Every year when Spoleto Festival USA rolls around, we ask ourselves: Is there a common thread running through this year's offerings? Big, multi-faceted cultural events like Spoleto or the Venice Biennale, aren't just a bunch of shows and a brand name, they're also a lens through which the state of the arts can be glimpsed. Because first and foremost, programming any festival is about choices. With very long lead times, those choices may come down to simple logistics — who's going to be available? And there must surely be a nod to economic realities in the process, too — what's sold tickets? What can we afford? Lastly, there's the idea that a brand must continually strive to maintain its identity yet reinvent itself afresh and keep trying new things to remain relevant and interesting. How can we build on what's worked and what new ideas can we try out? Take all of that together and you get a sense of how the program reflects direct audience feedback (ticket sales) and future avenues the Festival may explore.
So we study the Spoleto Festival's glossy brochure, research the shows, pick up hints here and there as we go along. Is there a link among the programs that ties the festival together? It would seem so. And that link looks like back-to basics, less-is-more simplicity.
Let's begin with what you won't see at this year's Spoleto. What about that most basic of back-to-basics programs — one person shows like the ones that were so well received a couple seasons ago? Jack Hitt's Making Up the Truth is a great example, Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, proved a bit more controversial. One-person shows didn't make the cut in the festival calendar this year, but Piccolo shows like Melita Easters' Mrs. John Marsh: The World Knew Her as Margaret Mitchell and David Lee Nelson's return with The Elephant in my Closet will do nicely, thank you.
This year's less-is-more vibe also reaches into how productions are being staged. The days of Monkey: Journey to the West and its extravagant kin seem to be behind us. For now. Expect the trend toward minimalistic sets and fewer over-the-top productions to continue. But that's no great loss. Narrowing options, really digging into a limited palette, can yield undiscovered dimensions to any art form.
A case in point — perhaps, in fact, a case study — on the value of such focused simplicity, is the Adelaide, Australia acrobatic troupe, Gravity & Other Myths, who will bring what they call "new circus" to the Emmett Robinson Theatre. Seven performers move to just one percussionist, and they'll perform their acclaimed piece, an exploration of their training life, aptly titled A Simple Space.
Is A Simple Space not straightforward enough for you? Consider another physical theater performer, Ilona Jäntti. Her motto may well be, "If I don't have it, you probably don't need it." The Finnish aerialist's solo performance features a trapeze and rope, a couple props, and some video projection. Proof, again, that you can create a compelling work of art from the most basic elements.
Dance offerings look particularly intriguing and focused this year. The roster here reads like a broad banquet of contemporary dance, featuring Manhattan-based Keigwin + Company, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Gregory Maqoma/Vuyani Dance Theatre from South Africa, and tap troupe Dorrance Dance, making their Spoleto debut. In keeping with the less-is-more theme emerging from Spoleto's George Street headquarters, there's nary an overgrown, sweeping ballet spectacle in sight. That said, these are all dance companies at the top of their profession, and the variety of styles here provide delightful contrasts, accessible to a wide audience. (For full-length ballets, check out Piccolo for Charleston City Ballet's Firebird and Columbia City Ballet's A Midsummer Night's Dream, both at the Charleston Music Hall.)
There are only two theatrical offerings in Spoleto's 2014 program.
The Gate Theatre returns to Dock Street with the thriller My Cousin Rachel, a drama based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, adapted for the stage by Irish author Joseph O'Connor, and directed by Toby Frow. We do not doubt that Rachel, like every other Gate Theatre production we've enjoyed, will be a solid show. It's a period piece and so it's bound to go over well with PBS' Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! fans. We expect the top-notch cast to bring it to life.
