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Spoleto Festival USA Resuming In Charleson

April 13, 2021 by Dan McCue
Photo by Leigh Webber Spoleto Festival USA kicks off in front of Charleston's City Hall on May 24, 2019

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston, S.C., is known for many things. 

Southern charm. 

Restaurants.

Idyllic, Sun-soaked days.

Being home to one of the nation’s busiest and most successful ports.

But perhaps nothing brings more visitors to the city and the surrounding Lowcountry than the annual Spoleto Festival USA, two solid weeks of music, theater and art in late May and early June.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the festival, a little history.

It was founded in 1977 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who sought to create an American counterpart to the annual Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, which he founded in 1958. 

Looking for a city that would provide the charm of Spoleto as well as its wealth of theaters, churches and other performance spaces, Menotti found Charleston to be the perfect fit.

The historic city was intimate enough to enable the festival to capture it in its entirety, yet cosmopolitan enough to provide an enthusiastic audience and robust infrastructure. 

Last year, as it did to so many events worldwide, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the festival — the first time that had happened since its founding.

Spoleto Festival USA’s Bank of America Chamber Music series Geoff Nuttall (far left) leads the famous Bank of America Chamber Music series at the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, SC, as part of Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by William Struhs

This past week, however, in a sign the region and nation as a whole is moving ever-closer to the end of the pandemic, the festival announced its return, in a slightly abridged form.

“It’s been quite an experience,” Spoleto Festival USA spokeswoman Jenny Ouellette told The Well News.

“After we canceled the festival last year, there was quite a bit of pivoting to see if there was anything we could possibly do during the planned 2020 dates, but we quickly concluded that would be just impossible,” she said.

Like many arts organizations, the festival did offer some virtual content, but Ouellette said the focus, almost immediately, was on what they would be able to do in 2021.

“Of course, there were so many unanswered questions. And as time wore on, every plan we came up with was revised and revised again,” she said. “In fact at a certain point, I think, it seemed like we were making a new plan for 2021 and changing it daily.”

In fact, it wasn’t until February of this year, festival organizers said that they were finally able “to really put our finger on” what would be possible in terms of an event this year.

“Partly that was due to the expansion of vaccinations, and partly that was due to our partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina,” Ouellette said.

“We asked them to consult with us on our safety protocols, and that really helped us build some confidence in what we were doing.

“Of course, paramount in all this planning was safety, not only for our audience members but our artists as well,” she said.

Fewer Venues, More Protocols

In a typical season, Spoleto Festival USA uses at least 10 venues located around Charleston. This year it will utilize only four venues, and only one of them, the city’s historic Dock Street Theater, will be indoors.

Two of the outdoor stages will be built at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard, the grounds of what once was a train depot built in the 1840s.

Shen Wei Dance Arts Photo by William Struhs Untitled # 12-2 for bodies (world premiere)

The second new outdoor venue is being constructed at Rivers Green at the College of Charleston—a large open lawn behind the college’s library—and will support three distinct dance programs.

“One of the outdoor venues we’re using is one we’d ordinarily use, but the other two, we’re essentially building from scratch for theater and dance productions,” Ouellette said.

“The Dock Street Theater is only going to be used for our twice daily chamber music presentations — with reduced capacities at all locations to allow for physical distancing,” she said.

Other protocols include mandating that masks be worn at all times — even at the outdoor venues. The seating at the outdoor venues is also being tailored to the current moment, with attendees being seated in “safe seating pods” – essential “bubbles” of two and four seats. 

“We call them that because we only want people interacting with other people they are comfortable with,” Ouellette said.

“We’re also not having any intermissions at any of our performances to avoid congestion and mingling by our patrons,” she said, adding “the idea is to come in, sit down with your mask on, enjoy the performance and go home.”

One thing that isn’t planned is the temperature check that has become so common a part of pandemic life. 

The reason, Ouellette explained, is because Charleston is usually very warm during festival time, and organizers were concerned that would result in an explosion of false positive readings.

A Different Look and Feel 

From the beginning of serious planning for this year’s festival, Nigel Redden, its general director, and Nicole Taney, director of artistic planning and operations, had hoped to bring back as much of the postponed 2020 program as possible.

That proved to be a huge — and ultimately insurmountable — logistical hurdle.

Due to the history and nature of the festival, the Charleston event is a gathering place for international artists. But this year, COVID-fighting regulations are making it almost impossible to fly.

More than 80 musicians are handpicked each year to play in the prestigious Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. Photo by William Struhs

“So, for instance, we had hoped to bring Rhiannon Giddens and her musical partner, Francesco Turrisi here this year, because they were supposed to be here last year, but they are based in Ireland, which means it would have required a two-week quarantine in somewhere like Mexico before we could get them into the country,” Ouellette said.

As a result, this year’s festival will feature only American artists, like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the American Ballet Theatre and New York City ballet dancers.

“Once that was established, we quickly then began to fill in holes, fleshing out the jazz and popular music programming,” Ouellette said. “Fortunately, we have a lot of good relationships with agents and companies that route performing artists through the United States.”

“For many of the artists on our program, Spoleto will be the first time they’ve gotten back to playing,” she added. “We’re pretty excited about it too.”

One casualty of the ongoing though waning pandemic is the world premiere of Omar, a large-scale opera that was to have premiered in 2020. The festival said as confident as they are in its health and safety protocols, they simply would not allow for gathering the 100-plus artists, musicians, and crew necessary to produce this opera to the high standard that would be appropriate, and that the production and story deserve.

Filling a Void

Ouellette said the hurdles only helped fuel “a great sense of resolve and pride and what the arts bring to a community” among festival officials. 

Paradise Interrupted Photo (c) Julia Lynn Photography L-R: Ao Li (bass-baritone), Joseph Dennis (tenor), Joo Won Kang (baritone), John Holiday (countertenor)

“It has been anything but easy trying to put this festival together, but we knew we needed to do it,” she said.

“Since the season was announced a week ago Monday, the response we’ve gotten suggests people have been craving this sort of cultural, artistic outlet,” Ouellette continued.

“You know, a virtual experience is one thing, but there’s something truly unique about a complete exposure to an art form, live and in person,” she said. “And it feels really good to be able to bring that to our audiences again.”

“I feel confident that what we’re bringing to people is very much needed,” Ouellette added. “And it’s nice. It’s nice to know that we can fill a void that people have been feeling for so long.”

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