We’re taking you behind the scenes of one of Spoleto’s most enduring and important traditions: the Apprenticeship Program. Each year, the Festival brings in dozens of student apprentices to learn about every aspect of our operations, from ticket sales and communications to artist services and stage management. These are the helping hands that make sure performers get to their venues in time, musicians get copies of their sheet music, and costumes and props are all neatly in place backstage.
We’re taking a look at the program’s origins, purposes, and the impact it has made on generations of young people pursuing careers in the arts.
The Apprenticeship Program is modeled after similar programs at other festivals, and particularly at our namesake festival in Spoleto, Italy—the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds). It was there that our own General Director Nigel Redden served as an apprentice in 1969, before Spoleto Festival USA was even founded. Redden has warm memories of his apprenticeship, and feels a kinship with today’s apprentices, whom he addresses every year as the Festival kicks off.
Apprentices are paid a weekly stipend to cover living expenses and get plenty of perks such as free entry to select performances. Those traveling from out of town are provided dormitory housing at the College of Charleston and a small travel allowance. They live among a wide range of personalities and talents from all over the world; along with apprentices, certain performers such as members of the Westminster Choir and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra are housed there. Over the years, dorm life at Spoleto has fostered professional connections, lasting friendships, and, rumor has it, even a few marriages.
Apprentices start just a couple of weeks prior to opening day to train and prepare for specific functions, but once the Festival is underway, anything can happen and they can be called upon to perform a variety of tasks.
“These are definitely not boring jobs,” said Leah Gordon, Spoleto’s Production Operations Manager. “One minute you might be taking someone to the hospital for a surprise appendectomy and the next picking up 150 various-sized rocks from the middle of nowhere to be used in a show. From hanging and focusing lights to building a performance stage on a body of water, it’s never a dull moment. Our apprentices are integral to our operation.”
Producing Associate Genevieve McGahey recalls her own eventful experience as an apprentice during the 2017 Festival.
“It was opening night for our big opera, Eugene Onegin, at the Gaillard Center,” McGahey said. “The venue had just started a new security policy and everybody had to have an ID badge—no exceptions. Well, the head of the Westminster Choir and director for choral activities at Spoleto, Joe Miller, had misplaced his badge. He’s been coming to Spoleto for years and everybody knows him, but security wouldn’t let him backstage. He needed to be able to warm up the choir so the opera could start on time, so I left the Gaillard and ran—literally—up George Street to the Spoleto offices after hours. We made a brand new badge and delivered it to Joe just in time.”
McGahey said her apprenticeship helped significantly with her career advancement and getting established professionally. Now helping to oversee the Apprenticeship Program, she loves the real-world experience that it provides to up-and-comers. “We rely on the apprentices and there’s a real effort to make sure their time is not wasted,” she said.
And of course there’s also the added perk of getting to see so many of the performances Spoleto has to offer. During her apprenticeship, “I was able to see pretty much all the shows,” McGahey said.
“It’s hard work but you have so much fun,” Gordon added. “For those pursuing a career in the arts, it’s an opportunity to work side by side with professionals at the top of their field.”
Apprentices can choose among several categories of work to specialize in: artist services, box office, development, finance, media relations, orchestra personnel management, orchestra operations, and production. The greatest area of need is in box office operations.