Arts and Culture 2011

Amy Holtcamp



An Insider’s Guide to a first visit to Spoleto

Posted 5/17/2012 12:40:00 PM

The first time I looked at the Spoleto Festival schedule there were so many great concerts, performances and plays that I felt like a kid in a candy store. But like that kid, gorging himself on candy, I soon felt a little sick to my stomach.

How would I ever see everything? It was my first year in South Carolina, so I wanted to see things that were unique to Spoleto or Charleston, but the program also includes some of the best performers from around the world. How would I do both? How would I get from the matinee to the evening performance across town? How would I make sure that I didn’t miss something amazing?

My head swirled with questions. With so many great talents and so many acclaimed performers, it’s hard to make sense of planning a first trip to Spoleto. Now with a few years of Spoleto-going under my belt, I’ve developed a few tips for making your visit to the festival a success.

Thirty-five plays in three days?

The truth is, you’re not going to see it all. Don’t even try. I’m going to assume that we’re planning a long weekend trip to Charleston during Spoleto and that you want to see as much as you can -- without becoming overwhelmed. Three full days should allow you to see five to six plays comfortably and without too much stress.

If you are really enthusiastic, you can cram three shows into a day, but be prepared to fight for a Pedi cab to hightail it between shows or for some sprints through cobblestone streets after grabbing a sidewalk hot pretzel for dinner. Charleston is such an enchanting city that on your first trip I recommend slowing the pace down a bit to allow for some cocktails at a rooftop bar, a leisurely meal, or a stroll along the Battery.

Prioritizing and planning

First, take out a sheet of paper and at the top write each day that you will be in Charleston during Spoleto. Underneath each day, draw two lines, one for a matinee show and one for an evening show. Now you’re ready to start planning.

Take a look at the Spoleto brochure. You can find it online here. If you know when you’re visiting, you’re probably better off with the “schedule view” because it will only show you what’s on stage during your trip.

Take a look at what’s playing and see if there is something that you absolutely have to see and make a note of the title. This list is not of things that seem interesting or that you’ve heard got good reviews; this list is for must-sees only. Once you know what your must-sees are, take out your calendar and pencil them in. You will fill in the rest of the slots based on your interests and performance times.

Since one of the great things about Spoleto is how it combines so many different styles and types of performance, I think a great strategy for first-timers is to try and see a variety of shows while you’re in town. If you’re going to see five shows, pick one from each of the categories below and you’re set.


Some of the most exciting theater I’ve ever seen has been at Spoleto, so you won’t want to miss the chance to take in a play while you’re in town.

The Gate Theatre returns to Charleston with an elegant production of Noel Coward’s comedy Hay Fever. Leo and Traces both combine elements of language and acrobatics to create mesmerizing physical theater.

Recent events have created an interesting juxtaposition in the two one-man shows at Spoleto this year. There’s been controversy over the veracity of some of the stories in Mike Daisey’s thought-provoking The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Meanwhile, journalist Jack Hitt’s performance shares “stranger-than-fiction” tales weaved together with his explorations of contemporary brain science. The title of Hitt’s show? Making up the Truth.


Spoleto takes a break from traditional ballet this year to showcase four amazing modern dance companies.

For more than 50 years, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has brought the African American experience to life through dance. The program at Spoleto will include new work as well as classics. If you’ve never had the chance to see their iconic Revelations, don’t miss this opportunity.

Other dance offerings include the edgy Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, choreographer Kyle Abraham’s The Radio Show (inspired by the closing of Pittsburgh’s only urban contemporary radio station), and the “eerie and unpredictable” multimedia dance piece A Crack in Everything.

A concert in the Cistern yard

I really think that if I could only attend one show at Spoleto it would be a concert at the Cistern Yard at the College of Charleston. There’s simply no more romantic way to spend an evening than listening to a great talent out in the open air as you enjoy the warm, South Carolina night.

The Wells Fargo Jazz series has several concerts in the Cistern Yard including Cécile McLorin Savant, a young, French-American singer and winner of the prestigious Thelonius Monk International Vocal Jazz Competition, flamenco pianist David Peña Dorantes and the legendary New Orleans ensemble The Rebirth Jazz Band.

Classical music in great venues

There is a great deal of great classical music at Spoleto. If you’re a lover of chamber music, arias and virtuoso orchestras, you can’t go wrong when choosing a concert.

But, because your time is limited and you might not get to see as much of Charleston as you might like, take advantage of the fact that several concerts are offered in some of the Holy City’s most beautiful buildings and historic venues. Sightsee while you enjoy the music.

Some examples? Chamber music programs are offered daily in the Historic Dock Street Theatre. The Westminster Choir will perform Herbert Howells’s “Requiem” on May 30, and on June 5 there’s a performance of Chinese Classical Music by the Feng Yi Orchestra in the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul.

Piccolo Spoleto

Finally, if you have room in your schedule, I suggest getting local with a show at Piccolo Spoleto. Piccolo Spoleto, or “little Spoleto” is anything but -- offering more than 700 events, it focuses primarily on artists from the southeast. After seeing international artists at the Spoleto Festival, Piccolo Spoleto offers a great chance to see local showstoppers.

Piccolo Spoleto offers a lot more than just plays and concerts, including poetry readings, art exhibits, arts and crafts, family-friendly activities and film. The sheer volume and range of events makes it easy to fit Piccolo Spoleto’s offerings into your schedule. What’s more, they purposefully schedule their shows with Spoleto’s shows in mind. Early and late curtain times afford an opportunity to sneak in some extra theater or music into your agenda.

Final thoughts

As you plan your trip to Spoleto, remember that experiencing the festival is more than just seeing a lot of shows. During Spoleto, Charleston is filled with art-lovers. Music seems to emanate from every corner of the city, and the sidewalks fill with artists setting up their canvases. While you’re trying to see everything inside the theaters, don’t miss the show out on the street.

The Spoleto Festival runs May 25-June 10.

For more information on the Spoleto Festival and to purchase tickets visit and visit to learn more about Piccolo Spoleto.