The gears of Piccolo: The economics and opportunities of the city-sponsored arts festival
By Oct. 25, 2011, all applications were in for this year’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival. A theater company from Beaufort wanted to send a one-woman show about Harriet Tubman, a local filmmaker wanted to premiere his silent film about Charleston, and Chicago’s Motown Madness itched to perform for a third time.
All three were selected for the 34th festival, along with organists, poets, dancers, improv comedians and opera singers.
“The variety is one of the things I love about overseeing Piccolo,” said founding director and head of the Office of Cultural Affairs, Ellen Dressler Moryl. “Since day one, we’ve brought in vibrant artists from all over the country.”
Moryl’s vision for the festival always has been that it complement Spoleto Festival USA, with performances often less expensive than the larger festival. Although this year’s schedule included out-of-towners like bugler Jari Villanueva and opera singer Morris Robinson, most artists were regional.
“Becoming Harriet Tubman” performer Natalie Daise and her director, J.W. Rone, drove in from Beaufort for each performance.
“Piccolo is a great venue to launch a show or performer into the spotlight,” Rone said. “I’m happy to make the drive in to see Natalie share her work.”
The Office of Cultural Affairs oversees the coordinators of each category of the festival, which are dance, theater, young artists, special events and several different music genres. Each series has its own guidelines for costs and compensation.
When Moryl heard Villanueva discuss the bugle on National Public Radio, she felt compelled to bring him to the festival as a Piccolo-produced special event. This required that the festival arrange for his accommodations and a fee of $1,000 for his appearance.
Theater companies cover their own production costs, which include everything from rental fees to props, with selected companies receiving the opportunity for a local theater to co-produce.
To ensure accessibility, tickets are restricted to the $12-$25 range, and Piccolo Spoleto retains 25 percent of gross ticket revenues.
The Collective Collaborative Players of Charlottesville, Va., estimated that the trip for its three-person cast would cost $7,000, and through the fundraising website Indiegogo they raised more than $2,500.
Each series has its own set of rules for the productions. For the theater series, performers must be volunteers, and as shows share stages, sets must be minimal to allow for a quick changeover.
“We could only paint so much of the picture,” said Judy Heath, co-playwright and designer of “Perfectly Normel People,” which premiered at the Footlight Players Theatre. “I started saying in my curtain speech that the audience had to use their imagination to fill in the details.”
Piccolo is only the beginning for “Perfectly Normel People,” as the show’s sold-out run led to discussions of taking it to other parts of the country.
For some, the centralized logistics and ticketing requirements mean less autonomy, a disadvantage that might outweight the benefits. Several years ago, Jazz Artists of Charleston struck out on its own after it offered a two-week series as part of Piccolo for three consecutive years.
At the time, Piccolo was using Ticketmaster for its box office, and that was “an absolute disaster,” said Leah Suarez, executive director of Jazz Artists of Charleston.
“We had no control over the box office,” she said. “And (Piccolo) couldn’t tell patrons anything about our organization or shows.” The arrangement was too limiting and the cost-sharing unjustifiable, Suarez said.
“If we’re going to pay them 25 percent, we need to get our money’s worth,” she said. “It wasn’t worth the time and energy when we could just do it on our own and reap the benefits from it.”
Other Piccolo participants, such as PURE Theatre, are able to leverage the festival to extend performances that already are part of their season, making these shows available to new, transient audiences, Moryl said. Although companies are required to self-market, when Piccolo presents a show it tends to draw numerous festival-goers from Spoleto as well, she said.
Moryl expressed satisfaction with the Piccolo system and experience.
“It’s never been a competition,” she said. “This festival is about the art and bringing people together. And this year has been filled with so many wonderful artists, I couldn’t be happier.”
Lauren Smart is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University. Staff reporter Adam Parker contributed to this story.