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Putting on Spoleto Festival USA Post Pandemic

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg announces the opening of the 45th Spoleto Festival USA at Washington Square in Charleston on May 28, 2021.
Victoria Hansen
SC Public Radio
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg announces the opening of the 45th Spoleto Festival USA at Washington Square in Charleston on May 28, 2021.

The opening of Spoleto Festival USA this year was unlike any other. Instead of a seated crowd fanning themselves in the blistering sun before city hall, a small group gathered in the shade of Washington Park.

The mayor proclaimed the festival’s start as he typically does. But the confetti and church bells that followed were a surprise for many, even though they are an opening tradition.

An Unusual Opening

“To me there’s something emotional about that because it really does signal the start of the festival,” Jessie Bagley said. She is the Spoleto Festival USA Marketing and Public Relations Director.

Bagley credits the festival’s Director of Production, Mike East, with making the unexpected happen. He just smiles when asked, humbly hanging his head and shaking it no.

East, like many festival organizers, is finding out firsthand that putting on a world class festival following a global pandemic is a performance all its own. It requires plenty of improvisation.

“One of the downsides of the sort of COVID plan, if we call it that, was to have as few humans involved as possible,” East said.

Typically, he has a team of 75 to 150 technicians to get the lights, video, audio, scenery and costumes in place. This year he has 51.

Setting the Stage

The festival has significantly scaled down the number of in person performances to provide social distancing. But it has also added outdoor stages, like one at Rivers Green downtown that East had never built before.

He didn’t even get a chance to start the sketches for it until March. That’s when the program got final approval.

“Nigel Redden, our general director, was I won’t say disappointed but challenged us to go a little bit further,” East said.

The challenge was to create a stage for dancers that looked as though it had always been there. Rivers Green is basically a field behind the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library.

So, East used faux brick, reminiscent of the historic city, as he tried to design a warm, welcoming space that doesn’t call attention to the towering technology of speakers and lights.

“Instead, it falls off and dies into the distance,” said East. “That way the audience is able to really just focus on the performance itself which is fantastic.”

East says there’s no settling when it comes to production for Spoleto Festival USA. The standard is still excellence, even for a post pandemic scaled down version.

“We are trying to retain as much of that Spoleto magic,” said Bagley.

She adds that while the festival’s passion is performance, its priority is safety. That’s why organizers have been working closely with the Medical University of South Carolina to follow rapidly changed Covid-19 guidelines.

Maintaining the Magic, Safely

For instance, the hospital was supposed to set up a testing tent at 292 Meeting Street, near festival headquarters. But about a week before the opening, organizers decided instead to make it a site for free vaccinations. By then, more than 90 percent of those working with Spoleto Festival USA had been vaccinated.

Bagley knows the festival marks a kind of unofficial reopening for the city.

“If this is their first big event post pandemic, I want it to be a good experience,” she said.

She says the festival has scaled down its overall capacity to about 25 percent of a typical season. There will be more than 80 performances including virtual and Spoleto Festival USA will feature four venues instead of 10.

No international artists are being brought in. Chamber Music will continue to serve as the festival backbone at Dock Street Theater.

The festival is smaller, but Bagley is thrilled it’s happening. This time last year, she was cancelling Spoleto Festival USA which had never been done before.

She remembers the kindness of ticket holders. Many were offered refunds but decided to donate the money back to the festival instead.

“It was a beautiful thing to watch,” she said. “Clearly they wanted us to be around now and thankfully here we are.”

Artists and audiences are coming out of isolation together in Charleston. One group is eager to perform. The other is hungry for music, dance and theater; the arts that feed their souls.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.