The College of Charleston's TD Arena was never meant to host a Spanish flamenco company. Basketball, volleyball, and the occasional musical guest, yes, but a hip-hop dance ensemble or a grand orchestral concert during Spoleto? Sure, the Memminger and the Sottile would make more sense for such displays, but those places can't host thousands of ticket holders.
"We have shows that are popular enough that if we tried to put Rosanne Cash at the Sottile, we'd have to do four nights," explains Rhys Williams, Spoleto Festival's director of production. "You want to be able to do a show that has an audience of a couple thousand, and with the Gaillard down, there is no other place that could do that."
So with the city's auditorium out of commission for two years, Spoleto will have to spend its 2013 and 2014 seasons on the John Kresse Court. The TD Arena will host a number of different shows at this year's festival: dance performances from Compagnie Käfig and Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía, musicians Angelique Kidjo, Rosanne Cash, and the Punch Brothers, and Messa da Requiem, the orchestral send-off for Spoleto Artistic Director for Choral Activities Joseph Flummerfelt.
Williams, the owner of Technical Theater Solutions, is now in his 30th year with the festival. His company has also done production work for major cruise lines, museums, and the national tours of Mamma Mia! and Avenue Q, so they're used to setting up in new venues over a short period of time. "It's always fun to just do something new and take on a challenge," Williams says, as one of his employees straddles a rafter hundreds of feet above us, installing chain motors one by one. Each one is capable of lifting a ton.
Williams and his crew started transforming the arena on May 14. It took four solid days of work before they could even set up the stage, which itself took a full day. From there, TTS will load-in specific shows, focusing their lights and programming their sound.
The arena has plenty of seating for these large-scale performances, but it also has its drawbacks — because it's an arena. While Williams sets up shows in plenty of similar spaces all over the world, many of those were built to be multipurpose facilities, with a superstructure of beams that could support the weight of The Phantom of the Opera. The TD Arena was not.
"Here, we had to spend a lot of time and energy and money to get permission to hang from this and do all the engineering, to get permission to hang the amount of weight that we need to hang from these beams," Williams says. "It was never intended to be a facility like this. It was intended to be a basketball court." Luckily, the overhead structure in the venue can hold the excess weight that Spoleto demands, but only because it was made stronger than it needs to be in the first place.
But the arena also has its advantages over the faulty former Gaillard. The house here is well-raked (i.e. the seats are set up at a good incline), giving the entire audience a good view of the stage. And the farthest seats away from the stage at the arena are equal to the Gaillard's front mezzanine, so it's a much more intimate space.
The arena's sound should be better too. The Messa da Requiem performance will be a big test of the space's acoustics, especially since the orchestral
work won't be amplified. The piece has a lot of soft moments that would suffer in a different venue, but Williams is hopeful that the new space will work out.
"We have done a lot of due diligence to make sure that we're going to have a great show, and that's why we've been in here with our acoustician David Greenberg," Williams says. It turns out that the arena's ambient noise — the buzzing of lights, the whir of an air-conditioning system, things that can be distracting for the audience — is not as bad here as it was in the old Gaillard, especially once TTS made some necessary adjustments, which should improve the audience's experience.
Still, the venue doesn't have to accommodate one show, but six very different ones, and that could get tricky. For example, for Messa da Requiem, an orchestra shell that's being used for performances at the Sottile will be broken down, escorted down George Street overnight, and repurposed in the arena right after. "They're going to be challenging, because [the arena is] not really made for that, but we've done a lot of planning," Williams says. "We realize that we are coming into a new place and that we could really put ourselves in a bad position if we didn't do a lot of planning. So we are confident that we can do the things that we need to do."
And just weeks after Williams does his extreme makeover, he'll have to break the whole thing down. The College of Charleston needs the arena back for basketball camp by June 11, giving Williams just a few days to get the heck out of Dodge. Fortunately, it's always better to load out than it is to load in.
"I think it's going to be a really fun transformation," Williams says. "Anybody that's been here to see a basketball game will never have seen it looking the way it's going to look in about three days."