Photo by Leigh Webber courtesy Spoleto Festival USA

To Be Decided

Spoleto Festival is planning to return on May 28 after a long year that saw canceled events and longtime executive director Nigel Redden retire. Its sister festival, Piccolo Spoleto, is expected to follow its lead. But, the still-active COVID-19 pandemic has some asking what the festivals will look like in 2021.

According to Jessie Bagley, Spoleto’s director of marketing and public relations, the festival will primarily cater to live gatherings. “As of right now, the majority [of shows] will be in-person, but with extremely limited availability,” she said.

The festival will still span 17 days, ending June 13. Jenny Ouellette, Spoleto’s public relations manager, said the events will be “scaled back [and] safety-protocol heavy.”

Unique virtual content will play a part in Spoleto 2021, though Spoleto is committed to creating an in-person festival. “There will also be several digital-only options — performances that are created specifically for the virtual space,” Ouellette said, “So, not merely streams of live performances.”

Piccolo Spoleto, which primarily focuses on local and regional artists, is also planning for live events, but will integrate livestreams of some of its shows, said Scott Watson, the director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

“We’ve really upped our game in recent years, just out of attention to make the festival more accessible, to have livestreamed content go out, Facebook showings,” he said. “We certainly anticipate continuing that. We recognize there will be a lot of Piccolo enthusiasts who don’t feel comfortable coming downtown.”

Spoleto’s digital offerings, Bagley said, are a little more personable than other livestreamed shows seen in the last few months. “I don’t know if it would be correct to say that they were created during the pandemic, but they certainly fit the time very well,” she said.

Some live events, like the Southeastern Wildlife Expo, have already canceled their 2021 gatherings. With that in mind, the Spoleto board is trying to “forge ahead, until it looks like it’s no longer safe or no longer a possibility,” Bagley said. “We will have a contingency plan, and it will honestly probably look similar to what we did in 2020 with the festival cancelation.”

If Spoleto is canceled again, Piccolo may decide to trudge forward. “We’d like to think that regardless of Spoleto’s decision, we will make our own independent decision as to how we can best proceed,” Watson said. “To go two years with just saying ‘We’ll be back,’ feels like we’re not being agile enough. We’re also not working at the scale that Spoleto is.”

While the new programs for Spoleto will not be announced until March 7, Bagley and Ouellette said some performances from the 2020 schedule will return, including Omar, an opera based on the autobiography of enslaved Muslim-African Omar Ibn Said.
In preparation for the world premiere of this opera, composed by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, Spoleto has posted online discussions about its themes. The most recent episode of “Exploring Omar,” which was released Jan. 12, dives into the identities behind the art, representation and appropriation.

New programs will run alongside some previously scheduled shows, Bagley added. “There’s a pretty significant fresh batch of programming incorporated into the 2021 season,” she said.

Piccolo broke from its normal call for applications this year and is leaning on its free-to-attend and outdoor events out of concern over gathering in some of its regular venues.

The cancelations of Spoleto and Piccolo amidst the pandemic were some of the biggest local arts stories of 2020. Spoleto had never been called off during its 43-year history. Citing logistical problems caused by the pandemic, such as stifled air travel and unsafe conditions, the Spoleto board made the decision to cut the festival in late March.
In the fall, Spoleto’s longtime executive director Redden announced he was retiring after 35 years. According to Ouellette, the Spoleto board and staff are working with an international search firm to find candidates for the position.