Spoleto festivals reflect on 2013 and look ahead

The opera "Matsukaze" was performed at the Dock Street Theatre.

Grace Beahm

Spoleto Festival USA went into its 2013 programming with a few questions.

Would the TD Arena be an adequate stop-gap alternative to the Gaillard Auditorium under renovation?

Would late changes — the loss of Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn and the addition of Anjelique Kidjo and Johnnyswim — attract or confuse audiences?

Would the weather hold out?

The festival closed last week with clear skies at Middleton Place and about 1,750 ticket holders there to see the Red Stick Ramblers. Not bad, said Paula Edwards, director of marketing and public relations.

Box office receipts were a reported $2.8 million, about what was projected, and 63,000 ticket holders took in 160 shows. Patrons traveled from 19 countries and 48 states to attend festival performances, an increase from past seasons.

The first week of the festival was characterized by consistently fair weather and especially strong ticket sales, according to General Director Nigel Redden. The second week was wetter.

The festival, and the city-run Piccolo Spoleto Festival, are a potent economic force. A 2002 University of South Carolina study showed a total economic impact of $68 million. About $33 million went to labor earnings. When the University of South Carolina revisited the study in 2008, the total economic impact had increased to $85 million.

Those dollars flow through the city’s economy because of direct festival-related spending (on tickets and merchandise) and because of indirect spending (on meals, hotel rooms, art purchases, seasonal job creation and even parking tickets).

The TD Arena proved to be an acceptable, even good, venue for several productions, including pop concerts by Kidjo and J.D. McPherson and the dance presentations by Companie Kafig and Ballet Flamenco de Andalucia. Some patrons were noticeably confused or irritated in their attempts to find their seats, and the acoustics were not ideal for large-scale classical music concerts, but the festival labored to create a decent alternative performance space and largely succeeded.

The arena will be used again next year. The Gaillard renovation is expected to be completed in the spring of 2015.

The substitutions appeared to have mixed results. Critics writing for The Post and Courier did not think Johnnyswim warranted headliner status, and Kidjo, despite her energetic and well-received performance, sang to a half-full house.

Especially popular this time was the chamber music series at the Dock Street Theatre, coordinated by Geoff Nuttall. It has long been a centerpiece of the festival, thanks to Charles Wadsworth’s inimitable style and the broad selection of repertoire. Under Nuttall, the programming has become more adventurous, often featuring works by living composers, but audiences have responded enthusiastically, and ticket sales reflect the series success, Edwards said.

Spoleto Festival, a year-round nonprofit operation based in Charleston whose fiscal year starts Sept. 1, has an annual operating budget of nearly $7 million. It generates income from ticket and product sales, donations, grants and interest from its multi-million-dollar endowment. Earned income was projected to be $3.8 million this year, a little more than half of the total budget, Redden said.

Since producer Nunnally Kersh left the festival in 2012, Redden and jazz producer Michael Grofsorean, with help from associate producer Angela Yen, have expanded their programming responsibilities. Opera, dance and theater productions mostly are secured by Redden; pop, Americana and international musicians are mostly booked by Grofsorean.

The 2014 festival already is mostly programmed, and the Spoleto staff is looking ahead to 2015 and beyond, when the new Gaillard center will be open for business, Edwards said. The hall, which will seat about 1,700, will be ideal for the festival’s orchestra concerts, operas and large dance productions.

The Piccolo Spoleto Festival, organized by the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, produces portions of the festival directly (especially classical music offerings), but largely relies on existing arts organizations that apply to participate and present their own plays, concerts, visual art exhibits and more. Piccolo centralizes ticketing and receives 20 percent of sales (performers get the rest). The funds collected by the city are used to pay artist fees and other festival expenses.

Ellen Dressler Moryl, director emerita of the Office of Cultural Affairs, produced her last full festival this year. Dance, which was in short supply, hopefully will make a comeback in 2014, she said. Moryl will continue to organize the Spotlight Concert Series and remain available to her successor, Scott Watson, and his staff should they want to mine her 35 years of collected institutional knowledge, she said.

Otherwise, she will devote herself to her 84-year-old husband, artist and composer Richard Moryl, and continue to advocate for a healthy and flourishing arts community in Charleston.

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