It has been over a year since the Charleston arts scene was put on pause. The prospect of a Spoleto return, a year after the pandemic, two years since the last showcase of world-class international and local talent might just be right medicine for a live performance-starved city.
Spoleto Festival USA seems to feel the same. In a world full of continued uncertainty, where COVID spikes and vaccine rollouts make it hard to predict how safe Charleston will feel in just two months, Spoleto is moving cautiously, but it is moving forward. Spoleto wants to bring you back to the performing arts, live and in color.
Spoleto Festival USA is planning 18 days of live, in-person, social distanced and COVID-compliant performances starting May 28. The 45th season will be staged across three outdoor venues, two of them brand new for the festival itself, as well as Dock Street Theatre, the sole indoor space this year. The Charleston Visitor Center bus shed, once a train depot built in the 1840s, will be outfitted as an outdoor theatrical stage with about 140 seats. And the Rivers Green at CofC, the large open lawn behind the Addlestone Library, will have a stage and seating for just over 300 built for the festival. The Cistern Yard at the College of Charleston is the other returning outdoor space.
With 80 events set across these four venues, and with limited seating in each, Spoleto 2021 will only support about 25% of its normal capacity compared to previous festivals. That will make tickets harder to get, but it’s in service of keeping performers and audiences as safe as possible while providing the live indoor/outdoor experiences synonymous with Spoleto. To keep audiences spaced safely, tickets will be sold in seated blocks.
Dock Street Theatre will again be home to the ever-popular Chamber Music series. These twice-daily concerts will be hosted by Geoff Nuttall, festival director of chamber music. The 45-minute concerts will feature four world premieres, including two from 2021 composer-in-residence Jessica Meyer. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein will premiere a new work written for her by Osvaldo Golijov, and oboist James Austin Smith will play the premiere of Siegfried Thiele’s Ballade für Oboe.
Everything else in the Festival this year will be outdoors, save two virtual offerings. The outdoor series in Cistern Yard will features three bluegrass ensembles, each playing two evening concerts. Four-time Grammy Award-winner Sarah Jarosz kicks off the series, followed by Steep Canyon Rangers and the Wood Brothers. The Wells Fargo Jazz series will also be returning to the Cistern, highlighted by a special Charleston edition of Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration. The Cookers and Preservation Hall Jazz Band will also have concerts, and there will be a one-night-only New Orleans jazz all-stars show, featuring Grammy winner Catherine Russell, to celebrate musician and writer Danny Barker.
The festival’s dance slate will live at the new Rivers Green stage. Caleb Teicher and Company will headline, joined by Ephrat Asherie Dance and the Ballet Under the Stars program. Expect everything from ballet and modern to breakdancing. The bus shed stage will house The Woman in Black, a play based on Susan Hill’s ghost story that audiences may recognize from the 2012 film of the same name. Originally starting its run on London’s West End, this production is a transplant of the 2020 New York City run.
As for the two virtual offerings, those are where Spoleto’s usual mix of interesting, non-traditional theatrical works are represented, albeit in a non-traditional way. In fact, one of them isn’t really a “virtual” offering.
600 Highwaymen, the Brooklyn-based company responsible for 2019’s exceptional The Fever, returns with a new experience, A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call. It’s less a virtual event, and more a telephone call. Each person who buys a ticket will receive a number to call, where they will be connected to another random caller also “attending” that night’s “performance.” A voice (presumably a member of the show’s cast) will then guid both parties through a conversation meant to allow two strangers to embark on a journey together. Those are all the details we have, but if The Fever has taught us anything, it’s that going into a 600 Highwaymen production with minimal details makes for the best surprises in live theater.
The other half of the Spoleto at Home slate is Scott Silven’s The Journey. Silven is an acclaimed illusionist, mentalist, and performance artist. His streaming show will also involve audience participation. Attendees will need a computer or iPad, a good internet connection, a camera and headphones with a microphone to properly experience Silven’s story. The goal is to connect your homes in Charleston to his in Scotland.
And that’s the 2021 festival. A much smaller slate than previous years, necessitated by the needs of our current world. A fraction of available seating, meaning fewer audience members than ever before will be able to attend Spoleto over its nearly three-week run. With only 10 tickets per show, A Phone Call will likely be the festival’s hottest ticket, without question. And there are no planned parties or in-person celebratory events. No Spoleto SCENE fetes or season-ending gala.
There is one party that everyone is invited to: Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto Festival USA for the last 35 years, will be leaving his post in October. To honor him, Spoleto is hosting a virtual, live-streamed gala on May 22 and made available, for free, throughout the festival. Countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo will be the emcee and artists like Rhiannon Giddens, Steve Reich, Bill T. Jones and Laurie Anderson will offer messages and performances dedicated to Redden.
Spoleto Festival USA, sidelined by the pandemic like everything else last year, is back. A smaller, more cautious festival emerges, with less pageantry and, yes, less access than ever before. But the caution and limits will bring us all, safely, back together. Despite the lost year and the restrictions, Spoleto Festival USA is approaching this season with a sense of celebrating new beginnings. Live performing arts have been sorely missed. Spoleto Festival USA returns this May 28 and runs through June 13.
Tickets go on sale April 13 at spoletofestival.org.