Spoleto Festival USA
Behind the curtain of Charleston’s highly-curated performing arts festival
By Leah Rhyne
As Spoleto Festival USA gets ready to launch its 2022 season—17 days of opera, dance, theater and musical performances and a return of international performers—we wondered: what’s it like to curate of one of the world’s preeminent performing arts festivals?
It’s an all-encompassing task for Nicole Taney, the Director of Artistic Planning and Operations at Spoleto Festival USA since 2014. With a focus on artist relations, she programs dance and theater as well as the First Citizens Front Row series and the Wells Fargo Festival Finale.
Before Spoleto, she lived in New York City and worked for New York City Ballet, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and Trisha Brown Dance Company.
When it comes to program creation, it’s important to note that Spoleto isn’t simply a presenting organization. It also produces original new works, most often operas, that can serve as an anchoring presence in a year’s schedule. In 2016, this anchor was a production of Porgy & Bess, with sets and costumes designed by local artist Jonathan Green. This year, it's a brand-new opera called Omar, a year delayed thanks to COVID. These productions can take years to create and provide a launchpad for the rest of the schedule.
“There are a lot of puzzle pieces in fitting the rest of the program together, the works and companies we present during the 17 days. And it’s a completely new puzzle each year,” says Taney.
So how does Spoleto Festival build out the programming each year? Research. So much research.
“Typically, I’ll see as much work as possible in the summer, fall and winter, thinking about works that might resonate with our audience as other program elements come into focus,” says Taney. “I look for a diversity of programming and work that will make the festival feel vibrant and exciting. There are certain artists I’ve been trying to book for years and others I keep in the back of my mind for the future. It’s never an exact formula.”
Historically, the festival has not been programmed around a particular theme. But, says Taney, “connections certainly emerge, mostly because the works are being created and presented in real, current times. They resonate with what’s happening in the world now…I love when audiences see the works and make their own connections.” Em—h
As with any creator—or parent—it’s difficult to pick a favorite event for an artistic programmer like Taney. One event she’s looking forward to, though, is the opera, Omar, debuting its world premiere over six days.
It portrays the life of Omar Ibn Said based upon his 1831 autobiography. As a 37-year-old West African scholar, Said was sold into slavery, crossing the ocean and landing in Charleston. With a libretto created by Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Rhiannon Giddens and award-winning composer Michael Abels (best known for the score for Get Out), it celebrates Said’s strength, resistance and religious conviction.
“It’s been a work in progress for five years now,” says Taney.
“I’m also looking forward to [Canadian singer-songwriter] Allisson Russell,” she continues. “I’ve never seen her perform live. I was really taken with Allison Russell’s album, Outside Child.”
Other performances Taney is excited about this year include the new Spoleto Festival USA Chorus in Concert, and the festival Orchestra’s program, “Rhapsodic Overture.”
The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra is also central to the Festival’s success each season. The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra is one of the country’s most prestigious ensembles for young professional musicians.
No behind-the-scenes conversation about a major event like Spoleto doesn’t come with a behind-the-scenes emergency story. One year in particular was especially nail-biting.
“In 2015, some of the cast of the opera, Veremonda, were on Sullivan’s Island when there was an oil spill on the Ravenel Bridge. The bridge was closed, and traffic was entirely backed up—going over I-526 wasn’t an option. We had to send water taxis to pick them up and get them to the Dock Street Theatre on time!” Taney said.
For a festival that prides itself on professionalism, it was a nail-biting scenario. “Since then, we’ve encouraged artists to stay on the peninsula on performance days,” she says.
Even though opening day is still a few weeks away (opening night is May 26), Taney is already planning for Spoleto 2023.
“The groundwork is laid a year or more in advance,” she says.
Whether it’s the next Omar or a finding a new dance troupe, Taney will find it, and she and her team at Spoleto Festival USA will make it a beautiful showcase of performing arts.
To learn more about Spoleo Festival and tickets, visit www. spoletousa.org.
Ushering in Excellence
Get to Know Spoleto’s Patron Services Manager Sally LoveJoy
By Leah Rhyne
Every year, Spoleto Society members – high-end Spoleto Festival USA donors – get early access to tickets to all the festival’s events. They have first dibs on what they want to see, they get the best seats and never worry about being on the lonely end of a sold-out performance. It’s all coordinated by Spoleto’s long-time patron services manager, Sally Lovejoy.
