Photo by Em Watson

It’s been two years, but Spoleto Festival USA is finally here again. After being sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, this year’s festival returns with a slate of safety measures, a lighter schedule and smaller houses. But, that doesn’t seem to be stopping audiences from making plans to attend season 45. Spoleto Festival 2021 is happening, and there will be people in those seats.

Big unknowns that hovered over the festival coming into 2021 were whether it could be accomplished safely and whether people were ready to return. 

“Coming into the season, and as we got closer and closer to going on sale back in April, there was just so much unknown,” said Jessie Bagley, director of marketing and public relations for Spoleto Festival USA. “Normally, as we approach a season, we can do some pretty specific forecasting and predictions. But, this year just sort of flew that door wide open.”

A Thousand Ways (Part 1): A Phone Call | Photo by Maria Baranova

When the season for Spoleto 2021 was announced in April, the most enticing and exclusive show seemed to be 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways (Part 1): A Phone Call. 600 Highwaymen wowed audiences with 2019’s The Fever, an unconventional theatrical event about the intersection between audience and performer. Their new “production” also bucks the trends of theater convention by happening entirely over a phone call where a voice guides two strangers through an experience. With such a buzz and extremely limited attendance (only 10 participants are allowed per time), odds were good that A Phone Call was going to be the hottest ticket in town, come June 3. And hey, you can do it from the comfort of your own home. Safe, exciting, a sure-fire hit.

Fast forward a month later, and tickets for A Phone Call are still very much available as of publication. The Journey, the other virtual offering, also has plenty of tickets available. In contrast, the annual Chamber Music series at the Dock Street Theatre has been sold out for several weeks. The Cistern Yard series of shows are also tough tickets to snag. It’s somewhat surprising to everyone, including the Spoleto team.

“We tend to sell the Chamber Music over opening weekend, middle weekend,” said Bagley. “We normally have tickets available later in the season for Chamber Music. So, it is somewhat unusual for that to be completely sold out.”

The Chamber Music series was an unexpected sellout before the festival began this year | Photo by William Struhs

There’s no clear explanation. Perhaps the nature of the virtual offerings make them ideal for last-minute purchases for certain nights. Perhaps people are uncomfortable with the concept of having a phone call with a total stranger. Or maybe it’s just that after more than a year of virtual everything, audiences are hungry for live, in-person art performances.

Sarah Jaroz plays the Cistern Yard May 30-31 | Photo by Kaitlyn Raitz

The Woman in Black, now running out of Festival Hall after changing locations, is selling well throughout opening weekend. Caleb Teicher and Company are seeing strong audience anticipation and sales. A New Orleans Jazz Celebration, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Sarah Jarosz are all either completely sold out or nearly at capacity as we approach opening weekend. With more people eligible for vaccines and COVID cases continuing to decline in Charleston, it looks like audiences are slowly, but surely, preparing to return to live performing arts this May. 

Cleveland Play House The Woman in Black Susan Hill Photo by Roger Mastroianni | Photo by Roger Mastroianni

The College of Charleston’s Spoleto Festival class, taught by associate dean of the School of the Arts, Todd McNerney, will again take its students to opening weekend performances, and hasn’t noticed any hesitancy from this year’s students or the festival. 

“They have been as great as always, even with reduced capacity,” said McNerney about getting students in to see shows. The only downside for McNerney is that there aren’t as many shows for the students to attend this year. 

This eagerness on the part of audiences to return to Spoleto speaks incredibly well for the future of performing arts in Charleston. Had audiences decided to stay away, it could have signaled anxiety about the upcoming fall and beyond for the performing arts. Spoleto Festival USA will be the first big test for ticketed events this year. So far, things are looking good. And for everyone who isn’t quite ready to get back into performance spaces, there are still the virtual offerings available.

A New Orleans Jazz Celebration brings you the music of Danny Barker | Photo provided by Jules Cahn Collection,The Historic New Orleans Collection

“We will still get calls from people who are not quite ready for their own personal comfort level to come back into performance spaces. It is nice to have those virtual offerings to offer them,” said Bagley. “As a festival, I’m glad that our program sort of accommodates various levels of that reentry comfort.”

There are outdoor spaces for those looking for music or dance in an open-air environment, live theater and music indoors for the masked and truly comfortable, and if you’re not ready to venture back out, there’s A Phone Call and The Journey — likely to be incredible experiences from  your own home. There’s never been a Spoleto Festival quite like this.

The Journey is one of Spoleto’s virtual offerings | Photo provided by David Wilkinson/Empirical Photography

It remains to be seen how audience trends will fluctuate over the entire festival, but the excitement to return to Cistern Yard, Festival Hall or walk through the art shows to pick up new pieces simply cannot be denied. Spoleto Festival USA kicks off May 28, and it sounds like we’ll see you all there.