Don’t be scared, the wildly unpredictable, local ukulele/jug band V-Tones are for the whole family. | Courtesy The V-Tones

Neighborhood parks and public places around Charleston will transform into pop-up performance spaces throughout this year’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival from May 27 to June 12. 

Scott Watson, director of the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, said ensuring the arts are accessible to everyone is at the heart of the outreach program. While the Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto Festivals has meant art programming was happening in Charleston, parking concerns or waiting too long to buy tickets meant a big local audience wasn’t engaging with either festival, he said.

“Our attitude was this was entirely a missed opportunity to intervene and just bring the arts directly to people, particularly families, right in their backyard,” said Watson.

How the program popped up

The pop-up program as it exists today was formalized between 2014 and 2015 after several years of trial runs. Watson’s team works with neighborhood service staff, council members and neighborhood self-nominations to select geographically diverse pop-up locations across the peninsula. Then, a roster of local artists–such as The V-Tones of Charleston–bring free, family friendly entertainment to their neighbors’ backyards.

“Putting in those pop-ups, like in Allen Park or the Greenway, is a way to saturate the art of Charleston down into the neighborhoods and make it easier for parents and kids to get out,” said Noodle McDoodle, The V-Tones’s co-founder and ukulele player. “And personally, our band is a little anarchic, so we’re always interested in doing free, fun, interesting shows and playing situations that are new to us.”

Because the pop-ups focus on family friendly programming and not all kids are (or can be) vaccinated, Watson said they aren’t planning any large-scale pop-up events that would draw large, concentrated crowds. The outdoor nature of the venues, though, means there will still be plenty of pop-up options to choose from.

“Now that we’ve had years of the pandemic, it really made us value live performances, and it makes every performance really, really special,” McDoodle said.

How pop-ups work

The pop-ups, which run throughout the 17-day festival, are announced through Piccolo’s social media channels and newsletter the week they occur to coordinate with the weather forecast. And due to the unpredictable nature of Charleston’s storm season, unexpected weather interruptions can happen. Watson said one year that a deluge flooded avenue shortly after one band wrapped its set, causing the rest of the concert to be canceled. McDoodle said The V-Tones have had some close calls, but the payoff of performing for the community is worth the gamble.

“If your name is Noodle, you’ve got to be flexible,” McDoodle said.

Following the Festival’s Facebook and Twitter accounts is the best way to keep up-to-date on any delayed, rescheduled or canceled events. And the flexibility of the artists and audiences, paired with back-up dates and venues, means rain won’t dampen the spirit of the pop-ups.

“I feel it’s almost like throwing a kid’s birthday party when they’re young enough that they don’t know what their actual birthday is,” said Watson. “They’re just excited to see the cake and the hats and the streamers.”

Flexibility is a key to success

The flexible scheduling also works well for busy families and last-minute planners.

“The intention is to offer some quick and easy fun, not make it the calendar item that you need to fix in your planning six weeks out,” said Watson, “but more something that you hear about from a friend a week out and say, ‘hey, let’s go and give that a try.’ ”

McDoodle said he enjoys seeing The V-Tone’s swing and jazz music resonate with audiences of all ages. He said he’ll look out and see older folks fondly remembering the music of their past next to young kids bopping along to the rhythm–a toddler even plopped himself onstage during one of the band’s pop-ups.

The pop-ups also provide a platform for local artists to showcase their talents. Local art and music teachers, for example, have a chance to be seen as sophisticated professional studio practitioners or phenomenal composers and multi-instrumentalists.

“That’s kind of the magic that we share,” said Watson. “The pop-ups are a chance to reinforce community and build a sense of civic pride, but also to remind Charlestonians that the arts reside in every corner of the community.”

Even though pop-up planning is intentional, Watson acknowledges some places may get overlooked, such as a newly renovated park or a space available through a Homeowners’ Association. The Office of Cultural Affairs encourages neighborhoods to reach out directly if residents have a proposed pop-up space so the program can continue bridging the Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto Festivals to the community.

“Now that people are more in the loop, they’re coming over prepared,” Watson said. “They’re loading up their little red wagon with their folding chairs, with a picnic, with the Paw Patrol airplane full of toys for the kids and having a nice evening out.”

Katherine Kiessling is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

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