It wasn’t always this way. Spoleto’s biggest supporters didn’t always have early access to tickets, and they also didn’t always have Lovejoy. Her position was once staffed by entry-level workers with a high turnover rate. The needs of important donors weren’t a top priority. That’s different now, though.
Donations and gifts reinforce the non-profit’s commitment to the performing arts community and advance efforts to present diverse, inclusive and innovative programming.
“Society members start calling during the donor presale in early January,” says Lovejoy. “A lot of them will say ‘I’m so glad to hear your voice.’ That makes you feel good. I try to spoil them. Even for a sold-out event, I usually have tickets in my back pocket.” That skill came in handy during the festival’s 2016 run of Porgy and Bess – with sets and costumes designed by Jonathan Green – and is coming in handy again with this year’s much-anticipated performance of the brand-new opera, Omar.
“I’ve gotten to know people over the years. People are particular about where they sit. I remember things, year-over-year, and it helps people feel confident in the festival and me,” LoveJoy said. She works mid-November to mid-June each year, learning about the year’s program, organizing tickets and seats, and catering to Society members’ needs.
It takes a special person to manage special donors. High-end donors at any nonprofit can have high-end expectations. Lovejoy can handle just about anything, though, thanks to her first career.
“I spent 25 years working for Congress,” says Lovejoy. “I was on the Education in the Workforce Committee, working on education policy at the federal level. I loved my job.” She worked for John Boehner when he was Chairman of the Committee. She helped oversee the implementation of the No Child Left Behind policy. Lovejoy spent time working in Ted Kennedy’s private office. “You just don’t believe you’re there,” she says. “I often had to pinch myself. I loved my job on Capitol Hill. I truly felt like I was affecting people’s lives in education.”
When Boehner became majority leader in 2006, Lovejoy was appointed by then-President George W. Bush to be the education liaison to UNESCO in Paris. Laura Bush was the United Nations Ambassador for the Decade of Literacy, and Lovejoy worked with Mrs. Bush on literacy matters all over the world. It was a remarkable experience that would round out Lovejoy’s remarkable career. She retired after the Bush presidency and moved to the Lowcountry, a place she’s loved since childhood.
Lovejoy’s second career with Spoleto launched after she began volunteering as an usher, excited to experience the festival. Then she took a paid position, and since 2012, has been the patron services manager. It’s a second career that’s had its own unique benefits, with special moments Lovejoy will never forget. One night, for example, at one of Spoleto’s evening receptions, two festival musicians – a pianist and a saxophonist – held an impromptu concert.
“It was mesmerizing. A once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Lovejoy.
The job is one that gives as much as it takes. For as many hours as Lovejoy works during festival season, with her phone ringing from early morning until late at night, she values the relationships she’s built with the patrons and the experiences she’s had along the way. There are stressful moments, but in the end, the balance is toward the positive.
“I do this job for fun,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know I had this whole other stressful career, so if it quits being fun, I’ll quit doing it.” Until then, though, Society members will get to hear Lovejoy’s voice on the other end of the line when they order their tickets, and Lovejoy will be happy to help them.
46th annual Spoleto Festival
May 26-June 12
Performances include opera, orchestra, theater, jazz, physical theater, dance, musical performances, artist talks and other special events.
Locations: The Charleston Gaillard Center, College of Charleston Cistern Yard, College of Charleston Sottile Theatre, Dock Street Theatre, Festival Hall and St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church; all venues are in downtown Charleston.
For tickets and a full schedule visit www.spoletousa.org
Piccolo Spoleto Festival
May 27 - June 12
A complementary festival to Spoleto Festival USA, Piccolo Spoleto offers mostly admission-free events throughout downtown Charleston each day of Spoleto's 17-day festival season. Produced and directed by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, Piccolo Spoleto showcases thousands of local and regional artists and more than 700 arts events—literary, visual and performing arts—against the international backdrop of Spoleto Festival USA. A full schedule and lineup will be announced in early May at www.piccolospoleto.com.