Piccolo pop-ups connect neighborhoods to annual festival

Neighborhood parks and public places around Charleston will transform into pop-up performance spaces throughout this year’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival from May 27 to June 12.

Scott Watson, director of the City of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs, said making sure the arts are accessible to everyone is central to the outreach program. While the Spoleto Festival USA and the Piccolo Spoleto Festivals meant that arts programming took place in Charleston, parking issues or waiting too long to purchase tickets meant that a large local audience did not attend either festival, did he declare.

“Our attitude was that this was an entirely missed opportunity to step in and just bring the arts directly to people, especially families, right in their backyards,” Watson said.

How the program appeared

The pop-up program as it exists today was formalized between 2014 and 2015 after several years of testing. Watson’s team works with Neighborhood Services staff, council members and Neighborhood Self-Nominations to select geographically diverse pop-up locations across the peninsula. Then, a roster of local artists, such as The V-Tones of Charleston, provide free, family-friendly entertainment in their neighbors’ backyards.

“Installing these pop-ups, like in Allen Park or Greenway, is a way to saturate Charleston art in neighborhoods and make it easier for parents and kids to get out,” said Noodle McDoodle, The V -Tones. co-founder and ukulele player. “And personally, our band is a bit anarchic, so we’re always interested in doing free, fun, interesting shows and playing situations that are new to us.”

Because the pop-ups focus on family-friendly programs and not all children are (or can be) vaccinated, Watson said they are not planning large-scale pop-up events that would attract large concentrated crowds. The outdoor nature of the sites, however, means that there will always be plenty of pop-up options to choose from.

“Now that we’ve had pandemic years, it’s really made us appreciate live performances, and it makes every performance really, really special,” McDoodle said.

How pop-ups work

Pop-ups, which run throughout the 17-day festival, are announced via social media and Piccolo’s newsletter the week they occur to coordinate with weather forecasts. And due to the unpredictable nature of Charleston’s storm season, unexpected weather disruptions can occur. Watson said a year ago a deluge flooded the avenue shortly after a band finished their set, causing the rest of the gig to be canceled. McDoodle said the V-Tones have had close calls, but the payoff of playing for the community is worth the bet.

“If your name is Noodle, you need to be flexible,” McDoodle said.

Following the Festival’s Facebook and Twitter accounts is the best way to keep up to date with delayed, rescheduled or canceled events. And the flexibility of performers and audiences, coupled with backup dates and locations, means the rain won’t dampen the spirit of the pop-ups.

“I feel like it’s almost like throwing a kid’s birthday party when they’re young enough that they don’t know what their real birthday is,” Watson said. “They’re just excited to see the cake and the hats and the streamers.”

Flexibility is the key to success

The flexible schedule also works well for busy families and last-minute planners.

“The intention is to provide quick and easy fun, not to make it the calendar item you need to fix in your planning six weeks from now,” Watson said, “but rather something you hear about by a friend for a week and say, ‘Hey, let’s go and try.’ ”

McDoodle said he loved seeing The V-Tone’s swing and jazz music resonate with audiences of all ages. He said he would look outside and see older people fondly reminiscing about music from their past alongside young children dancing to the beat – one toddler even planted himself on stage during one of the pop-ups in the group.

The pop-ups also provide a platform for local artists to showcase their talents. Local art and music teachers, for example, stand a chance of being seen as sophisticated professional studio practitioners or phenomenal composers and multi-instrumentalists.

“It’s kind of the magic that we share,” Watson said. “The pop-ups are a chance to build community and create a sense of civic pride, but also to remind Charlestonians that the arts reside in every corner of the community.”

Even though the pop-up planning is intentional, Watson recognizes that some places may be overlooked, such as a newly renovated park or space available through a homeowners association. The Office of Cultural Affairs encourages neighborhoods to reach out directly if residents have a proposed pop-up space so the program can continue to connect the Spoleto USA Festival and Piccolo Spoleto Festivals to the community.

“Now that people are more aware, they’re coming prepared,” Watson said. “They load up their little red wagon with their folding chairs, with a picnic, with the Paw Patrol plane full of toys for the kids and have a great evening.”

Katherine Kiessling is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program at Syracuse University.

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