Spoleto will look a little different, but organizers are thrilled this show is going on

March 30, 2021
College of Charleston stage for Spoleto Festival.
The Cistern Yard at the College of Charleston, one of the main venues for this year's Spoleto Festival. Leigh Webber Photography

Nurse and public health expert Ryan Taylor was excited to learn she’d been cast as a key player in the effort to help Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, run as safely as possible.

“Hosting a big event in the middle of a pandemic requires a lot of thoughtful planning and teamwork. Our MUSC team was eager to contribute to keeping our community safe by providing risk mitigation strategies for this event.”

Taylor is part of the MUSC Health Back2Business team, a group of public health experts at the Medical University of South Carolina that helps organizations figure out how to reduce their risk from COVID-19. Last year, Spoleto Festival USA was canceled because of the pandemic. This year, the show will go on — with precautions in place.

Jessie Bagley directs marketing and public relations for Spoleto. “We recognized that Spoleto’s staff isn’t comprised of health care pros, or doctors or scientists. And in order to fulfill our mission, it was imperative for us to consult with professionals who could offer that crucial advice. After learning about the Back2Business program, it just felt like the perfect fit.”

That partnership has led to changes in the general flow of Spoleto based on the latest scientific evidence about COVID-19. “The makeup of the programming has shifted slightly. And when the season is announced on April 5, there will be some visible holes,” Bagley said.

One big difference: delaying the premiere of the opera “Omar” until next year. “As we started talking to Back2Business about all that it takes to do an opera, it became clear that the logistical challenges of putting on a grand opera are just insurmountable during these times. We didn’t want to sacrifice the story or the art form for COVID,” Bagley said.

“One thing MUSC has been really great about is making it clear that they're not telling us what to do. They are the voice of recommendations and the voice of science that help guides our decision-making.”

While Spoleto will still have plenty of music, theater and dance performances, the scope will be different. “Limited venues and limited capacities are going to be in effect. Normally, our performances take place in 10 to 13 venues, and that number will be considerably lower,” Bagley said. “We're also operating at about 25% of the capacity we're accustomed to. But although the Festival might feel a bit smaller, and without the usual celebratory gatherings and parties, there will be some exciting and really beautiful additions.”

People will be asked to attend in pods, Bagley said. They’ll wear masks and stay physically distant from people outside of their group. And most performances will be outside.

There are plenty of good reasons for the outdoor emphasis during the pandemic. For example, “When people sing, they project a lot of air, increasing aerosolization,” Taylor said.

Put those performers outside, give them plenty of distance from others and you can have a safer show. Bagley is just thrilled that Spoleto will happen this year.

“I think the arts really do have an impact on people's mental health and wellbeing. This is also a chance to put a lot of artists to work and give them some livelihood and stability after what has been a really hard year for them as well.”

Taylor said her team takes its work with Spoleto very seriously. “Any big gathering inherently poses higher risk, so our job is to help reduce that risk as much as possible. The opportunity for us to be involved in keeping our community safe is something that our Back2Business team doesn't take lightly.”

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