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Spoleto 2021

By Carol Antman for The Island Eye News

Dancers Manon Bal and Matthew West of Ephrat Asheri Dance in Odeon. (Photo by Christopher Duggan) 

You do not want Mike East’s job. When Spoleto USA began its planning over six months ago, it was impossible to predict whether the festival could happen at all this year. Audiences certainly wouldn’t be able to safely crowd into the usual large venues. As the Director of Production, Mike had to find alternatives. His team searched for possibilities that were up to the high standards of the festival‘s performers and comfortable for audiences. “There have been a lot of iterations. We had to pivot every five minutes,” Mike says. Quickly changing medical guidelines made it complicated. They wanted a “decision based on science” so they collaborated with MUSC’s Back 2 Business Group, where medical experts gave each plan a thorough vetting. Several locations were considered including Brittlebank Park which seemed like a good idea until the roar from nearby baseball games was considered. The College of Charleston, whose Cistern Yard has long been a venue, suggested the use of River’s Green. Located behind the Addlestone Library on Calhoun Street, the large lawn has plenty of space. And many challenges. There’s a big fountain in the middle. There is no covered space in case of rain, no fly space or a green room. Furthermore, the location is unfamiliar. Google Maps doesn’t even know the address. The team was also mindful that Rivers Green is a burial site for enslaved Africans and wanted to be respectful. Undaunted, Mike and his team came up with a vision to create “a world that has always existed.” A 40 by 32-foot stage will cover the fountain. Pipe and drape will create changing rooms, fake brick walls and covered trusses will be assembled and risers with distanced space for 306 patrons installed. Three dance troupes will be presented there. Caleb Teicher’s company blends American dance and music traditions including soft shoe, tap and swing dance set to music ranging from beat box to Ella Fitzgerald. Ephrat Asherie Dance is a high energy hybrid of break dancing, hip hop, vogue and house set to the live music of Afro-Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth. And Ballet Under the Stars will feature some of the brightest ballet luminaries from the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. 

Another new venue presented even greater challenges. The bus shed at the Charleston Visitor’s Center will be the site for the play The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s gripping ghost story. However, until 5 p.m. every day, busses will be driving through it loading and unloading tourists. But magically, by 8:30 each show day, it will be a theater. Mike’s team devised a way to hang lights and other gear above the commotion and move the staging, scenery and chairs in and out quickly each night. Audiences of Spoleto USA trust the festival to bring exciting new concepts, ideas and art experiences to Charleston. The staff works hard to keep our trust each year. Thankfully the mix of colorful people, enthralled audiences and international performers that we missed so much last year will fill our city again beginning May 28. 

Despite the challenges, the shows will go on. This year in some surprising places. 

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