If a Tree of Codes falls on deaf ears, was it really here at all? That is among my many lingering questions concerning this year’s excellent, effusive Spoleto Festival USA. Those questions concern the other major player in the arts festival: the audience member. That’s correct, I mean you.
Trust me, there’s nothing that makes me squirm more in a theater seat than the prospect of someone on stage pulling me into the production. However, after 17 days of bearing witness to all manner of artist-audience dynamics, it’s time we turned the spotlight on ourselves.
After all, more than one artist did just that in the 2018 lineup. In One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures/NEW BODIES, choreographer Jodi Melnick presented her collaboration with New York City Ballet dancers that sprung from a project at Jacob’s Pillow last summer. This involved dancers morphing before our eyes, at first striking classic balletic positions to gradually embody Melnick’s altogether different choreographic approach. They did so on a spare stage that extended out to the sides of the theater, where accompanists played, and back to the stage door. At one point, a glaring white spot was trained right on us.
Then the performers did something curiouser still. They stopped the action, enlisting the sneaker-shod Melnick to join them in a circle of chairs to parse the piece, folding in an audience talk back. It was, by design, unclear whether their stage banter was scripted or spontaneous, thus further blurring the line between the artist and the audience.
Earlier, A.I.M’s last piece, “Drive,” similarly shone lights on the house, as dancers slipped around and over what looked like a line of footlights at the far side of the stage, with overhead spots shining full frontal on us. As the dancers repeatedly turned away to face the black back wall, I almost felt that we in the audience were backstage, waiting for our cue.
As the immersive, quirky The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart opened, we were instructed by cast members to tear up our cocktail napkins — and offered a wee dram of whiskey to boot. Later we flung those napkin bits about the Woolfe Street Playhouse, creating the very blizzard that entrapped the characters. We did so joyously, unleashing along with those flying scraps the childlike wonder that can whip up a wintry Scottish village in a Charleston warehouse.
In the opening moments of Gravity & Other Myths’s Backbone, one of the members of the troupe ventured out into a row of seats, cradling a hefty rock. She then entrusted it to a patron to hold for the whole of the show, dutifully retrieving it at the work’s culmination. It was if she was signifying that we all shoulder the weight of this artistic endeavor, and that we should care for it as gently as she does.
From one show to the next, I witnessed the broad spectrum of the age-old partnership of player and patron. I saw octogenarians boogey blithely at the behest of Jon Batiste. I caught disgruntled patrons at the Gaillard grumpily stomp out as Jazzmeia Horn wove frank talk on social justice into her scatting. I glanced over as others streamed out, mildly shame-faced, as Trio 3 and Vijay Iyer plied their impressive, progressive sound. I also saw others utterly transformed by Craig Taborn, at once dominant over and supplicant to his piano.
Overall, I chronicled far more enthusiasts than killjoys throughout largely packed houses. However, it only takes a couple of the latter to butcher a Spoleto buzz. Beyond the performance halls, there were also plenty of sightings of the requisite eye roll, which is merrily deployed this time of year in reference to the festival’s more challenging works, often serving as a socially acceptable way of shrugging off what may be hard to get.
So in my festival post-mortem, I suggest that we revisit our contract with the international arts festival that was paramount to forging the vibrant, preternaturally cultivated city many of us call home. Perhaps some among us view our annual arts dive as simply transactional. The customer is always right, so we can bolt from or belittle performances as we see fit. I would argue that we are missing the point.
Ditching a performance mid-show is at best disruptive, and potentially far more insidious. For an artist pouring his or her heart out and employing such outsize talent and skill in the middle of an aria, or a monologue, or a violin solo, it can never be encouraging to see from the corner of the eye that dreary exit door shuffle. I think of those wonderfully red-cheeked Westminster Choir members, and what message they are getting about respect for artists.
What’s more, if you truly have pride in place regarding our singular city, I can promise you that the provincial attitudes regarding its relationship with world-class performance telegraph that if you scratch the surface — if you go beyond the high-end Boho apparel and performance belt-notching — the walk-outs and sneers render us collectively a bunch of yahoos. What’s more, we certainly belie our time-honored reputation of being mannered, as only a medical emergency justifies visibly quitting a performance in a fashion that would detract from the experience for other attendees or the performers.
Why would we want to only experience art that we already understand? If we only want our own views and comprehensions to be echoed, we might as well sit home and talk to our reflections in the mirror. A friend once observed someone who had thus customized every part of their life in keeping with prescribed world views — the perfect house, spouse, and job. “He has his life all planned out,” said my friend. “So why live it?”
It’s hard not to think of the Anthony Bourdain quote that keeps popping up in my Facebook feed. “If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move,” he famously said. “As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”
I mulled all this as the 2018 Spoleto Festival went gently into the night at The Joe. The afternoon showers and Middleton upending had done it no favors attendance-wise. Stationed on the far side of outfield, The Lone Bellow gamely played on, bellowing a bit more lonely than anticipated. However, those who had opted for the general admission seats scored big, clustering encouragingly on the grass surrounding the band.
Here in Charleston, we don’t need to even own a passport to walk in shoes around the world. We have Spoleto, a hard won victory 42 years ago that has shaped our city’s worldview in ways that continue to be manifold and meaningful. There’s that old adage about life being mainly about showing up. When it comes to Spoleto, we are absolutely showing up — and the box office sales this year can prove it. As we close the books on another transformative arts immersion, I simply suggest that we also resolve to stay put.