The Chronicle Interviews Nigel Redden, Spoleto Festival USA’s General Director

By Hakim Abdul-Ali   

This is Spoleto Festival USA’s forty-first year of operation, and I’ve been covering this gala seventeen day performing arts extravaganza for “The Charleston Chronicle” for almost twenty-eight-years now. I’ve met and interviewed some of the world’s greatest stars and performing artists, and it has been a delightful journalistic ride and an absolutely enjoyable experience thus far. It’s a marvelous performing arts venue.

In all the time that I’ve been doing this wonderful gig as a cultural critic for South Carolina’s undisputed best African-American newspaper, I’ve never interviewed the longtime person in charge of the entire overall Festival functions, it’s general director, Nigel Redden. That drought ended with our interview on last Saturday, June 10, 2017.

(l-r) Spoleto Festival USA’s general director Nigel Redden and Charleston Chronicle reporter Hakim Abdul-Ali during their June 10, 2017 interview at Spoleto’s George Street headquarters. Photo: Lorenzo Kleine

The interview came about as a result of Mr. Redden having approached me before the beginning of a midday May 27, 2017, dance performance entitled “Monchichi” at the Sottile Theatre. He mentioned that he wanted to get my input about something that he was thinking about bringing to Charleston and the Festival in the future. We scheduled a time to do that coupled with time for an interview.

Our intimate sit-down took place at his office in Spoleto Festival USA’s sumptuous 14 George Street building in scenic downtown Charleston. It was very eventful and rewarding as we covered numerous topics and issues, many of which you would have to say weren’t scripted. Again, I guess you could offer that we conducted and did the interview on the fly, and I believe that it was an engaging learning process for both of us. Certainly it was for me.

 I would have to couch the interview session in those terms because, otherwise, it would  be a little hard to describe other than by saying that the interview process  took on a real candid, down-to-earth exchange between Mr. Redden and me. We literally discussed untold issues about several different things ranging from the importance of the arts in general, religion, the tragedies of bigotries, the magnificence and elegance of Charleston and so much more.

Mr. Redden, 66, who was born in Cyrus to an American father and an Australian mother, has been general director at Spoleto since the late 1980s until the present, with a period from 1992-1995 when he wasn’t its head official in charge. He clearly loves what he’s doing.

Nigel Redden is an international soul having lived in many places including England and Italy, besides America. He identifies himself as being Episcopalian, but he doesn’t consider himself overly religious, though he states he very much respects everyone’s beliefs.

His father was a diplomat, and he (Mr. Redden) stated that both his parents had Catholic roots, and he expressed that he was generally concerned about why there is so much animosity in religions today. Somehow, that question led us down dual paths of straightforward probing and opinionated assessments of what’s causing such difficulties in the worlds of religiosities, en masse, particularly within Christianity and Islam, for example.

With all the suffering in the name of religion going on, we both agreed that much work needs to be done by all sides in resolving hatreds. We spoke our minds openly and directly to each other without malice or intimidation, and our respected answers, inquiries and responses were statements of insightful opinions that resounded deeply from within us as you might well image.

Next, we delved into the importance of the Festival itself and the present-day arts scene, particularly here in Charleston. The general director took center stage on this inquiry issue when he emphasized how the city’s vibrant historic and dynamic cultural ambiences play such a dramatic part in the Festival’s overall success over the many decades of its existence.

He related in no uncertain terms how beautiful Charleston was, and how its uniqueness in American History plays a pivotal role in the backdrop for the Festival’s yearly seventeen day formula being so well-received. I don’t think any visitor to the Holy City will deny that Charleston, with its quaint charm and publicized friendliness, truly is an impressive place to visit, see and enjoy, and I believe that Spoleto Festival USA definitely benefits from being held here.

There’s no denying that this multi-million dollar operation is a successful venture, but it requires constant work, in that, it’s almost totally dependent on donor solicitation and corporate funding to keep it afloat year after year. Mr. Redden alerted me to that reality in no uncertain points of me, or anyone else, having any preconceived manifested misunderstandings about what it takes to efficiently run an annual event of this magnitude.

