IOL | Steyn du Toit
THOUSANDS of artists, actors, musicians, dancers, technicians, arts aficionados, thespians and other fun-loving festinos are currently gathered in the wintery Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown for the start of the annual National Arts Festival.
Celebrating its 40th birthday this year, a whopping 2 500 shows will be staged across the event’s 61 performance venues and 27 visual art galleries. Holding it all in place will be 10 000m of gaffer tape, 500m of steel wire ropes and 23km of electrical cable.
“Amazing. Inspiring. Boundary-pushing. Boundary-breaking. These are some of the adjectives I’d use to describe this year’s festival,” says artistic director Ismail Mahomed.
Standing with each of its feet in two very different eras, this year’s 40th anniversary also happens to intersect with the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Those making their way to Grahamstown will feel related themes vibrate through each of the programme’s components and artistic offerings.
“While we strived to create a programme that could celebrate the longevity of the festival, we also wanted to devise one that would allow us to reflect on the intersection between South Africa’s political and artistic development.”
Among the Main programme’s theatre offerings providing a glimpse into the complexity that is South Africa in 2014 are Greg Homann’s Oedipus @ Koö-nú!, looking at several burning prominent issues in our young democracy, Aubrey Sekhabi’s Marikana – The Musical, chronicling a week that saw the single most lethal use of force by government security forces against civilians since Sharpeville, as well as Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom’s Protest, set in a fictional municipal district in Mpumalanga and dealing with service delivery protests within voiceless communities.
Mahomed explains that the festival’s first two decades took place during very politically tumultuous times. Along the way, the festival witnessed several landmark events such as the 1976 Soweto Uprising, the State of Emergency during the 1980s, as well as the release of Nelson Mandela from captivity in 1990.
“The international cultural boycott against South Africa was another important factor that impacted on the way we made, accessed and promoted South African and international art. Our programme this year boasts several artists from very diverse countries. It is an ideal reflection of just how deep our interconnectivity with the world has become post-1994,” Mahomed said.
International productions making their local debut this year (featured on the Main programme’s Arena component) are Mark Cassidy and Alon Nashman’s Kafka and Son (Canada), Sjoerd Meijer’s The Liberation of the Angry Little Man (Netherlands) as well as Michael McQuilken and Adina Verson’s Machine Makes Man (US).
It is Mahomed’s sixth time at the helm. Asked what some of the moments are that stand out for him, he answers that the broad range of partnerships that they’ve been able to grow with artists, funders, international agencies and managements have been a particular highlight so far.
“Other highlights include the launch of the Hands On! Masks Off! programme as a professional development programme for artists in 2008, the launch of the Remix Laboratory (sponsored by the Flemish Representation in South Africa) in 2009, as well as the introduction of the festival’s closing street parade in 2010.
“Among the moments that stand out from the past three years are the brokering of a partnership with the SA Post Office (sponsor of the Student Theatre Festival) in 2011, the launch of the French Season in South Africa in 2012, and bringing the Netherlands Embassy and NFVF on board as official sponsors of the Think!Fest and Film programmes respectively in 2013.”
He describes 2014’s edition as a “dream festival”, adding that this year marks the 30th anniversary of Standard Bank’s sponsorship of the Young Artist Award. Work from more than 60 current and former winners will be seen.
With such a large programme, the challenge for artists – especially those on the Fringe – is to get bums on seats. What advice does Mahomed have for them to make their productions stand out?
“An increased number of artists are using social media. However, not many are using this platform to maximum effect.
Social media is hard work. It requires ongoing engagement. It requires you to be informative, provocative and challenging in order to get noticed.
“This year on the Hands On! Masks Off! programme, we will specifically be presenting a workshop on how to get maximum benefit from social media.”
With a festival that can already seat 10 697 people at a time, Mahomed says there’s always room for more. “Choose a variety of work. See some Standard Bank Young Artist productions. Choose at least one work from each of the genres. Take a risk by seeing work on the Arena, Student Theatre and Fringe.
“The Fringe is here where the gems are most surprising when they’re discovered.”
l For the full festival programme and daily updates, see www.nationalartsfestival.co.za and www.facebook.com/nationalartsfestival or follow @artsfestival on Twitter.