Charleston’s Nunally Kersh travels world as Spoleto producer
Putting together a successful arts festival requires enormous effort. It also requires a team whose members each tackle some aspect of the enterprise.
At Spoleto Festival USA, it's typically the general director, Nigel Redden, who gets the attention, especially when something goes particularly well or particularly not so well.
But working tirelessly behind the scenes is a finance and fundraising staff, volunteer coordinators, production and box office managers and administrators of various stripes.
Among them is festival producer Nunally Kersh, without whom Charleston would not get its annual festival.
Kersh travels the world in search of talent. She must stay on top of trends and identify emerging artists and those who function on the fascinating fringe.
It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.
With December around the corner, most of the upcoming festival is now a known quantity, even if loose ends still must be tied. The Post and Courier asked Kersh to take a short break from her whirlwind schedule and answer a few questions.
Q: The title "producer" can be so ambiguous. What exactly do you do?
A: In a nutshell, I and other artistic staff of the festival work through our respective channels to identify appropriate artists and shows. I then handle most of the negotiating, scheduling, budgeting and general pushing and pulling to winnow down the possibilities and get the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. My staff and I then handle all the contracting, international artist visas and other logistics -- artist travel, housing, hospitality, etc. -- for some 500 artists. There is then a fair amount of troubleshooting and feather-smoothing during the six weeks of rehearsals and performances ... and then it starts all over again.
Q: Describe the review and decisionmaking process. How do you finalize the festival's schedule? Who chimes in with an opinion?
A: The review process is permanently ongoing, which is to say that we are constantly looking at work and talking to artists about possible projects. There's always a deep bench of possibilities. The schedule starts to come together about a year out but then morphs and remorphs many times until the final deadline (which was Tuesday). Much ultimately comes down to concrete things like schedules and finances, but there are also the intangibles like artistic balance and mix. The festival general director, Nigel Redden, has ultimate say over the final schedule. But there are, of course, no shortage of opinions and ideas from a variety of sources.
Q: Your job requires a good amount of travel, often to arts centers such as New York or London, in order to see different productions and acts. What's the oddest discovery you've made? What was the biggest risk you took that paid off? And what was the worst-ever experience you've had?
A: One of my most unusual recent discoveries was a piece by a Belgian dance company who barely move a muscle during the entire 70-minute piece. They essentially stand stock-still onstage and only change positions during blackouts, all while speaking in nonsequiturs. It sounds tedious, but it's actually gorgeous and poignant. I unfortunately could not convince anyone that it would work here, so that may remain my favorite perhaps never-to-be-seen-in-Charleston discovery.
One of the worst/best experiences was traveling to see a French circus in a small town on the French/German border that involved three flights and a lengthy taxi ride. After a comically miserable journey, I arrived in Saarbrucken, only to find out that the show had been canceled due to inclement weather. The company improvised and put together a working rehearsal, which was enough to allow me to get a sense of the show. To top it off, they then cooked a great couscous dinner at midnight. It was an unforgettable night. We then invited them to the festival the following year.
Q: You're married to Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill fame, and the two of you have a young daughter. How do you both balance your hectic careers with your family (and other) obligations?
A: I think the idea of balance is somewhat illusory. One has to accept a certain amount of chaos and be grateful for the days when it all runs smoothly. We're intentional about carving out family time and saying no to obligations or opportunities that get in the way. I am also fortunate to have amazing in-laws who willingly pinch-hit. I think it also helped that I took my daughter on all my scouting trips for the first two years, which wasn't easy but well worth it in hindsight.
Q: It takes pretty much a whole year (and sometimes more) to put a festival schedule together. When do you get a little down time, and what do you like to do when you get it?
A: What's down time?