminism from the ’70s, that was more intellectual, and it was all around the world not only in the U.S. They saw it that way, it was more about intellectual reflection, but right now was the time to take action. So right now, I don’t know if you have heard of this group from Chile, Las Tesis, but this is happening globally, there is a new generation of women waking up, speaking out, going into the streets to protest for access to the same wages, access to job opportunities, to have rights over their bodies, it has become an international movement. I think technology, specifically the internet, has made this a global movement. 
Las Tesis went to the streets to demand the end of discrimination and violence against women. And it became an international anthem, they wrote and sang a song with choreography, and it was the voice of artists creating this global phenomenon. And Pussy Riot is another group of females having a global effect and women are waking up and listening. 

And the dance master I am working with, Bijayini Satpathy, she is dealing with those issues as well. You know violence against women in India is tremendous, and when you look at the role of women in the Muslim world … all of this is echoing in Mexico, to return to your question. There is a grassroots movement, Mexico City has a female mayor for the first time. And it is huge, for a society to see these things.

This is global, this phenomenon of questioning racism and the opportunity for women to be in the workplace and violence against women, it is no longer about one place. To me that is very interesting, how we have been able to have common ground and issues with people that grew up in a totally different context than you, but in the end, you find the affinity. 

So how do you feel about the prospects of a return to the live industry?

Every time in history there has been a great, sad event, it has always been through culture, music and dance that society comes back together. The renaissance after the dark ages, the period after the World Wars, there is always a renaissance for culture and renovation, and I think we are living in a moment like that right now. We are living in a renaissance moment and we are going to be able to contribute to it.