Above: Grammy-awarding winning musician Esperanza Spalding performed as part of Spoleto Festival USA in the Cistern Yard in 2019. (Leigh Webber/Spoleto Festival USA)

There’s something about taking in live performances outdoors that moves the soul. A soft brush of air amid the warm chords of a jazz tune; the echo of rhythmic dance steps tapping across the grass; soaring arias rising to meet a starry sky. And the College of Charleston, with its manicured landscapes and striking architecture, is the perfect place to let these moments take flight.

That’s why, as the organizers of Spoleto Festival USA began thinking about outdoor spaces that could accommodate social distancing for this year’s line-up of shows for the international arts festival, the College rose to the top of the list. In addition to the Cistern Yard, which has hosted Spoleto performances for years, the festival has added for the first time CofC’s Rivers Green as another key performance site for the 2021 season, which runs May 28-June 13. In all, CofC will serve as the venue for 10 acts, including Ballet Under the Stars, jazz group The Cookers and Grammy-nominated folk group The Wood Brothers.

“Since Spoleto’s inception, the College has been an invaluable partner – its wealth of performance spaces, housing and arts-interested students and faculty have allowed the festival’s operations to flourish. This year, Rivers Green is a worthy addition to the Cistern Yard,” says Nigel Redden,  general director of Spoleto, who served as a commencement speaker for the College earlier this month. “The picturesque quad behind the Addlestone Library is the perfect place for the festival to build a stage and stadium seating structure for all our dance performances. Once again, the College is proving to be one of Spoleto Festival USA’s biggest champions.”

The College helped launch Spoleto Festival USA in 1977, with the support of then-president Theodore Stern who worked to get the fledgling festival off the ground.

“For the past four decades, I am proud that the Spoleto Festival has been intertwined in the life of the College of Charleston and has been such a strategic partner,” says CofC President Andrew T. Hsu, who serves on the Spoleto Festival Board of Directors. “The festival’s mission of bringing world culture to our region mirrors our own institution’s longstanding mission of educating our students to be world citizens. That’s why, in 2020, we presented the Spoleto Festival with our Founders’ Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the College of Charleston.”

Given that history, it was without question that CofC would step up to support the festival in offering safe, vibrant spaces for its 2021 season, following a hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic.

“The College and Spoleto Festival USA are family,” says School of the Arts Dean Edward Hart. “As such, we are committed to helping the festival in any way through this difficult period, including providing safe performance venues.”

The partnership between CofC and Spoleto is much deeper, though, than just serving as an arena for the arts. For many years, CofC has partnered with Spoleto leaders and performers to offer the annual Spoleto-inspired Maymester course, which offers students exclusive access to industry professionals and artists as well as exposure to different facets of the arts world.

This year’s class has focused on how the festival approached providing safe performance spaces that still offer audiences and performers exciting and fulfilling experiences.

“We have been discussing elements of the festival’s planning in moving forward this year,”  says Todd McNerney, professor of performance in the Department of Theatre and Dance and associate dean of the School of the Arts, who teaches the Spoleto course. “We have, as we do every year, had guests from the festival – which have included Nigel Redden and Nicole Taney, Spoleto’s director of artistic planning and operations. We have also had guests from this year’s production of The Woman in Black as well as the actors in the company.”

It’s a partnership, says Hart, that enriches the CofC community as much as it does the international arts community.

“Our special and long-standing relationship with Spoleto Festival USA has given generations of students transformational experiences, including internships, the Spoleto class, and countless free and discounted student tickets to world-class performances,” he says.