- Life Style
Charleston's spectacular cultural cocktail
by Sheila Sobell and Richard N. Every
There he first had to establish his talent with his drama teacher - a dominatrix of a diva whose coaching consisted of interrupting his monologues with a booming, "I don't believe you!"
Then, cast as a complex but violent character in a bizarre, off-off-off-the-West End play, Daisey's tour de force occurred when the sexually inexperienced actor had to commit a rape onstage. For 45 minutes.
Offstage, Daisey found himself seduced by the actress and fell into a hypnotic relationship from which he awoke one day with the horrifying revelation that he was "having unprotected sex with a heroin-addicted prostitute."
A QUIRKY SMORGASBORD OF PERFORMING ARTS
Welcome to the Spoleto Festival USA, where for 17 days each May to June in Charleston, S.C., three young American artists' perspectives, like storyteller Daisey's "The Ugly American," are showcased in Solo Turns, along with two operas, a stage play, chamber music, jazz, classical ballet, symphonic and choral music, and literary and visual arts for a total of 120 performances by veteran and up-and-coming artists from around the world. Now in its 30th season, the Spoleto spectacular offers, as 2005 festival-goer Susan Haight of Washington, D.C., said, "Not only traditional entertainment, but it makes you aware of who is going to be the next big name."
Today, under the stewardship of General Director Nigel Redden, the festival's vision of presenting a wide range of work from "pieces written some time ago to others created just the other day" continues with vibrancy. Organized and underwritten by an incorporated association of 501 nonprofit organizations, Spoleto USA also attracts apprentices from around the world eager to learn the business.
"The festival continues to present works from a plethora of cultures like the 18-hour Chinese operatic masterpiece 'The Peony Pavilion; Kingdom of Desire,' a retelling of 'Macbeth' in the style of Chinese opera, and this season's production of 'Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise,' personal stories of tumultuous times in South Africa," Redden said. "Spoleto USA reflects the way contemporary artists look at trends in the arts. For example, in 2005 we presented the American premiere of a 1920s opera, which at one time would have seemed old-fashioned but now is considered classical."
What makes Spoleto unique? It's about breaking with anything formulaic, mixing up stars with emerging talent.
"We try to present the performing arts in a way that's not available elsewhere," Redden said. "It's an opportunity for the audience to expand its tastes, to experience something edgy with some things that are traditional. Take the Colla Marionettes, a 200-year-old Italian company, which is extremely traditional in a delightful way. Some of the backdrops they use were painted 120 years ago. They present baroque opera with split-second scene changes. Contrast that with Mike Daisey talking frankly about his own life. And that contrast goes to what Spoleto is all about. If you're a dyed-in-the wool young contemporary theatergoer only interested in what's new, you're missing out."
The festival sells about 66,000 tickets a year, attracting about 65 percent of its audience from 49 of the 50 states (what happened to South Dakota?) as well as a handful of foreign countries like France, Germany, Austria, Mexico and Canada. Because the festival is staged late May to mid-June when kids are normally in school, it attracts a mostly older audience from among the out-of-towners.
Those children who do attend tend to live locally; they'll probably be lining up to see "Circus Flora," making its sixth appearance at the 2006 festival. A one-ring European circus, the new show, "Homage," will feature the legendary Flying Wallendas performing their Seven-Person Pyramid, a high-wire act without a net. The piece will include 50 of the company's most celebrated aerialists, acrobats, cyclists and clowns. Surprisingly, festival tickets don't necessarily have to break the bank - you can pay anywhere from $10 to $140, depending on the performance.
If you don't want to dish out that kind of money and are equally attracted to work by local and regional Southeast artists, writers and performers, check out the Piccolo Spoleto, offering free outdoor events including concerts and a children's festival. Founded in 1979 by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, Piccolo provides "access to everyone, regardless of their economic, social or physical circumstances." It produces events in visual arts, poetry, choral music, ethnic cultural presentations, crafts, film and children's activities complementary to the Spoleto Festival USA. Half of the events are free; the rest modestly priced.
A TRADITION OF SUPPORTING THE PERFORMING ARTS
Here's a bit of Charleston trivia you might not know but is a key to understanding why the Spoleto spectacular happens here: Charleston was home to the first purpose-built theater in America. The first opera performed in the United States was staged in Charleston. It's home to the St. Celia Society, the oldest continuing musical society in America, which put on its first concerts in the 19th century. In the late 18th century, Charleston mounted the first ballet produced in the United States. Ira Gershwin composed "Porgy and Bess" in the city.
If an eclectic mix of performing arts produced against a background of Southern elegance and seductive cuisine is your thing, don't miss the 30th season at Spoleto May 26 to June 11. Mike Daisey won't. He's performing two new pieces.
IF YOU GO
To get the skinny on the schedule and to purchase tickets for Spoleto, visit www.spoletousa.org. Links there will direct you to a variety of accommodations, restaurants and tourist information. Other helpful information on what to do when you're not festivaling can be found at www.charlestonwv.com. Visit www.piccolospoleto.com for everything you need to know about cheap and free entertainment at the Piccolo.
Sheila Sobell and Richard N. Every are freelance journalists.
© Copley News Service