Contemporary theater weighs in this year with Ravi Jain's two-person play, A Brimful of Asha. It's a little tough to determine whether this is reality television remixed as scripted theater or the opposite. Either way, it's a family affair, with Jain's real-life mother appearing opposite her son in a tale about traditional marriage-arranging up against shifty modern attitudes toward commitment. Jain's mother reads like a pretty formidable character, fully capable of dominating the field. If this were a horse race, we'd have to give close odds on which of these two ends up in the winner's circle. Note: it's never too late to listen to your mother.
If those two Spoleto shows aren't enough theatrical fare to slake your thirst, Piccolo Spoleto once again has you covered. Threshold Repertory Theatre scores the East Coast premiere of What If?'s Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up, which looks like a hilarious show. Village Repertory stages My First Time, a one-act play bringing together real-life stories of people's first sexual experiences. They also give us their take on Eric Idle's Spamalot. Drawing inspiration from breezy theatrical entertainments of a bygone era, Vaudeville Revival, presented by local troupe Carnivalesque, will feature "acrobats, belly dance, illusion, mentalism, burlesque, and sideshow stunts." We've seen Carnivalesque perform around town before, and Vaudeville Revival promises to be another quirky, but strictly adult, show.
Michael Grofsorean's immensely popular Wells Fargo Jazz Series continues to introduce Spoleto audiences to new stars and offers the opportunity to revisit some favorites. This year, American talents like vocalist René Marie, Lucinda Williams, and Charenée Wade join an international guest list: saxophonist Håkon Kornstad (Norway), pianist Gwilym Simcock (UK), Aca Seca Trio (Argentina), and Danilo Brito (Brazil). Among these performers, Kornstad is likely the most emblematic of our less-is-more theory: imagine a solo performer who combines operatic singing with instrumental virtuosity and the saxophone pressed into service as a percussion instrument. Think of it as the undiscovered dimensions of that limited palette we mentioned earlier.
The Festival's Chamber Music program has always held a special place in the hearts of Spoleto enthusiasts. Rightly so. Some weeks back, we caught up with Geoff Nutall, director for Chamber Music, as he was on his way into rehearsals. It was a delightful conversation (see p. 60). Nutall's seemingly boundless enthusiasm is only one reason why this year's Chamber Music program merits a place (or several places) on your Spoleto itinerary. Performances by Swedish mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant, the return of cellist Andrés Díaz, new works by pianist Stephen Prutsman, and clarinetist Todd Palmer are only a few causes for celebration here.
The Festival's other musical offerings run the spectrum from orchestral works and Americana. Jazz and roots music-inspired innovation. The Westminster Choir's Te Deum, Folk trio the Kruger Brothers, John Kennedy's Beethoven Transformed, and Joana Carneiro's program, Concerto for Orchestra. From Texas via New York City, vocalist Kat Edmonson brings her unique jazzy style to the Cistern. Banjoists Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn appear at the TD Arena. This year's finale will be presided over by local favorites Shovels & Rope, whose most recent release, O' Be Joyful, has won broad critical and popular acclaim. And Piccolo adds a great deal more to the music calendar.
Spoleto opera fans can look forward to three very different works this year, all of them, in their own ways, simple tales that grew in the telling. Michael Nyman's Facing Goya, a time-traveling tale laced with moral conundrums, began life as a one-act opera, Vital Statistics. John Adams' El Niño would have been presented at the Festival as an oratorio, until Spoleto's General Director Nigel Redden envisioned a greater scope for it. Kat'a Kabanová, Leoš Janácˇek's ode to the human spirit, has gone through several published iterations and amendments since its premiere in 1921. These operas present a lavish world of ideas and emotions, underscored by clever, unostentatious staging.
This year's Festival looks to be a series of artistic experiences that take us back to first principles. But it's not all about simplicity imposed purely for the sake of being fiscally cautious. Even as the arts press forward in a recovering economy, perhaps it's not about shrinking our goals but rather tethering them in a more focused way. It's possible that this clarifying process of coming back around to essentials may well have an invigorating effect on our ambitions in the long run. After all, as the poet Robert Browning would have it, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp / Or what's a heaven for?"