In addition to featuring Charleston's first production of Spamalot, a full-length ballet, the usual plethora of one-person shows, and a nicely redesigned program, this year's Piccolo Spoleto had another distinction: it was the first festival fully under the leadership of Scott Watson, the new director of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs. As he told the City Paper in a pre-Piccolo interview back in April, Watson and his team wanted this year's festival to feel more vibrant — like "it's 17 days of full-tilt excitement," he said. They were going to accomplish that by encouraging pop-up performances and events and staying highly active on Twitter, announcing last-minute ticket sales and performances via social media. However, some area arts groups weren't pleased with the execution of the new initiatives, while others complained that this year's program was released late.
So how did the reality measure up to the promise? Quite well, it seems — the @Piccolo_Spoleto Twitter handle, as promised, shot out tweets like mad each day of the festival, linking to performances and reviews and posting pictures of events, as well as a couple of rehearsals. Watson also pointed to several pop-up events, including an opera recital at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church and bluegrass performances at Marion Square. "It's not just that we wanted to be on social media for the sake of being on social media," Watson says. "We know that the reality — by the time our advance ticket sale campaign starts and the print program is off to be published, there's still room for more stuff to happen. This way we're able to get the word out during the festival. That's the energy I'm really looking for." That said, for festival-goers to find such information, they would, of course, have to be on Twitter, a service whose median user age is 37.5 according to MediaBistro.
Another perceived hiccup was the festival lineup. Piccolo released their full schedule to the media at a press conference on April 24, and the website was live by that weekend, but according to some arts organizations, it wasn't entirely complete — some ticket links weren't live, and certain shows weren't listed because some presenters hadn't signed contracts yet. The print program wasn't available until May 17 — a mere six days before Piccolo opened — when the first batch of them was delivered to Watson's residence. Watson hears frequently from patrons who want the program earlier, but he says that just wouldn't make sense for Piccolo. "So many of our groups are community arts organizations, and when they enter our call for applications, they have a hard time knowing with any specificity what they'll be capable of doing financially or what personnel will be available. Obviously a 96-page program needs to be accurate and reflect the program as it exists," he says. "If we were to print it in March, we'd have to put in big 'Cancelled' stickers [for certain shows]," Watson says. Add to that the fact that the festival's budget isn't set until the first of the year, and one starts to understand the limitations of promoting a full calendar earlier in the spring.
Furthermore, the lead time of about a month for the festival schedule announcement and a week to 10 days for the print program is fairly standard among festivals of Piccolo's size, Watson says. We confirmed that with a few Google searches for the Dublin Fringe Festival, FringeNYC, and our own Charleston Comedy Festival (although we weren't able to confirm print program timeline). "There's this sense that since Spoleto can put out a ticket brochure in December, so why can't [Piccolo]? But our program guide doesn't come out until a week to 10 days from the festival, which is the same with the Spoleto program guide," he says, referring to the full program book that Spoleto patrons receive at each performance.
However, none of the perceived problems hurt revenue. Gross ticket sales were up about 10 percent over last year's so the strategy seems to have been successful. "I think we were all very pleased, not just with the quality of the artistic presentation but with audience response," he says. "It was a whirlwind of activity. Everything came off as planned."
This year's festival had a few other differences from past years, too. For one thing, the Office of Cultural Affairs focused on reorganizing the dance offerings, which previously had been fairly haphazard. In the past there were no ticketed dance events at all. This year, on the other hand, the Columbia City Ballet presented the full-length A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Charleston Music Hall and Annex Dance Co. did several contemporary performances.
Watson and his team also went over the program from last year to cut out offerings that no longer fit or weren't getting much attendance, like the midday films at the library. "We don't want people to go to an event at the expense of something really special," he says.
While it must be noted that it is notoriously hard to find local arts organizations who are willing to comment on goings-on at the city, the few that would had positive things to say about this year's Piccolo. For Theatre 99's Brandy Sullivan and Greg Tavares, who head up the Piccolo Fringe Festival, it was business as usual — and they mean that as a compliment. "They really let us do what we do best and they don't micromanage us. This year was the same," Tavares says.
Fringe sales didn't change much, either, although pre-sales have continued to move to a shorter timeline (which is typical in today's arts world, especially for lower-priced shows; that's a major reason Watson wanted to up the immediacy of the festival's marketing). "People used to buy tickets a lot earlier, but that change has happened over years. This year was typical — people buying four, five days out," says Sullivan.
William Starrett, the artistic and executive director of the Columbia City Ballet, said all went smoothly at the Charleston Music Hall, where his company performed. "Scott was the consummate professional, as was the entire staff at the Music Hall. We love being part of Piccolo Spoleto."
Meanwhile, Kyle Barnette of What If? Productions, which produced the festival's popular play Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up, had this to say: "It turned out quite well for us in the end, which was in large part due to the quality of the production itself, our own marketing strategies, [and] word of mouth."
As far as what next year holds, Watson is hoping to add some more community-centered events, like this year's family bluegrass concert at Hampton Park Terrace's Allen Park. "Having the neighborhood come out in force for a Piccolo event there was fantastic," he says. "Finding ways to replicate that community spirit in other places around the peninsula is important." He'd like to draw on the creative spirit of West Ashley's Avondale neighborhood, for example, or the musical community in Awendaw.
But it's also important to maintain the integrity of the Piccolo. "We don't want it to be just a logo that you apply to your poster. It's a curated festival — we have an open submission policy, but quality and professionalism is paramount."
Piccolo will face some marketing challenges in 2015 as the Gaillard will be opening mid-April, which is when Piccolo usually releases their poster. Because of that, Watson hopes they will get their program out earlier. "We don't want to be an afterthought," Watson says.
And of course, he adds, the Office of Cultural Affairs will continue to focus on finding and nurturing quality, artist-led programming. "What makes Piccolo magic is the inspiration of the artists we host," he says. "We're not sitting here with hidden piles of money, but if there's something you've always wanted to do, give us a call. Send us an email. That's what keeps this festival fresh."