To leave or not to leave: Navigating the divide between festival's mission and audience expectations

Spoleto audience

Patrons gather at the Dock Street Theatre during Spoleto Festival USA 2017. (Brianna Kirkham)

Just 15 minutes into Spoleto Festival’s production of “Waiting for Godot,” Sondra McFadden said she knew she wanted to leave early.

“There was nothing wrong with the performance,” she said during intermission on Sunday, June 3. “In terms of talent, that was there. It just didn’t seem like it fit with the festival.”

Her husband Justin, 53, who read the book by Samuel Beckett, agreed and said it’s not necessarily an “appropriate” performance for a Sunday afternoon. “This isn’t really the venue for it either,” he said of the Dock Street Theatre in the historic French Quarter downtown, which he noted is surrounded by several churches. “You need to have a drink to mentally prepare yourself for this story.”

The McFaddens, who have come to the Spoleto Festival for several seasons and plan to move to Charleston from Washington, D.C. this year, weren’t alone in their reaction to the 1953 absurdist play. In fact, several Spoleto events this year have seen audiences leave at intermission or near the end of shows. Audience members ducked out early from shows across the gamut, from theater to jazz concerts.

When “Waiting for Godot” opened on Friday, May 26, multiple rows of people cleared out before the second act. Several guests left the 18th-century Vivaldi opera, “Farnace” at intermission, and a handful exited the opera “Quartett,” on Sunday, May 28, mostly in the last half hour of the show. Even more people left during curtain call, while the performers took their final bows. Gallim Dance's "WHALE," which featured nudity, also shed part of its audience.

Some dissatisfaction among patrons is inevitable at any event, and at a festival whose purpose is, in part, to present artists who push the envelope and who local patrons would not get a chance to see otherwise, the disconnect between the organization's mission and the expectations of its audience can be significant.

On May 31, at “Sounding Peace,” a musical compilation of Lou Harrison’s contemporary classics, two couples arrived 20 minutes late and one only stayed for 20 minutes total before leaving.

When Sofia Rei started her South American jazz and folk set on Monday, May 29, a “You go, girl!” from one audience member was met with awkward silence from the rest of the crowd. The Simons Center Recital Hall was packed with quiet listeners for Rei’s fast-paced concert, and at least two people snuck out about halfway through.

Dozens left the Cistern Yard during Grammy-winning jazz musician Terence Blanchard’s concert with the E-Collective on Saturday, June 3. And during his final remarks, most of the rest of the audience exited the outdoor venue before the band finished their last song.

While the abandoned events varied in style, what they have in common was that disconnect between content and expectations. The McFaddens also went to Blanchard’s concert and said it sounded more like fusion jazz than what they anticipated.

“He let the other musicians play a lot,” Justin McFadden said. “But, I get it. This isn’t the Kennedy Center, it’s not Carnegie Hall. It’s Spoleto Festival, and artists can do whatever they want.”

If patrons were confused about the content or vibe of shows, it’s not because there’s a lack of material provided by the festival or information available online and fro other sources. The ticket brochure and the program booklet each have descriptions for all performances, and tend to include more text than programs provided by opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera.

“We work hard to put as much information in the ticket brochure as we can to equip our audience,” said Leah Harrison, institutional writer for the Spoleto Festival. “I think something that may be a particular challenge for Spoleto is that we’re a performing arts festival instead of just an opera or a dance festival. We have to work harder for someone who may be coming for the dance and ends up going to the opera.”

This rings true for John Kennedy, director of orchestral activities, who said those who “trust the brand” are usually the ones who are also more “respectful in their listening habits.”

“We really do have points of entry for people in all kinds of art forms and stylistic situations,” he said. “And I think it’s pretty clear in our marketing and through descriptions what the subject matter is.”

In addition to equipping their audiences with details about the art, those who work at the festival also created a guide of “Spoletiquette” tips for how to behave during shows.

Not all performances have seen walkouts; several classical concerts have fared better with audience retention. It’s not unusual for these acts to be more well-received among Spoleto regulars. The National Endowment for the Arts reported those aged 55 and older accounted for the largest share (36 percent) of classical music audiences in 2012. Spoleto’s 2016 impact report identifies the average age of attendees as 56.

Spoleto guest Jean Krugman, 70, saw the 19th-century Tchaikovsky opera “Eugene Onegin” on June 1, and claimed the entire crowd was “spellbound.” This production included video elements and modern dance choreography, and it benefited from excellent singing across the board.

“I always watch the audience, and nobody moved, especially during her arias,” she said of soprano lead Natalia Pavlova.

The festival-favorite chamber music series also drew generous crowds for their twice-daily recitals, and often evoked audible “oohs” and “aahs.” Chamber series director and violinist Geoff Nuttall, once called “The Jon Stewart of chamber music” in a New York Times profile, captivates audiences with his humorous and interesting historical encapsulations.

At the end of Program VII, Nuttall half-joked to the audience that they could leave during the final movement of Handel's Concerto Gross in D Major, since the ensemble was playing a sort of "exit music." But no one did. Patrons stayed to give a standing ovation.

The chamber music series incorporates several contemporary works into its programming, and some of this music challenges the ear, yet chamber music audiences often respond with enthusiasm. Is it because the pieces don't last long? Or is it because the music is genuinely appealing? And why will patrons applaud with vigor at an esoteric work by, say, resident composer Jaroslaw Kapuscinski or American composer Suzanne Ferrin, but walk out of the opera "Quartett"?

What makes a piece of art "experimental" or difficult to love? Its newness? Its duration? Its musical or philosophical language?

“I think our audiences are actually more intrepid and brave in trying new things than more mainstream classical music audiences sometimes are,” Kennedy said. “But, if people leave, that’s their prerogative if it’s not speaking to them or it wasn’t their expectation.”

For Ken Lam, music director for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, deciding to leave early is a choice for all audience members to make.

“I think art is like that, isn’t it?” he said. “The important thing is that people continue to talk about it. At least give whatever they’re presented with a chance. It’s okay to let people clap when they want to, boo when they want to and walk out when they want to.”

Spoleto takes risks in the shows it books and produces, which can often be experimental or avant-garde. Harrison and Kennedy both said the festival aims to stir emotions and inspire critical thinking.

“It’s a festival that’s meant to participate in a global conversation,” Harrison said. “We think it’s important to present art where we don’t even necessarily expect your reaction to be, ‘I like this.’”

Brianna Kirkham is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University. Other Goldring Arts Journalists contributed to this report.

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