Spoleto Festival USA is a must see and visit late springtime destination for many people from the nation and from across the world to witness and attend. Its events are the hottest tickets around for the visiting tourists and avid cultural arts aficionados to have, and so much of that is due to Mr. Redden’s  administrative savvy and the Festival’s outstanding inclusive selection and unique blending of all types of worldwide top-tier theater, dance and music superstars presenting their varied skills before the Festival’s audiences every year.

With all of this obvious opulence, I raised a direct and pertinent question to Mr. Redden concerning the aspects of the Black Press receiving advertising dollars from the Festival going forth since we’ve loyally covered this event. To that point, Mr. Redden informed me that the Festival only had a two thousand dollar advertising budget.

Honestly, I was surprised at hearing this, but Mr. Redden assured me that that was all that the Festival allocated for advertising because they spend and invest, what would normally be a larger advertising budget, into the productions, etc. In a later telephone conversation on early June 10, 2017, about this issue, the general director informed me that he would consider the advertising issue and look into the possibility of future budgeting funds for the Black Press, which was good to hear.

Mr. Redden seemed to be very knowledgeable and aware about making the Spoleto Festival USA more balanced with its presentations of more diverse cultural programs and acts in the future. This year’s programs, e.g., spotlighted Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Pedrito Martinez Group, the Charles Lloyd Quartet,  Rhiannon Giddens, Sofia Rei, Ayodele Casel and Terence Blanchard featuring The E-Collective, among others,  showcased the Festival’s continual advancement of presenting varied, diversified ethnic performers into its stellar entertainment programming cycle. They all gave superlative performances.

In addressing the subject of where the Festival’s programming is headed going forward, Mr. Redden’s thoughts and mindset is that he wants to include many more diverse aspects of world cultural presentations in his future planning for some of the Festival’s venues. One of those (possible) presentations currently in discussion is why he wanted to share his vibes about same with me and to ask my input about the potential of showcasing a series of  “special” operatic performances that he’s considering presenting before the Festival in the near future.

I really can’t give anymore away about that situation right now because Mr. Redden wasn’t prepared to publicly announced it yet. Everything is under discussion. But, if it comes to fruition, it will signal another bold step taken by Mr. Redden’s futuristic planning for Spoleto Festival USA, and it will demonstrate an evolving cultural programmatic presentational trend on the part of the Festival’s staff.

Mr. Redden and I casually spoke about the different aspects of Charleston’s history and it’s current racial legacy, and he saw the need to develop productive dialogue between the various segments of this city’s diverse society as a must do activity. Mr. Redden believes that maybe Spoleto Festival, in some ways through its programming, may and could play a vital role in augmenting that much needed process. I think so.

From listening to Mr. Redden, I sensed that he wants to explore expanding what normally has been the typical festival’s fare with a more comprehensive approach to cultural inclusive diversity and, in my ears, that was also good to hear. I might add that I’d like to see more ethnically diverse people of color visibly working behind the scenes at the Festival in all areas. Today’s work arena is about opportunity and inclusiveness.

Well, I think you get the semblance of where I’m coming from.  My meeting  with Mr. Redden was a refreshingly frank and open dialogue between two men, both expressing various points of views to each other with respect, insight and concern. With no negatives whatsoever ushered forth at anytime between us during our hour long plus meeting, the interview was professionally respectful in deliverance, complete with occasional rebuttals and mutual respect was shown and was evident as liberal information sharing was definitely extended.

I learned a lot about Nigel Redden, the married Yale University graduate, and the father of two. He’s very intellectually skilled at what he does, and it’s also to be noted that Mr. Redden, in addition to his Spoleto Festival USA officiating duties, also serves as the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, a position that he’s held for twenty years.

One thing that I definitely learned and left the interview with was that Nigel Redden’s certainly a national enthusiast for the arts, and he’s definitely a global presenter of artistic programs reflecting the various ancient and modern cultures of humanity. According to Mr. Redden, he desires to continually develop and bring those loves and goals of his to the City of Charleston, to Spoleto Festival USA’s future audiences and to the rest of the nation for a long time coming.



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