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Nigel Redden Prepares for Life After Spoleto Festival USA

Nigel Redden with Charleston's mayor at Randolph Hall
Victoria Hansen
SC Public Radio
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and Spoleto Festival USA General Director Nigel Redden talk about Reddens longtime role with the festival at the College of Charleston’s Randolph Hall. (June 2, 2021)

Sometimes people become so synonymous with a place or event, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. Nigel Redden isn’t imagining life without Spoleto Festival USA. He’s preparing for it.

“It’s a big decision,” says Redden. “I also reached one of those birthdays that has a zero. I turned 70 last year.”

Redden is the General Director for Spoleto Festival USA, an organization he’s worked with for nearly 40 years.

He’s known for his eye for emerging talent, his willingness to take artistic risks and a financial wizardry that once pulled the festival out of more than $1 million in debt.

The Beginning

It started when Redden was just 18 years-old and volunteering as a student assistant for the Festival of the Two Worlds, the original festival in Spoleto, Italy. His biggest fear then, was spending the summer with his parents.

He shares the story with an intimate gathering at the College of Charleston’s Randolph Hall. They’ve been invited for a conversation with Redden and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg put together by Charleston Sister Cities International and the college.

“On my third year, when I was 20, I decided I’d run it which is what I think 20-year-olds can decide. They’re going to do these things.”

Redden says the creation of Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston in 1977 was intended to be a cultural window to the South. He later helped pull back the curtain and plant a colorful, eclectic garden of dance, music and theater.

Time for Change

But in 2020, the cultural environment changed worldwide. A deadly virus spread and for the first time the Spring festival did not bloom. It had been planned the previous year but was left barren.

Redden could no longer travel.

“I’ve spent an enormous amount of time on planes over the course of my career and this seemed very strange,” he says. “It made me feel the emptiness of the moment even more.”

Then, there was the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a former Minneapolis police officer. Redden began to question the future of the festival and its diversity.

“Perhaps it’s time now for someone else to take this on and have a different approach.”

A 45th Festival Season

Redden has just returned from a Chamber Music performance at Dock Street Theater downtown as part of this year’s 45th season. He’s pleased, yet wistful.

He had hoped to put on a full festival this year instead of one that’s scaled down. Artists, he says, were leery to perform indoors and no one quite knew how the nation would emerge from the pandemic.

Those who work for Redden, often talk about his drive and quest for excellence. When asked about it, he quickly but politely deflects, praising the Spoleto USA Festival staff and enthusiastic audiences instead.

“I feel that my job is to look at the spaces in between and to somehow hope to, make sure or try to make sure the spaces in between are somehow filled.”

That sounds like the glue that holds the festival together.

The Future

Redden doesn’t officially retire until October 31st. His replacement has yet to be named.

But the celebrations honoring him have already begun.

Those who gathered to hear Redden speak at Randolph Hall took turns toasting the longtime general director with kind words and eloquent speeches. Redden raised a glass as well, to the festival’s next 45 years.

He is also reminiscing about the city and the festival he adores.

“I am just filled with memories of performances and people and it’s really been magnificent.”

Redden and his wife have bought a new home, a place that needs some work. Perhaps that will keep him busy.

He will also return to Charleston to attend Spoleto Festival USA performances. But this time he’ll enjoy the bouquet of performances from the other side of the window.

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.