Photo courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA

The twice-daily sounds of Handel and Schubert emanating from the Dock Street Theater. The lurkers lingering outside the Cistern to catch snippets of a jazz concert. The scrappy performances stuffed into seemingly any and every space possible. After COVID-19 cancellations shut down both Spoleto Festival USA and the sprawling Piccolo Spoleto sister festival last summer, both are set to return from May 28 to June 13.

Although the return of both festivals is highly anticipated, guests and performers alike should expect extensive changes, said Jenny Ouellette, the public relations manager for Spoleto.

“It will certainly be different from what our guests are used to,” Ouellette said. “It will be a little bit scaled back in terms of scope, the size of the audience, the venues themselves. The number of performances is smaller — that’s the number one biggest change.”

The 2021 festival will have a capacity of about 25% compared to previous years. A pair of theater performances have shifted from in-person to virtual, resulting in a total of 74 live performances and 26 online. Ouellette said a typical year features more than 150.

Masks will be required on site, and intermissions are gone, along with food and drink sales. The ticketing also reflects safety protocols, with seats being sold in pods of two and four. “In order to follow physical distancing requirements and allow for the safest possible audience experience,” Ouellette said, “we realized one of our adaptations would be to follow the ‘pod seating’ format that has proven successful for other organizations.”

There will also only be four Spoleto venues this year, a dramatic shift from the eight to 10 typically used. While the Dock Street Theatre will still host indoor chamber music each day of the festival. The play The Woman in Black will also take place indoors at Festival Hall. All other performances will be al fresco: A new outdoor stage at Rivers Green behind the College of Charleston library joins the campus’ Cistern space. The full Spoleto lineup and schedule is now available on the festival’s website.

Piccolo Spoleto, a wider-ranging festival put on by the City of Charleston that usually occurs at the same time as Spoleto, released its schedule Wednesday. Scott Watson, the city’s director of cultural affairs, said this year’s Piccolo took its lead from its fellow festival.

“We work in close coordination with Spoleto Festival USA to ensure that it would essentially run under the same expectations and protocols,” Watson said. “Our big decision that needed to be made months ago was that we eliminated having any ticketed-admission, indoor paid events.”

Watson said COVID-19 protocols dictated this shift: Piccolo acts typically use smaller venues, many of which could not accommodate a socially distant setup.

A new element this year is something that Watson called “neighborhood pop-ups.” These small-scale events will offer Piccolo events at smaller playgrounds or communal areas in such local neighborhoods as the French Quarter and Harleston Village. These pop-ups could range from music to smaller opera to more family-friendly events. 

“We’ve basically come up with a model where we hope that people will come expecting events of shorter duration but that still have the highest standard of artistic excellence, and are celebratory and festive,” Watson said.

Despite all of these restrictions, both festivals are excited to return after essentially taking 2020 off.

“I would just like to stress how thrilled we are to have the festival,” Ouellette said. “There’s so much that it does for the city in terms of bringing people and artists, and we’re hoping that it will jump start the festival season.”

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