The National Art Festival in South Africa-2017, The diary of a Festino.
Diary of a "Festino"- The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown - 2017
Every year in the first part of July, the National Arts Festival takes place in the University town of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The 1820 Settlers Monument stands high above the city and is the central focus, but much of the action takes place in the streets of Grahamstown and at the Village Green. More than 60 venues provide space for the many presentations that take place during the 11 days of the festival.
There are basically two parts to the festival, the Main programme and the "Fringe" programme. At the many venues performers in a large variety of arts show off their talent and amaze the visitors who come from far and wide to enjoy their presentations. These include theatre, music, drama, dance, comedy, photography, art, film, think fest, word fest, spirit fest, etc. To get into the main programme you have to be a well known national or international performer. To perform in the fringe you pay your fee, book one of the many venues and do your thing. All around town there are stalls selling every imaginable product.
As a "festino"(a visitor), you either book your tickets on line, at the booking offices at the festival or take a chance of getting a ticket at the door. Obviously for the big performances the possibility is good that the shows will be fully booked, and so it is advisable to book early. Full Programmes are available nationally before the festival starts at branches of the Standard Bank, who are major sponsors of the event. Programmes are also available on line. Festival programmes and an abbreviated daily programme is available on arrival at the festival from one of the information booths. Posters advertising the presentations are up everywhere. A festival newspaper called Cue, mentions high-lights and lists shows that have been awarded "Ovation" awards.
Accommodation is available at many different venues from up-market hotels and guest farms to a variety of bed and breakfast venues, school rooms and camping. Transport is offered by the "Hopper Busses" that are provided by the festival organizers. From any part in town you can hop on to one of these busses and then hop off at your required destination.
While I have been to many festivals over the years let me share with you my visit this year.
Day One: Travel by car on Tuesday from East London to Grahamstown (170km, two hours). Saw the notices warning about the presence of Warthog on the road and noticed a Giraffe on one of the game farms between the Fish and the Keiskama Rivers. A sign that I am indeed in Africa.
Set up my Tent at the PJ Olivier High School sports field. Then off to the booking centre to book a show for the day after first looking at the programme and the shows that have received Ovation Awards. One of the problems of any Festino is that you are spoilt for choice and so it is always difficult to make a choice. A free ticket from my daughter Gill, who had over booked for Au Revoir (a comedy) helped to keep my budget balanced. In the evening a show called Platinum Heart (a music main programme presentation presented by guitarist Asanda Msaki Mvana and the Golden Circle musicians), gave me an excellent start and already a lot to think about.
Day Two: Booked two shows at the Monument booking office; Raiders of the Caribbean and "Die Reuk van Appels"( one of the couple of Afrikaans shows at this year's festival). Both were excellent and so then I took a three hour break at the "Conscience Cafe" from eleven to two. This is a new initiative where people are challenged to discuss difficult concepts and suggest possible solutions, part of the "Think Fest". My topic was chosen by an vote from the participants as I wanted to discuss why we, as white South Africans, feel marginalised in our country because of the colonial past. This was perhaps one of the high lights of the festival for me as people from different language groups and parts of South Africa debated one of the difficulties that we face together.
Two more shows in the evening were chosen because they came to the venue at PJ Olivier where I was staying and I did not feel like travelling into town or to the nearby Monument. One was labelled Theatre (Back to the Earth) and the other Dance(Burn), and now I understand the difference between these two types of shows although both consisted of dance. Earlier I had attended a "Think Fest" discussion on "What I learned from..." presented by some visiting notables, one a poet and one an actor.
Day Three: Enjoyed a good night sleep in my tent with the music from the town lullabying me to sleep as it travelled up the slopes of the hill from the open air street productions that are playing Jazz and African Music all day long and late into the night. The Sunrise was spectacular and the lady at the booking office made my day by asking me if I was indeed a pensioner and so qualified for a slight reduction in ticket prices. The kind lady told me I look too young to be a pensioner! She should have seen me climbing up and down the steps in the venues! But after her comment I definitely had a spring in my step.
Four shows completed my visit on day three: Confessions of a Black Listed Woman, Dangled, Money Maker, and Samething Soweto. The first three being riveting drama and the third a music presentation by a South African Jazz singer Samkelo Lelethu Mdolomba. At two of the shows I was almost the only white person and that felt a bit strange, especially as there was just about a riot at the door for the show Money Maker as people crowded around for last minute tickets. Although I could not understand the lyrics for Samething Soweto, the songs were compelling and the musicians excellent. The shows today addressed the question of abuse of woman, rape and prostitution and all were really well presented. Rob van Rooyen's one man show called Dangled, received many awards at the Brighton and Edinburgh Festivals among others. Both Dangled, and Die Reuk van Appels, were excellent one man shows. Next I took some time to look at some of the Art and Photographic presentations.
Day Four: Packed up my tent and had an interesting discussion with my daughter Gill on the merit of the shows we had each seen. She and her two daughters have attended the Festival for many years and stay in the PJ Olivier School in a classroom, while I choose the cheaper option of camping in my tent. Travelled back to East London and my own bed.
Last thoughts: The Arts Festival is indeed "Eleven Days of Amazing" as the posters suggest. I did not manage to get to many of the events that I wanted to attend, but at the same time attended many excellent ones and came away with a desire to return next year. These includes Dada Masoliso's ballet, Giselle and the many films and debates that I missed. Must plan to stay longer if possible. After all it supports performing art in South Africa and gives you a look into some of the excellent productions put on in this country. It also stretches your mind by challenging your thinking. Always a good thing.